Apartheid: Now in Museum Form

You’ve heard the story of apartheid in South Africa, now experience it in real time in the auspices of a brand new museum, built to reconstruct the horror, and the lessons, of apartheid. But the story is a tad more complicated than what really meets the eye. This museum rests on a story not only of the broad bold lines that characterize the apartheid that made South Africa the pariah of the world, but also on the more intricate details that enabled so many South Africans to make sense of the chaos and lead a life during those dark years.

The apartheid regime was not just a platform of polarities and abuse sanctioned by officialdom and bureaucracy. Having lasted for close on fifty years, like any way of life, it came with complexities and justifications that enabled people to operate within a framework that validated the racism and bigotry that so many were brainwashed into, and from which so many benefited in a whole rash of ways.

Solly and Abe Krok are classic products of perhaps everything that riding on the crest of apartheid implies. They were born to poor European emigrants in Johannesburg in the late 1920s. The opportunities offered to them then, were slim — career options for poor school leavers in the mid- to late 1940s were either in accounting or pharmacy. These careers represented a modest financial outlay in terms of academic expense and the hope of much larger returns in the fullness of professional time over a life long career. Being twins, the Krok brothers took both options. Being good sons, they made good. Being white, they quickly rose to the top of career expectations, sometimes ducking and diving around the law to make the most of the appalling realities of apartheid.

And I say this advisedly. Mention the name “Krok” in any local South African community today and immediately a couple of circumstances come to mind. The Kroks patented and marketed a skin lightening cream, there is the pharmaceutical aspect of their career. And, in a leap from accounting to say, real estate, they created Gold Reef City, a vast entertainment emporium that served both as a museum for the history of gold in Johannesburg and as an amusement park. These two notorious projects of the Kroks, which proved to be very lucrative for the brothers, were inevitably coloured with various opinions about who they were — opinions ranged from calling the Kroks apartheid activists — to apartheid supporters.

The skin lightening cream was carcinogenic. It was eventually screeched (meaning hysterical outrage on the part of the press and certain organizations) and taken off the market. But then again, the cream was only about as lethal as any analgesic, if taken to outrageous proportions and out of the boundaries of what the blurb on the pack prescribes (such as the overdose of Panado syrup, a mild fever medication for children which, taken in larger than prescribed portions, was proven to be dangerous). The cream catered to a mindset which infiltrated across the brainwashable populace, from government, to the official press, to the small children of white South Africa: white beautiful, black ugly. Indeed, this product was very popular and earned the Kroks a mint, but it also earned them a bad reputation.

In the mid 1990s, South Africa began to heave and shake with the pangs of new life. Democracy proper emerged officially in 1994, and the cogs were turning with alacrity for dramatic change in all spheres of life as we knew it. There became the possibility of extending the Gold Reef City project to embrace a casino. This was previously something deeply frowned upon and legislated away by the rulings of apartheid — gambling was perceived by the apartheid government as irrevocably immoral, you see. But the concept of building a casino with all its accompanying moral issues came with a price. One of the terms presented to the project by the Gaming Board was if the company pledges a “quid pro quo”, a social development project in the form of a conference centre or a cultural monument of sorts, it would legitimize the gambling venue. This is the logic of a new emerging democracy.

Coincidentally, perhaps, it was in 1995 when the twins and their families did some family history sightseeing trips. They went to the Lithuanian village where their parents came from and they visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It wasn’t their first visit to either of these places, places that were steeped in the blood of their own people, but it was a trip in which a number of eerie coincidences were triggered relating to the lucky escape that their parents had made to the African continent, so many years ago.

Perhaps a drawing together of the actual destruction of one cultural group with the spiritual destruction of another feels trite and sentimental, but the coincidences of time and place and family values that the Kroks experienced prompted an acknowledgement of perspective. Having rode the crest of apartheid for all their adult lives, these coincidences helped make them aware of the similarities between the Holocaust and apartheid. These same coincidences eventually enabled the brothers to conceive of an apartheid museum in Johannesburg. Paralleling concepts like apartheid with the Holocaust or other kinds of social destructive discrimination has become a bit of a knee-jerk analogy that is often deeply fashionable and very disturbing because of the very different sets of values that each kind of social catastrophe must bring. Indeed, comparisons of this nature can never be executed in black and white.

In any event, today, and $10 million later, the brain child of Solly and Abe Krok stands a parking lot away from the amusement park of Gold Reef City. Contrary to the soiled history and questionable objectives of the project, this is an intelligent and sensitively executed memorial to the regime of discrimination that apartheid sired. In a truly postmodern sense of stylistic discomfort, as you stand at the entrance of the museum you can hear the terrified shrieks of pleasure from riders on the Anaconda, a complicated roller coaster in the nearby park.

