After showing in three major international cities – New York, Munich and Milan – the exhibition has returned home to South Africa for four months (13th February – 26th June). Museum Africa hosts The Rise and Fall of Apartheid which has many similarities to Tried for Treason – an exhibition which ran for over 10 years, establishing the museum as a go to spot to experience South Africa’s history.
The Rise and Fall of Apartheid offers a comprehensive historical overview of the 50 year long struggle for freedom and human rights. It chronicles the changes between 1948 and 1994 that came to define the identity of South Africa and its people. The use of documentary photography and other types of media is both informative and aesthetically pleasing.
There’s no prescribed sequence to the exhibition, but it starts with African anthropological material from the 1800s and transitions from pre-industrialised rural South Africa to urbanisation with the discovery of minerals in Kimberley and Johannesburg. What tied the whole exhibition together were the huge murals on the walls, such as Ernest Cole’s depiction of young male miners being examined by a doctor.
The upper floor of the exhibition reflects a feeling of change, particularly between the turbulence of the 1980s to the promise and hope of freedom in the early 1990s. Going through the exhibition I was struck by the historical relevance of the images, but more so the beauty of them. This of course isn’t a bad thing as it helps the viewer appreciate the beauty and the horror of history in a way that words fall short. But aesthetics can detract from the objective reality that it represents. It is testament to the quality of South African photographers that the exhibition manages to merge both.
The exhibition isn’t all doom and gloom. There are some cheerful shots of young people smiling and laughing and enjoying life, seemingly oblivious to the evils of Apartheid. Billy Monk’s photoset The Catacombs depicts debaucherous and drunken white youth jiving in a nightclub. Beauty pageants were popular amongst both black and white women. This can be seen in Fairlady magazine cover girl competition of 1970 and Alf Khumalo’s The Girliest Girl Show in 1962.
With South Africa being such a diverse nation with different races, tribes and cultures, it’s difficult to decide on a history that all South Africa can relate to. In one way or another we’ve all been affected by Apartheid and its laws. Photographer Peter Magubane describes life without the freedom of movement – one of many freedoms young people take for granted. Magubane captions his image of people throwing down their pass books “the chain that shackled the lives of black South Africans.” Our generation can’t imagine what it was like to live without human rights and the everyday luxuries and freedoms that we often take for granted, like freedom of movement.
I was pleased to see another young person at the exhibition. Cleo Spiller, 21 years old, described the exhibition as informative. “We learn a lot in school, but I learnt a lot more that I was oblivious to.” Coming from a liberal white background, Cleo shared that her family protested against the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. She admitted that while it was a part of her own family heritage, she didn’t know much about what happened that day. But thanks to the exhibition she gained more understanding of her family’s predisposition against prejudice.
I asked her if she believes that Apartheid had truly fallen. “I’d like to think it is… It’s [Apartheid, racism] never really existed to me,” she says. As much as I may be a little annoyed with her naïve disposition (“Most of my friends are black,” she noted), I admire the fact that she was interested enough to take time out of her day to learn something new. I wish more young people could have the same initiative.
Young people are quick to come up with excuses when it comes to learning about our history. I’ve seen so many roll their eyes when the topic of Apartheid comes up. Saying “Ugh, do we really have to rehash history? We all know about Apartheid, so can we move on already.” I’m not pointing fingers because I also think South Africa’s history can border on lethargic and boring. But we can’t move on when there’s still so much to learn.
The history of Apartheid is still fresh in the minds of most South Africans. Even “born frees” who weren’t around to experience first-hand the injustices of life under Apartheid still have a pretty vivid idea of what happened. Because of this, many people would rather pretend to forget what happened than remember because it’s too painful.
I left the exhibition feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and wonder. I felt like a kid learning something new, full of wonder from the past. I also felt a sense of appreciation and pride towards our past. I was particularly inspired to learn that everyone, black and white, was in some way or another taking part in the process of change.
Unfortunately, only a hand full of people are remembered and credited for their role in the fall of Apartheid and bringing forth freedom and democracy. The National Party had support from others in defending the system of Apartheid and the ANC also had support in fighting it. It’s more complicated than a simple black and white picture. The exhibition pays homage to the many unknown individuals who were jailed, exiled and/or killed during (the rise and fall of) Apartheid.
Only once we realize this and learn about our history, will we be able closer to celebrating the fall of Apartheid and moving forward as a nation.
Follow Rise and Fall of Apartheid on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram and keep to date with any updates by visiting their website. Museum Africa can be found just down the road from Bree Taxi Rank in Newtown’s Cultural Precinct. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-5pm and entrance is free. The exhibition was organised by the International Centre of Photography and brought to South Africa by the Department of Arts and Culture and the Ford Foundation with support from City of Johannesburg, Museum Africa, European Union, Goethe Institute, British Council, EUNIC, Austrian Embassy, German Embassy, Institut Francais, Swiss Embassy and University of Witwatersrand.
Follow Lethabo Afrika on Twitter @CallMeAfriKa
Photographs taken by Thabiso Moalatlhwa @Ric3hard