Speeding through Soweto in the back of a tuk’tuk earlier this week, the realities of how apartheid played out on the ground suddenly became tangible. As our wise, charismatic guide remarked, “The story is always in the houses, especially in Soweto.” This experience, perhaps more so than any other I’ve had yet in South Africa, has made real the lived experience of the past, and the raw, yet unsealed scars of a democracy recently forged from the ruins of relentless oppression.
Parts of the South African constitution are fashioned after models such as the U.S. Bill of Rights, although additional and specific freedoms have been enshrined in the S.A. Constitution, responding to the particular traumas of the country’s past. One of these is the Freedom of Movement. Chapter 2, Section 21 of the Constitution promises that:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave the Republic.
(3) Every citizen has the right to enter, to remain in and to reside anywhere in, the Republic.
(4) Every citizen has the right to a passport
This particular passage has weighed heavy on my mind over the past few days, as we explored Constitution Hill, the Worker’s Museum, the Apartheid Museum, the Fashion District of Jo’Burg, and Soweto (more on Soweto in a separate post; this post has already grown to unmanageable lengths and there’s a lot to process with Soweto!). Like other economic systems, such as the plantation system of the slave-owning American South, the early days of industrialization in South Africa relied heavily on the bodily control of a human workforce. As diamond and gold mines became major generators of capital, workers were recruited to work in those mines. Managing how, where, and when those workers moved between their spaces of living, work, and recreation was at the root of industrialized mining. In this post, I want to share a bit of what I’ve learned from each of the aforementioned sites pertaining to the relationship between spatial control, industry, the eventual rise and fall of apartheid, and how things have changed post-apartheid. Inevitably, I’m also responding to the narrative apparatus of these places as well, and commenting on the efficacy of various kinds of public history storytelling.
Located in Newtown, a transitional zone in southwestern Johannesburg, the Worker’s Museum is a lesser-known but tremendously worthwhile museum experience that gets overshadowed by the nearby SciBono Center and the SAB World of Beer. This museum intelligently deploys textual interpretation and reproductions of original textual documents in a space where history hangs heavy on the walls. This complex of buildings dating to the early twentieth century includes lodging for black and white workers in the electric utility industry of early Jo’Burg (more on that in a later post). The black workers were packed into crowded dormitories, while the white counterparts lived in relative dignity in separate houses nearby in the same compound. Recreational spaces for the black workers were incidental rather than part of the design – the yard could also be used for chatting, games, or the “gumboot” dancing developed by miners as a pastime. By contrast, disciplinary spaces occupied an outsize position in the complex, standing ready to make an example of “misbehaving” workers.
The museum’s core is a timeline that charts the progress of African workers in colonial and independent South Africa. It effectively casts the story of apartheid as one of migrant workers. Coercive tax laws were imposed in order to “encourage” (cough cough coerce) rural African men to abandon their farms and villages in search of a “better life” working in the urban mines of places like Johannesburg. These itinerant workers were all housed in compounds like the one that constitutes the Worker’s Museum, where they were policed, surveilled, and isolated. Apartheid developed out of this existing system of segregation. On a tour of the financial district on Tuesday, our guide, Jo, explained that to her, apartheid had existed since the first colonists arrived in Southern Africa. The roots for the system were already in place long before this became the law of the land. The Worker’s Museum was a particularly moving experience, however, because it provided a direct insight into the extensive built infrastructure that was necessary in order to enforce segregation, and eventually, apartheid.
At the height of apartheid, the Nationalist government routinely jailed both outspoken dissenters and everyday people who committed such “infractions” as not carrying the correct papers when entering the city of Johannesburg. Constitution Hill, which today is the site of Constitutional Court, also houses the ruins of the notorious Old Fort Prison. Again, on the scale of the prison community, the injustices of apartheid played out in spatial and architectural terms. While white prisoners were housed in relative comfort in the “old fort” (an actual fort dating back to the Anglo-Boer Wars), black prisoners were held in the notorious No. 4 prison nearby.
Both Gandhi and Mandela did stints in this prison, which is composed of appalling shared cells and terrifying isolation cells. The built amenities afforded to the respective groups of prisoners were reflected in every other aspect of their treatment, from the amount of bedding they were given to the food they consumed each day (one warder, or guard, compared the white prisoner food to restaurant food). The Constitution Hill Museum balances a manageable amount of interpretive text with the horrors of the built environment itself. The buildings have been left to tell the stories for themselves and while the filth of actual prison times has been scrubbed away, the barbed wire and peeling walls remain as poignant reminders of human suffering. Testimonies of former prisoners play in videos throughout the complex, adding human faces to experience. If the mechanisms of segregation had originally developed as a means of labor coercion in the industrial mining sector, by the time of apartheid, the repression of black Africans had taken on an industrial character in its own right. As part of the process of dehumanizing and degrading black subjects, engineers of apartheid devised equally streamlined and efficient systems to manage mass-incarceration, just as assembly lines and new machines accomplished mass-production.
The Apartheid Museum
This a museum that calls attention to the museological apparatus as a mediator between historical narrative and public. Light on artifact and heavy on text, the museum seems very deeply concerned (understandably) with telling a fair and objective story that captures maximal nuance. The result is a visitor experience that is spatially claustrophobic and heavy on reading, sacrificing narrative legibility for comprehensiveness.
