South Africa changed quite a bit since I first visited nine years ago. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the country's recognition of it's horrible political past.
When our entire family met up in Johannesburg, I planned our first day of vacation as a tour of Soweto and the Apartheid museum. It's really impossible to understand South Africa, without understanding its history. Part of me felt like this would probably be a really boring day for the kids, but another part of me didn't really care.
Our first day on the full-family vacation included stops at three museums: Mandela House, the Hector Pieterson Museum, and the Apartheid Museum.
Mandela House is a small museum on the site of Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto, where his family lived (off and on) while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island. The museum itself is a mixed bag. If you have a knowledgable guide, s/he'll tell you about how the house was occupied (or not occupied, if Winnie Mandela had been exiled). Your guide will point out the bullet holes in the street-side facade of the home, where the police would fire, indiscriminately, to terrorize the family.
But, if you don't have a guide, you may wonder why so much of the museum doesn't speak to the monumental contributions that Nelson Mandela made to freedom and democracy in his country. Instead, the museum is full of certificates and plaques and awards of dubious distinction. From the AFL-CIO. From Kentucky State University. From the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. It's weird, because of course, Nelson Mandela deserved every commendation that he could ever possibly have been given. But the display of these kinds of accolades made me wonder whether they shared the same understanding of the prestige of an award from, oh, let's say Governor's State University, compared to the monumental achievements of the man that they honored.
The Hector Pieterson Museum is also in Soweto, on the site of a massacre where the police opened fire on students who were protesting a change in the law that required them to study in Afrikaans--the language of Apartheid.
As I understand it, in 1976, there was an uprising in Soweto, because the government was mandating instruction in Afrikaans. Students protested, and the police opened fire. The police killed a 13 year old boy named Hector Pieterson, and a photographer captured the image of young Hector's body being carried down the street, while Hector's sister ran alongside, crying. The iconic image was transmitted around the world, and it's largely credited with turning international attention to the plight of black South Africans under the Apartheid regime.
When I visited South Africa in 2005, the Apartheid Museum had not yet opened. So, when I booked this trip and asked that we include the Apartheid Museum on our itinerary, I was actually thinking of the Hector Pieterson Museum. Because, for me, this museum was what gave me an understanding of what Apartheid was all about. But this was not the Apartheid Museum. It was the Hector Pieterson Museum. So then we went to...
The Apartheid Museum. The actual Apartheid Museum. Where you get a much more comprehensive understanding of how the Apartheid system began, how it perpetuated, and how it has shaped modern-day South Africa.
It's hard to know what to say about the Apartheid Museum. I think they may have taken a cue from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, because the museum is somewhat linear, in terms of explaining the social and political seeds of what happened, then taking you through the actual experience of life at that specific time and place, with the intervening developments. There's also an element of encouraging you to identify with those living in that time. At the DC Holocaust Museum, you're given a sort of 'baseball card' with information about an actual victim of the Holocaust. At the Apartheid Museum, your ticket will either say "white" or "non-white", and you have to enter through the door reserved for your race.
Lookit. All three museums are worthwhile, but the Apartheid Museum is absolutely essential, in my view. So, before you head out on your safari, and before you kick back in the gorgeous city of Cape Town, make sure you tour Soweto and these museums. It'll contribute greatly to your understanding of this phenomenal country. And, if your 101 things list includes visiting museums, you'll knock three of them off your list in one fell swoop!