S. Africa reconsiders its past

September 06, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Johannesburg, South Africa

Sam Nyambose could not figure out why a museum would want his house. But the woman whose garden he tended on weekends said she was interested in putting the 10-foot-by-12-foot shack in such an institution.

Actually, it wasn't Sam's house any more. After years of waiting, his family had gotten title to a proper two-bedroom house in Tokoza, a township southeast of Johannesburg. The shack has assumed a more appropriate role as a storage place out back.

But for two decades before that, it was home to six people -- Sam, his three siblings, his mother and grandmother. Three times the corrugated iron walls and roof had been taken off the wood frame, stacked up, and moved to different locations in Tokoza.

Now it's been taken apart and moved again -- to Museum Africa, Johannesburg's recently opened city museum. It is the first museum to open in the new South Africa, and its exhibits chart a course for the way in which this culture will examine itself.

In the museum, Mr. Nyambose's former home sits next to another reconstructed shack from the Alexandra township, in between exhibits on the music of township shebeens and the country's turbulent politics.

When visitors walk into the shack, a baby's cry erupts. There are mannequins of an old woman sitting next to the stove, holding the baby while two children sleep in a bed, anoth- er on the floor.

"I had never even been to a museum before," says Mr. Nyambose, 24, who has found part-time work at the museum as a combination guard and guide. "Those were places people went to see white traditions. They had nothing to do with me. But now I am very happy that we can contribute this.

"For white people, it can give them an education. Most of them have never even been inside a shack before," he adds. "And for black people, it will let them know that they must find alternative places to stay. Whether it's flats or new housing, shacks are not the right places."

When Mr. Nyambose found out the shack was going to be put on display, he wrote the history of the house and his family, covering one of the shack's sides in his native Sotho language. He is glad to flesh out the details for visitors.

"When white people see this, some of them laugh, but some of them feel the pain even themselves," he says. "They never knew that people stayed in places like this. There was one woman I was talking to and all of a sudden, she was feeling even more pain than me. I could see she was crying."

Ann Wanless, curator of ethnology at the museum, says such a reaction is not uncommon.

She tells of one middle-aged man who burst into tears in the middle of the museum's displays, saying, "I never knew we did this to black people."

It's not that Museum Africa is a striking polemic or, like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a journey into the depths of human depravity. It's just that it does show white South Africans things that were easily avoided before. They certainly didn't see them in museums.

The museum falls under the auspices of the Johannesburg City Council and is the official city museum. Under a different name, the Africana Museum, it has been around for 60 years, housed most recently on an upper floor of the public library. It showed visitors history from the white perspective, displaying blacks as something like exotic fauna, happy in their traditional, colorful, rural lives.

Reflecting a new history

Museum Africa's move to its new locale in what used to be the city's fruit and vegetable marketplace has been delayed for four years for various reasons. Those postponements meant that when the museum finally opened in August it did so in the changed atmosphere of the new, post-election South Africa.

"We were going to change our exhibits anyway," Ms. Wanless says. "But the timing really couldn't have been better."

Everything seems fairly conventional when a visitor enters. One sees exhibits on the neighborhood that surrounds the museum, geology of the region, archaeological discoveries about the areas' early inhabitants, and the first white settlers -- Dutch people who came to farm the barren, wind-swept plains in the 1830s.

This leads into a section on gold, the metal that forms the foundation of Johannesburg. The geology had previously led to speculation that there was gold in the area, but it wasn't until 1888, when a farm worker named George Harrison found an outcropping of a main seam, that the rush began. The city sprang up virtually overnight. Within two years, it was a built-up metropolis, complete with a frenetic stock exchange.

It was gold that brought hordes of people, white and black, to Johannesburg and helped establish the relationship between the races that has troubled the city ever since.

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