The architectural flow of the museum starts strong, leading the visitor through a “segregated” entrance where visitors follow the “White” or “Non-white” designations randomly assigned to them on entry. I drew “Non-white” and John drew “White,” which meant that we spent the first part of our experience separated by wire mesh walls—an evocation of the families separated by arbitrary racial categorization (in cases where children were “sorted” into a different category than their parents, they were deemed “orphans” and housed in orphanages). Visitors then follow a ramp up to a rooftop with an impressive panoramic view of Johannesburg in the distance. Along the way, artistic installations allude to Africa’s rich pre-history. Rich in texture and color, this first sequence feels expansive and provocative. The interpretation provided at various stops along the ramp up are concise and easy to grasp.
Much of this experience stands in stark constraint with the permanent exhibit itself, which is a maze of dark corridors and niches. Perhaps the intent is to convey the claustrophobia and psychological pain of apartheid. But for a museum that takes about 2-3 hours to explore in depth, it’s a lot of time to jostle between exhibits. We went relatively close to opening time on a Wednesday in the low season, and parts of the museum still felt crowded even though in reality there were not that many people present. The exhibits themselves rely mostly on reading, the artifacts felt incidental and at most illustrative rather than integral; supplements to the textual narratives that did not receive additional interpretation. It was left to the visitor to figure out how the objects reflected the ideas being discussed in the nearby text panels. This was made even more complicated by the addition of contemporary artworks through the exhibition hall. While these were often beautiful and effective additions, they received no labels explaining the intention of the artist or how the work connects to the surrounding historical material.
Obviously, with a difficult subject like apartheid, it’s understandably inadvisable (and even offensive) to try to create some kind of master narrative. The most effective sequences were those that introduced historical specificity and had a concrete sub-story with defining characteristics. At about the midway point through the museum is an interlude featuring the photography of Ernest Cole, a black photojournalist whose book, House of Bondage, documented the horrors of apartheid. The corridor of Cole’s work tells the story of apartheid through the lens of one man’s extraordinary work. Both the visual cohesiveness of the presentation and the coherence of the story made this really stand out. Another instance was a theater that played (often gruesome) documentary footage of the “state of emergency” of the 1980s. Scenes of marching and rioting in Soweto were particularly meaningful after witnessing the calm, friendly atmosphere of Orlando West earlier in the week. These moments in the museum cast light on the lived experience of apartheid, and illustrated how the restriction of movement through the country was a key aspect of white minority rule and the suppression of the black majority and other ethnic groups.
Whatever its ups and downs, the Apartheid Museum is a living institution. This is a work in progress, which dissects a history still very much part of the present. The current conclusion of the museum is a video exhibit on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, convened to try human-rights violators from the days of apartheid and decide whether they should be pardoned or imprisoned for their crimes. This Commission generated thousands of hours of testimony and a corresponding amount of paperwork. If anything, the nature of the Apartheid Museum makes it clear how much South Africa has yet to unpack from its recent past. This will be an ongoing project, not something that can be nicely wrapped up in a single feat of public history. The restorative public history work of the museum will only be accomplished over time. For now, in my opinion, it’s best to think of the Apartheid Museum not as the single definitive visitor introduction to the recent history of South Africa, but as part of a constellation of sites (including those discussed above) that together reveal diverse facets of this multi-vocal and unfolding story.
How have South Africans used their (relatively recent) constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of movement? For many, the landscape of post-apartheid has seen the demographic shifting and transformation of neighborhoods and whole city districts. No longer restricted to whites and black workers holding city “passes,” the center of Jo’Burg has become significantly more diverse.
Earlier today, we toured the “Fashion District” of Johannesburg, a district of former offices and some light industrial work (primarily textile production). Today, this area is home to a vibrant immigrant community from other African nations, predominantly Ethiopia. Despite the systemic problems of unemployment in Jo’Burg, the city is still viewed by many other Africans as a center of economic potential. Retailers serving that community (and also selling wholesale to other retailers to sell in the townships) are currently operating out of these old office buildings. Malls of four or more floors operate on the margins of legality and according to our tour guide, Professor Hannah Le Roux, are subject to frequent police raids that confiscate legal and illegal (counterfeit) goods. Even though apartheid has officially ended, vulnerable populations are still not protected from policing and systemic violence.
The Fashion District is not a part of the officially sanctioned tourist landscape of Jo’Burg—without a guide this experience would have been daunting to say the least. This is a shame (as a side note, “shame!” is a favorite South African filler word), because it is very much emblematic in some ways of the city’s present— a global metropolis plugged into a worldwide network of trade, comprised largely of goods from China, but also of locally-produced goods, and serving very specific local communities. It has also been the subject of substantial investment, including a zone where old industrial building stock has been razed and new storefronts raised in the hope of supporting local clothing designers. But the community in the area seems to recognize a carefully-engineered master plan when they see one, and this “gentrified” area was markedly vacant even as crowds swarmed the tiny stores hawking shoes, curtains, bags, and blankets just across the street. After decades of apartheid, when most of Jo’Burg’s population was forced to live in certain areas and in certain kinds of dwellings, the right to self-determination in the built environment seems like a freedom that many residents, whether born here or newly arrived, are ready to express fully.
There’s been so much more that we’ve seen in the last few days. This post has only scratched the surface, but there are more posts and podcasts in the works. Stay tuned.