Slices of South African History

A must-stop in South Africa is the Apartheid Museum. As you walk through the museum, the history of 20th Century South Africa unfolds. Even the entrance makes a statement. The ticket to the museum arbitrarily assigns you as either Blanke or Nie-Blanke; and depending on which you draw, you enter through the appropriately labelled door. Thus begins a lesson in history.

Apartheid Museum Entrance

It could easily take days to truly appreciate every exhibit and to read about the many cultures converging on South Africa before apartheid – the Dutch (or Afrikaans), the Brits, the Chinese and others.  Clips from speeches and news casts and stark photographs tell a story that is hard to hear but impossible to turn away from.

Apartheid Museum Taxi Sign

In a small courtyard, stands a replica of the cell (roughly 10’x10′) in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. It was difficult walking through it and daring to imagine nearly a lifetime inside of it.

Apartheid Museum Mandela's Cell

In one section of the museum, countless nooses hanging from the ceiling served as reminders of all who were tortured and killed fighting for freedom of oppression.

Apartheid Museum Nooses

It was eerily quiet as I walked past the solitary confinement cells.

Apartheid Museum Solitary Confinement

Time flew inside the museum. Two and a half hours later, we were on our way to Soweto or South Western Township.

Soweto Sign

We stopped at the Mandela House at 8115 Orlando West Soweto. The house was small but full of history. The house has been restored and converted to a museum. The blemish in the middle of the wood beam in the top left photo is a bullet hole. If you enlarge the photo of the open window (top right), you will see a message inscribed into the brick wall. I love that I captured this photograph of the house just as the sun shone brightly above it.

Soweto Mandela's House

Soweto Mandela's Home Back Entry

‘It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.’

Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Inside the home turned museum were artifacts from Nelson Mandela’s life. According to the placard, in the early years of his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was only allowed to write and send one letter every six months.

Soweto Mandela's Letter from Prison

Besides the Mandela House, we stopped by the former home of Bishop Desmond Tutu. Amazing that two Nobel Price Laureates lived a mere two blocks from each other. We also stopped by the memorial to 12-year old Hector Pieterson who was killed by police during a student demonstration. For an interesting recent article on Soweto, read ‘The Nobel Street’ where Mandela and Tutu lived by Alex Court and Diane McCarthy for CNN.

Soweto Hector Pieterson Memorial

While much of the housing in Soweto was modernized, our driver did take us past some of the squatter camps, communities without running water or electricity. If you look closely, you may see an antennae or two above the shacks, possibly electricity being diverted from the nearby train tracks.

Soweto Squatter Camp

We were fortunate to have a few hours to visit the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site at Maropeng, about an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg. Maropeng means “returning to the place of origin” in Setswana, the main indigenous language in this area of South Africa. (source)

Cradle of Humankind Visitor Center

Featured inside were the over 1,500 fossils of the Homo Naledi skeleton. What an amazing opportunity to see something of such historical significance first-hand! To learn more about this find, you can read the National Geographic article online.

Cradle of Humankind Homo Naledi Fossils 1

The top photos are close-ups of the Homo Naledi jawbone, teeth and hand. Below are 3D printouts of the reconstructed Homo Naledi foot compared side-by-side to the Au. sediba foot and the foot of a modern human being. (source: museum display placard)

Cradle of Humankind Homo Naledi Fossils 2

Stepping outside, I could see for miles across the South African landscape.

Cradle of Humankind Landscape

South Africa is a place of stark contrasts. We drove past mansions surrounded by high walls and vibrant flowering plants and lush trees, except that each wall was topped by barbed wire or electrified fences. We were told under no circumstances should we walk along the streets unescorted and certainly not past nightfall. This is a country rich in natural resources such as gold and diamonds and where over 17,000 murders occurred in one year (source). Yet it is a vibrant place full of energy and possibility and a rich history. I hope to have another opportunity to return and more time to explore.

16 thoughts on “Slices of South African History

  1. Loved your post. Very accurate and well written. Truly an experience that gets to you, and stays around in heart and mind.
    Pity it’s always such a quick trip and rushed experience to most visitors, as there is just so much to see and experience, and never enough time.
    I am glad you got to visit and see my country, even if only a small part for now. 🙂

      1. Absolutely! Love the Centre. At the place I work we are focused on it as well, and currently we are pretty big on “research” at such.
        We also have a solar car that is entire designed and built by our students, that we enter into various competitions. Its lots of fun.

  2. I visited South Africa (Cape Town) a few years ago and loved it. It’s still the best holiday we’ve had. It’s an absolutely fascinating place and I really want to go back some time.

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