Walls of steel cages filled with rock line an ever-narrowing ramp, which stifles the group with every passing metre of our ascent into the Apartheid Museum. The exposed, hungry shutter-concrete is as dry as the surrounding highveld.
“That kind of thing may have become a bit clichéd, but I think it’s very powerful,” says Chris Kroese, director at GAPP Architects and Urban Designers, about this sombre arrangement. GAPP were the lead designers on the museum, which opened in 2001, and Kroese sketched the original design for the building.
“Where apartheid had its biggest bite was really on the mines,” explains Kroese, “we used a lot of mining materials and devices symbolically on this building, so it does speak to a large extent of the equipment of the mine. Also the fact that it’s underground has reference to the mine.”
We come to the top of the ramp and a view towards Johannesburg opens up. Our guide informs us that Gauteng is a Sotho word meaning “place of gold”. The museum’s external architecture is a symbolic representation of the city in front of us, a city that rose on the back of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush.
Seven pillars at the entrance of the museum overlook a patch of veld, and manicured, shaped lawn lies alongside. Kroese explains that these elements together symbolise the skyscrapers and mine dumps so characteristic of Johannesburg. “So again there was that connection with the immediate and what you see beyond.”
The museum is an example of modernist architecture, a form of architectural design which Glen S. Elder, in the book Places through the body, describes as having “scarred the South African landscape” during apartheid. Elder cites the suburb of Triomf, west of Johannesburg, where “a stark, high-walled neighbourhood arrogantly testifies to the brutal and terrifying destruction of Sophiatown during the 1950s”.
We descend the circular staircase from the rooftop and enter the museum’s interior exhibition. “There’s a very definite route that you follow. It’s a journey and a lot of it is quite harrowing, very dark,” says Kroese, explaining that the content of the museum and the building itself work together. “The building really becomes a part of the exhibit.”
Our journey takes us from the introduction of apartheid in 1948, through to its abolishment in 1991 and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Along the way we read, hear and watch stories about ordinary people as well as struggle heroes who lived and died during those years.
“What I find the most striking about the Apartheid Museum are the visual and interactive representations of the stories we’ve been taught about in history,” says Jamaine Krige, from Johannesburg. “Suddenly the victims that you’ve read about have faces and voices and stories to tell. I love the mix between past and present, between the tyranny of apartheid and the hope for the future.”
Jody Paulsen, from Cape Town, says that he loved his visits to the Apartheid Museum. “It’s so dense and powerful that I needed to go back the following the day. I was also very impressed because it’s of the same caliber as other memorial sites such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.”
Foreign visitors are also struck by the museum. “The thing that stood out for me as a German national with Arab roots was when we got our entry tickets, I was randomly labeled black,” says Miriam Al-Bulushi, from Germany. “This meant that I had to use a different entryway than my friends. All this seemed alien to me but used to be reality for so many people not long ago. It was a great way to raise awareness and bring the experience to the present day.”
In one of the rooms, our guide slams the door to a solitary confinement chamber so hard that my chest rattles and everyone in the room shudders slightly. In another room we pass a bullet-riddled Buffel armoured vehicle used to quell protests. We walk through a dark room with nooses hanging from the ceiling, symbolising all the people executed by the apartheid government.
But gradually the taut, claustrophobic atmosphere of the start is transformed into light spaciousness. We make our way down a brighter, wider hallway lined with photographs taken by Ernest Cole, and another with inspirational quotes from anti-apartheid activists likes Walter Sisulu and Sol Plaatje.
Kroese explains an intentional aspect of the inner lighting design of the museum. “As you move through the building, it becomes lighter and lighter until you get to the very end, where it’s really light.”
We enter the departure hall, a vividly lit circular room in which Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica rings out. Our guide picks up a rock and throws it into a big pit of rocks that lies to one side of the room.
“That was a deep hole when we opened fifteen years ago,” explains Noleen Bhyat, Operations Manager at the museum. “We throw a rock in remembrance of the people and loved ones we’ve lost during the apartheid era.” – Aidan Jones