The Arts

Remains of the Night

Nelson Mandela's house
Nelson Mandela's Soweto residence is among the sites now attracting tourists to the neighborhood (Photo: AFP).

Our guide scanned the horizon anxiously. In every direction stretched the houses, hostels, and lean-tos of Soweto, dormitory to Johannesburg, one of the most crime-plagued cities in the world. Below us, as we huddled together on the footbridge leading to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, taxi-buses churned dust that settled indiscriminately on hawkers, commuters, and half a dozen young men using razor-sharp pangas to hack every morsel of flesh from the skulls of long-dead cows; today’s fly bait, tomorrow’s hearty stew.

The guide looked anxious: “I think we should continue this talk inside the minibus,” he said. Obediently, we followed him: me; a young white woman from the leafier suburbs of Johannesburg, having her first taste of black Africa, and a couple from Ireland carrying a baby of only a few months. A vulnerable group, but it was not the risks of a robbery that perturbed our guide. He was more concerned that the icy wind teasing the motley assortment of caps and bandanas around us might give the babe a chill.

Things have changed in South Africa. It is not just the novelty of blacks giving instructions and whites following meekly. It is more than the fact that we all felt safer in Soweto than in the center of Johannesburg. It is perhaps the realization that, from all around the world, people are flocking to see apartheid where it belongs—in a museum.

Soweto tours are booming. At the center of the Soweto experience is the Hector Petersen Museum, opened on June 16 last year, the 26th anniversary of the day when police opened fire on marching schoolchildren and precipitated the riots that ultimately swept the country clean of apartheid.

Hector Petersen, aged 13, was shot in the back. He was the first of 566 people who died in the subsequent uprising. Fresh flowers adorn the memorial stone close to the spot where he fell. Above it is one of the iconic photographs that flashed across the world that day and became an emblem of the subsequent years of struggle. It shows a young body being carried from the scene by a teenager, and next to him, the victim’s sister in school uniform, her fingers outstretched in pain, eyes staring.

Imagine then the emotion of entering the museum to be met by those same eyes. Antoinette Sithole is there to greet those who come to pay homage, or just to learn for the first time what apartheid really meant. History doesn’t get any more intimate than this.

The museum speaks in the Soweto vernacular: built of brick and iron, with hard angles at every turn. The windows are irregularly shaped and appear from the outside to be haphazardly placed. From within they give views of the salient landmarks of the battle for Soweto. At the center is a somber gravel-covered quadrangle randomly strewn with red bricks. Each brick is inscribed with the name of a young South African killed by the state in 1976; there are nearly 600 of them.

Of course the social experiment is not over. In Soweto our guide drove through areas that have yet to benefit from the swing of the pendulum, testimony to the truth that much remains undone. Businesses range from the herbs and roots of a witchdoctor’s warehouse to mobile phones being sold from converted shipping containers. Prefabricated corrugated-iron walls that can be nailed together to create an embryonic two-room home are available for as little as 2,700 rand [about US$319].

But even among this ragtag assemblage of scavenged existence are little sparks of promise. And there is something to aspire to. Our guide points to mansions that confirm his assurances that their owners have “money like dust.” And there is civic pride on display in Vilikazi Street, unprepossessing though it may be. This is trumpeted as the only street in the world that was home to two Nobel Prize winners.

The houses themselves give few hints of the distinction conferred by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but their surroundings suggest that the tourist dollar may exert some influence yet.

The Mandela home (hardly used by the owner, who was so often on the run) displays what could rank as the world’s most idiosyncratic collection of artifacts. Tributes from Peru struggle for attention against fluffy furnishings and the army boots the peripatetic president-to-be abandoned when he left his Tanzanian training camp.

On a grander scale, but no less personal, is the Apartheid Museum. Built on land that had once been the epicenter of Johannesburg’s reason for existence—the gold fields—and then a no-man’s-land between black Soweto and white Johannesburg, it is a metaphor as well as a monument to one of the last century’s most spectacular experiments in social engineering.

Visitors are given a classification card on buying their tickets. Groups are arbitrarily divided into “Whites” or “Non-Whites” (not just white and black—this is where it gets into detail). You may enter only through the steel gate allocated to you by race. Bars separate you from your companions. Wire cages containing enlarged identity documents constrict your view. These are the documents that tell you how to live your life under the rules of racial superiority or inferiority. Then the corridors diverge, leaving visitors wondering when they will next see their friends and family.