The team responsible for the design, conceptualization and actualization of the Apartheid Museum drew from the cream of museum design professionals the world over, and a whole body of designs were brainstormed over a period of some years. Ultimately the chief architect responsible for the stark effectiveness of the building as a whole is Sidney Abramowicz, a retired practitioner. The feel of this museum is not characteristic of his style, but the sensitivity of approach, and the acknowledgement of apartheid that perceived itself as monolithic and immortal, has been beautifully executed and contests to his consummate talent as a practitioner, as well as a conceptualiser. The more one listens to the aims of Abramowicz, the route that ideas took in being actualized, the more an understanding of a lack of ego in a project of this nature emerges.

Krok quips glibly, “Success has many fathers, and failure is but an orphan”. Many people were responsible for creation of the museum. But on so many levels, it is far from being a regular historical institution; that is, typecast by boring displays and historical text, paying politically correct lip service to a monumental embarrassment by way of legislated discrimination. This place is about people having the maturity and the sensitivity to step back from and take a good look at an ugly issue bigger that is much bigger than themselves.

This all sounds very well and good, but the attraction this museum offers is far from a kaleidescope or funfarish route into a world of horrors. Rather, it is a far deeper evocation of something terrible. Maybe it has the appeal of the novel. Maybe it begins with the appeal of the novel and the emotional lessons of history sweep one off one’s feet. I’m not quite sure. It is difficult to categorise, but the experience is manifold and at the end it leaves you needing to catch your breath.

This establishment, echoed by its architecture, speaks objectively. It considers the history of the Johannesburg and how politics and discrimination intertwined. It shows video footage and photographs of momentous and torrid times and it gives the visitor a sense of fear and trembling. Inside, the space is organic, and while a team of guides lead you through the broad structures there are many nooks and crannies of object, information, performance and architectural tricks to hook one’s sensibilities. The layout, the play of direct sunlight in certain areas and the cold shadows that the structures project in others, the simulated veld and man-made hill on which the whole establishment stands overlooking the buzz and life of Johannesburg the mining city — all of these factors play a psychological role on the visitor, and make this experience a tad more than just a visit to a museum.

Standing in the direct sun and being handed a card that branded me as “black” gave me an immediate and disturbing sense of what must have been like. Unlike the other people in my tour group, because of the stigma of this card, I had to enter the museum through another door. A segregated door. A door through which I had to walk past a terrifying photograph of the white men who would have measured my nose, done the notorious “pencil test” on my hair, (if a pencil stuck in my hair, I was by default black) checked to see if I have a widow’s peak, or surprised me with questions to see my cultural reaction, in order to assess whether my skin (and soul, by implication) was black or white. The apartheid museum is structured chronologically, from the rules of discrimination to the birth of democracy in this land. But at the end, there is a place for contemplation. It is probably this quiet stretch of hilly grass that makes this museum the extraordinary experience it is. It is at the point of emergence from the experience that the shrieks of the Anaconda riders pale in impact. Suddenly, as we emerge back into the world of fickle entertainment and gratuitous pleasures, things fall back into perspective. This is a museum about the enduring spirit of our people. It might be based on all kinds of disturbing facts, footage and gossip, but ultimately it’s something that embodies a universal message that sidesteps the kitsch or the trite.

And the reputation of the fathers of this extraordinary place? Can one so shallowly consider such an element? I think, in the light of how the press notoriously monitors the rich and famous, we have to. The Kroks have been tarred by many local presses with the brush that tarred Dickens’ Fagin as a moneygrabbing dirty Jew, put bluntly. On the other hand, there are other media outlets which have sung their praises to the point of political blindness. Their reputation is an interesting one, because some local critics have condemned the place vehemently simply owing to the Kroks’ involvement. But then again, this is another kind of blindness; a xenophobia or anti-Semitism. I believe the Kroks should be vindicated on the aesthetic and conceptual success and the general sensitivity of this project. The brothers are far from angels, but they have pulled finger, so to speak, to make this museum not kowtow to the mainstream (white) expectations. They have created a successful monument to all people of South Africa.

As white South Africans who are ostensibly unscathed by the taint of apartheid, our reputation is one of complicity. The museum doesn’t vindicate anyone. It educates us all in ways that the bare facts of the story cannot. In many ways, each of us as products of a human existence have suffered loss, have witnessed iniquitous injustice, have lived at the time of atrocities happening in the world. Our humanness must always prevail, as should our attempt to be truthful to ourselves.