Marking and Marketing the Troubled Time

Johannesburg and Cape Town As we made our way around the country, we tried to take in some of the ways South Africa has marked their troubled time. 

We visited the Apartheid Museum in Jo-burg, Nelson Mandela’s old house in Soweto outside of the city, the Hector Piedersen Museum in Soweto on the site of the massacre of the school children, including Hector Piedersen, who were protesting the forced instruction of Afrikaans as the main language in the curriculum, and, finally, Robbins Island, a brief boat ride from Cape Town, which had held political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela for 26 years.  This type of “industrial tourism” with a political or social slant is newer phenomena in the world.   In the United States the burgeoning tourism focused on the markers of the civil rights movement and the museums that have sprung up to commemorate that struggle in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Memphis are good examples of the same kind of project.

Some of it is inarguably powerful and extremely well done.  There were parts of the Apartheid Museum, the best funded of the group that were extremely effective.  One of the old, yellow armored troop carriers that used to patrol the townships was physically crammed into one section of the Museum to startling effective.  It was massive and bizarre in appearance, and larger than huge caterpillar tractors.  Having already been to Orange Farm, we could easily imagine how it would dwarf the shacks as it rumbled through the streets.  These vehicles were terrifying instruments of control by occupying powers.  It was good history, well presented. 

Much the same could be said for the Hector Piedersen Museum.  It was a surprise of sorts in the middle of Soweto.  It is important to point out that Soweto today is not the Soweto one remembers from the news or can see in the old news clips at the Apartheid Museum.  The government has shrewdly reckoned that this township above others is a signpost for South African progress, and has therefore made sure to put forward the best foot.  Roads are paved.  Housing stock has been improved.  One can only barely glimpse the old vestiges of the rows of men’s dormitories where they came into live as they endured the workaday week.  You could not mistake it for one of the upscale northern suburbs, but you could see and feel improvements.  The Hector Piedersen Museum is named after a youngster killed in the melee — one of many.  It looks like a windowless school from the outside offset behind a stone monument to all of the deaths.  Inside its direct and simple story is wells stated and powerfully presented.  You are not overwhelmed by too much material, but you can not escape the full story and impact of these events as they tell it inescapably.

The Mandela house is an embarrassment and I wished I knew the whole story.  This was simple and crude marketing with souvenirs being sold on the grounds and all around the small house, where he lived before imprisonment.  A couple of small rooms with faded clippings and castaway gifts to Mandela one wondered what was going on here.

Robbins Island was a little better, but has a different set of problems.  There is a tour, first of the island, and then of the remnants of the maximum security prison.  The island is interesting and pretty.  There are cormorants everywhere in huge numbers.  There are penguins, so tame they almost run up to you.  It is hard not to like the island.  The guide tells jokes.  The quarry where the prisoners did meaningless work loses its force.  What’s going on here? 

At the prison there is also a tour with a different guide, who in fact is an ex-political prisoner, who had spent 5 years here.  But, telling the story of isolation cells in that part of the tour, the guide almost is apologetic that he was never in isolation, as if five years of lost life for political principles and struggle was not a sufficient lifetime exemption from explanation or embarrassment.  Some of it was boring and too long.  Some of it one could not follow.

And, then there is the problem of sanctifying Nelson Mandela.  This is a problem we understand — and perhaps invented — about political/industrial tourism.  The three big civil rights museums are also all about Rev. Martin Luther King — life, death, and struggle.  He has iconic status.  Even the Apartheid Museum is uncritical at the finish about both Mandela and Thebo Mboki, the current president, with big pictures and raves.  At Robbins Island there is no difference between his cell and all of the other cells which contained the same dimensions and pain, but it is only his cell that is commemorated or where there anything is placed.  There is no other history.  There are no plaques of names of the prisoners or commemoratives of those who died here.  Robbins Island was too much a boat ride from the sumptuous mall-like carnival of the commercialized waterfront to a pretty island with mementoes of a couple of wars.  One could not fully outline the face of evil, though one knew it had been there.

This is a problem that we all need to puzzle out.  We need to honor movements and struggles and those that carried the fight.  Markers of such troubled times though seem to not fit well with marketing and the need to sell, sell, sell and get the money through the door.  Is it sentimental to be raising this point when local economies are desperate for revenue — here and abroad?   Is there a way to smooth out the problems when politics confronts profits?  What was Mandela’s role in all of this — could it not be stopped or did he not want to stop it? 

Thank god I was not in South Africa as a tourist.  It was proving to be a poor one.

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