And that is only the start. They are reunited on an inclined cement path, bricks on one side, steel-encased stone on the other. Nothing soft, nothing rounded, nothing that speaks of life. At regular intervals along the walkway stand 2-meter-high reflecting glass boxes. Within each rectangle is the figure of a South African. Some are empty and it is possible to see your own reflection in just such a racial box. The effect is chilling.

Not until you have passed through this dehumanizing maze do you find another hall where the figures are displayed again, this time as faces, names, biographies, and a selection of items that give them individuality: a book, a comb, a scrap of a letter. These are real people of all races who contributed mightily to their country.

As a museum it is unashamedly didactic. From the overhead spotlights and surveillance equipment that leaves viewers feeling hopelessly exposed, to the glinting razor wire and barriers that ensure they do not tread beyond their predetermined path, it hammers the message home. Apartheid is revealed chapter and verse, in the legislation that created it over nearly 50 years. The fine print is fascinating, explaining the criteria used by government panels to reclassify people from one racial group to another. If a pen stuck into an applicant’s hair fell out, the person was judged “colored”; if it stuck, the person was “black.” Families were split and “communities” were created this way.

On all sides are video monitors replaying the struggle: here Nelson Mandela as a young man giving a reasoned explanation of his policy while on the run from the police, there a news clip of burning beer halls. But the most chilling exhibit is surely the room filled with white rope nooses. One for each of the 121 “politicals” hanged by the apartheid regime between 1962 and 1986. Their names are on the wall. It takes some time to read them.

But it is not all pain and suffering. There are exhibits of the rough sketch that led to the agreement for democratic elections. Deceptively simple in black and white. There are the posters and T-shirts celebrating the first real democratic elections and the promise that never again will one race be allowed to persecute another.

About half the visitors (excluding education groups) have been from abroad since the museum opened in November 2001. The official launch is not until later this year, with President Thabo Mbeki penciled in to do the honors. “Most of the visitors become quite emotional,” says Wayde Davey, spokesman for the museum, “but by the end they experience a sense of relief and hope for the future.”

South Africa is proud of its struggle heritage. And it is paying its way in foreign exchange. Robben Island, for hundreds of years an international symbol of repression, now a shrine to the human spirit, has an hourly ferry service. For 100 rand, a huge catamaran will whisk you through the waves from Cape Town’s tourist precinct in minutes. A guide who lived the brutal experience will lead you through corridors that echo with history. Add to that a bus tour of the quarry where political prisoners excavated limestone and dug themselves a privy, and the beach where those who are now the country’s leaders gathered kelp, and the value is beyond question.

But perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit of South Africa’s fascinating history is still a work in progress: a living museum, where apartheid is not consigned to showcases and video clips but still very much alive—the tiny town of Orania. What might well be the most politically incorrect tourist destination in the world is beginning to attract an audience.

Baking in the dusty karroo, the heirs to Hendrik Verwoerd—the man who gave apartheid its philosophical underpinning—stay true to their belief that each group should be allowed “self-determination.” It is legally a whites-only precinct.
This awkward anachronism came about when a couple of hundred prefabricated bungalows, built to house workers on an irrigation project in the 1960s, fell into disuse. The settlement was bought out and transformed into a private company by the “Volkstaters”—diehards—who hoped, and still do, that it would become the refuge for tens of thousands of Afrikaners. It now has about 600 residents. They all do their own manual labor; no black servants are allowed. No one has even asked the question whether any blacks have applied for residency.

The prime exhibit is the well-preserved home of  Verwoerd’s widow, Betsie, who died in 2000. Here you can see the original manuscript of the former prime minister’s inaugural speech and the chair he was seated in when he survived an attempted assassination in 1960. In a glass case is the suit he was wearing when a second assassination bid, in 1966, succeeded.

The townsfolk, mostly farmers and small-business people, take pride in their low crime rate and the policy of eviction for anyone who fails to meet their social obligations. It is a dour place, with many rules and few distractions. Perhaps, it is the best exhibit of all that South Africa has to offer about the impossibility of apartheid. A warning of what might have been.