The Apartheid Museum

On Thursday we dropped Carolyn off at work and drove to see the Apartheid Museum. This required me (Mac) to drive on the left hand side of the road. Despite actually having learned to drive on the left in Australia, it was a bit of a transition. I hit my hand multiple times on the door as I tried to put the car in gear with my right hand. Whitney kindly (and then with increasing terror) informed me that I was drifting to the left in the lane. Despite a few wrong turns, we eventually arrived with an assist from Google Maps. We are truly spoiled as smart-phone generation travelers. Part of me thinks that it takes some of the adventure out of travel, but then the sane part of me returns.

The museum was fascinating, particularly because my South African history knowledge was limited to frenzied Wikipedia reading on the flight down here and snippets from seven years of Day Family dinner conversation. At the beginning of the experience, you are randomly sorted as either European or Non-White and you are instructed to use the appropriate entrance, based on that assignment. Whitney and I were separated at the start before eventually reuniting, though not before we’d walked through some personal stories from people of different races under Apartheid. From there, we watched a brief video on the full history of South Africa. Wow, was I clueless. I finally figured out what the Boer Wars were about (my previous knowledge was that Winston Churchill had been there). I don’t think I previously made much of a distinction between English and Afrikaners, lumping them together in my head as assorted European. In reality, as is almost always the case, there is a lot more nuance. Neither group covered themselves in glory in the eyes of history, but their paths were completely different (and often at odds… see Boer Wars). 

As we wondered through the chronological exhibits, you could see how the injustices escalated throughout the years. It was clear (perhaps only in retrospect) that it was only a matter of time before change would come. Nevertheless it was disheartening to see how long it took the world to really take notice of what was happening in SA. It was also a bit disheartening to see how, despite the change in regime, many of the Apartheid-era problems continue to plague the country today. The inequality is shocking. It is a place that forces you to think about hard questions that we often breeze over for the sake of political correctness. 

The highlight of the museum was the Mandela special exhibit. After having attended his memorial service the day before, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about his life. I had a lot of respect for Mandela before arriving here, but most of it was limited to the wisdom conveyed in his quotes and a vague knowledge of his role in the peaceful transition after imprisonment. The man was a brilliant politician and a true inspiration. Some of his moments, like donning the South African rugby team jersey to award the World Cup, were true genius. I kept hearing the quote from Obama’s speech in my head, “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer.”  Serious goosebumps. It was an amazing time to be there as well, because the exhibit was literally being updated as we walked through it. Newspapers from the day were being hung and it truly made you feel as if you were living museum-worthy history. 

All in all, it was a great excursion that gave me newfound appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of this country.