Apartheid Museum: When buildings speak, and how to remember in Africa

I’m not one to break down easily, but the minute I stepped inside, I felt like the concrete walls were closing in upon me and I couldn’t breathe.

BRUTALISM is the one of most polarising architectural styles around the world, evoking fulsome praise and visceral hatred in equal measure.

You’ve probably seen it in your city – imposing, fortress-like concrete monoliths, probably commissioned by governments between the 1960s and 1980s.

In my hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, the brutalist style is embodied by the country’s main referral hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital.

A hulking mass of grey-brown concrete set at the top of a hill overlooking the city centre, KNH (or Onyatto, in street parlance) squats like a 10-storey sumo wrestler, utterly bereft of frivolity.

The style was called brutalist not because the structures were designed to be brutal, although it appears so. The etymology comes from the French béton-brut – literally “raw concrete” – referring to the rough, unfinished texture of the concrete exteriors.

Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Flickr/SP).

Enthusiasts of the style appreciate its low cost, functionality and simple, “honest” anti-bourgeois character, but the haters say it’s just cold, cruel, totalitarian, and downright ugly.

I hadn’t been acutely aware of the power of a building until I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.

On the day I visited, the huge parking lot in front of the building was virtually empty, with a lone school bus in a corner somewhere.

The building is a Brutalist brick-and-concrete structure, and although it is single-storey, and so not large in  the classic sense, there is something massive and looming about it.

Once you’ve paid your entry fee, visitors to the museum are arbitrarily assigned as either “white” or “non-white” and are only allowed entry to the museum through the gate allocated to their race group.

I was classified “white”, and so I entered through the gate marked Blankes/ Whites.

Once inside, you walk through a maze-like cage on which identification documents which race classification during apartheid are displayed.

But what struck me is that the “white” side and the “non-white” side are both set in the cage layout – perhaps a metaphor that apartheid dehumanised both the oppressed and the oppressor.

The whole museum is reminiscent of a prison, with stark concrete walls, narrow corridors and exhibits hanging on those cage-like structures.

At one point in the exhibition, 131 nooses dangle from the ceiling, symbolising the 131 government opponents that were executed under apartheid South Africa’s various terrorism laws.

Haunting exhibit in the Apartheid Museum; one can almost see the ghosts of the executed. (Photo: Flickr/J. &. M. Kostopoulos).

The state claimed many more committed suicide in detention, some were tortured to death – including the leading figure in the 1970s struggle against apartheid, Steve Bantu Biko.

Walking underneath hundreds of dangling nooses is a haunting experience, but the darkest point was at the end of a corridor that had three small cells, as those that would be used for solitary confinement.

I make the mistake of walking into the tiny cell; it was perhaps four feet by seven feet with just the slit of a window on the top.

I’m not one to break down easily, but the minute I stepped inside, I felt like the concrete walls were closing in upon me, my chest started tightening and I couldn’t breathe.

Once I had gathered myself together, I was embarrassed that ten seconds in solitary (with the door open) had reduced me to tears, when people had spent weeks, even months and years holed up in that desolation - and many survived it.

But it just speaks to the magnitude of devastation that was life under apartheid.

I finally understood why the world was caught up in Nelson Mandela’s personal story. Without an anchor to project some narrative on, the oppression of apartheid was too great, and too diffuse to mean anything. As Stalin supposedly said, the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

Data on the number of museums in Africa is scanty – itself suggesting that we don’t do a great job of remembering.

South Africa has an estimated 300 museums, according to this government website, from elegant 18th century homes, cultural villages in rural settings to state-of-the-art buildings in major cities. “Visitors can find exhibits both conventional and eccentric on every conceivable topic - from beer to beadwork, from fashion to food,” says Brand South Africa.

Nigeria has over 30 museums, including the National Museum in Lagos that contains many specimens of Nigerian art, as well as archaeological and ethnographic exhibits.

The museum at Ife contains world-renowned bronze and terracotta heads; there are also museums in Kano, Argungu, and Oshogbo.

Data from the East African Community secretariat shows that Rwanda leads the region with 6 museums, Kenya and Tanzania have 5 each, Burundi has 2 and Uganda has one.

But there are those who argue that the very concept of a museum is based on a Western model of exhibition that is alien to the African worldview.

Although material culture has always formed a part of African life, it was never organised for display, as in the case of museums. It formed a part of daily life, whether for ceremonial, spiritual or political use.

Even everyday objects have symbolic meaning, embodying the stories and histories of a people.

Because there’s a greater understanding that culture is a living, breathing thing, there’s now a move towards remodeling musuems as community spaces for dialogue and free expression.

For example, the Village Museum in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, acts as a venue for different ethnic groups to recreate their tradition through song, dance, storytelling and food preparation.

The same can be seen in Lamu at the Kenyan coast, a Unesco World Heritage site where everything from the architecture, street layouts, food, language, music and dance is the lived heritage of the Swahili people.

It’s what makes the work of the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute so exciting.

It’s an unconventional university in Mbale, eastern Uganda, focusing on African knowledge and philosophy, where there are no lecture halls, as such – students sit with local peasants to glean some insights on indigenous knowledge of the soil and weather, and even village “witchdoctors” to try and get a sense of the nature of African spirituality.

Traditional healer in Sudan prepares a treatment against mental illnesses by burning roots, charcoal and a paper with Koran sentences written on it; the client then smells the smoke. (Photo: Flickr/ Albert Gonzalez Farran).

One of their scholars believes he has uncovered a little-known migration from southern Uganda through the Democratic Republic of Congo and ultimately with the Venda people of southern Africa by tracing animal designs on pottery through that part of the continent – a kind of organic historical artifact.

Still, there is room for the classic approach, and even buildings themselves to speak, as I discovered in the Apartheid Museum.

So here’s to remembering, however we do so.


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