Cape Town Museums

Posted by stephanie on Apr 13th, 2009
Apr 13

My time in South Africa has been busy with visits to museums.  In this post I hope to summarize some of the history behind the museums I visited and what they have to teach about the struggle for different types of freedoms in South Africa.
Robben Island
Perhaps the one of the most famous museums in the world, Robben Island is home to the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for part of his sentence and one of the most iconic places in South Africa for the struggle for freedom.  As one of the most popular attractions in Cape Town, we had to get our tickets a few days in advance (keep this in mind if you are planning a visit!)  We hoped onto the ferry at the Nelson Mandela Gateway and took it across the harsh water for about 25 minutes (while not too far from the mainland, the waters are quite treacherous and many people died in them trying to escape Robben Island).  After getting off of the ferry, we were then put on buses for a tour of the island and given a brief history by our entertaining guide.   People lived on Robben Island thousands of years ago, but since the Dutch settled the Cape in the mid-1600s it has been mainly used as a prison—a place of banishment, isolation, and imprisonment.  Under the apartheid regime, Robben Island became a maximum security prison in 1959, and between 1961-1991 more than three thousand men served time here as political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.  Former political prisoners themselves conduct the tours of the prison.  This is a way to guarantee employment for the political prisoners.  Unemployment in South Africa is incredibly high, so it is not that the political prisoners necessarily want to continue to stay tied to the place where they were imprisoned, but they do it out of economic necessity—another type of imprisonment I suppose, but at least they are being given a voice and the troubles and mistakes of the past are not being forgotten.

From my experiences in Burma as well talking with former political prisoners, I personally cannot imagine the dedication and self-sacrifice involved in committing oneself so fully to a cause.  Sometimes I try to imagine what I would do if I was alive during certain times, and I always want to think that I would be one of the people involved in advancing higher and noble causes.  I guess that it is important to that freedom means different things to different people.  If everyone was a freedom fighter, then who would be home to feed children, who would be a doctor, who would make sure that people in a society could function?  But if nobody took on the role of a freedom fighter, then oppressive regimes and societies would be allowed to continue.  That’s why I think it’s important for all of us to evaluate what freedom means to us individually.  Freedom for all doesn’t mean that you have to organize protests, be involved in politics, become a political prisoner, etc.  Freedom can be making a cup of tea for your grandma, practicing a religion, visiting a sick friend.  So while I’m not sure if I could ever have what it takes to be a political prisoner or freedom fighter, I can still advance freedom in my own way in my own life, and probably in the lives of others as well without even knowing it.

District Six Museum
Also located in Cape Town, the District Six Museum tells the stories of the forced relocations of 60,000 inhabitants of this former inner-city residential area during the 1970s during the apartheid era.  The District Six area was an incredibly lively part of Cape Town, and the most racially diverse area of the city, which the apartheid government saw as a threat and wanted the separation of races.  The government wanted to create a “Whites Only” residential area in its place.  Residents of District Six were relocated to the Cape Flats, about 25 km outside of the city.  In 2003, work began on rebuilding the area, and in 2004, some of the original residents were allowed to return.  There is a lot of freedom in home ownership and in being able to be secure in where you are.  District Six was at one time the heart of Cape Town, and mainly in respect to the people’s lives that were uprooted during the apartheid area, the land is now quite empty and desolate.  It is a symbolic reminder of what you get when you are ruled by policies of hatred.

I’ve visited lots more museums in Cape Town, but I think that those are the two most important in terms of understanding apartheid and issues of freedom and race in the country.  Since this post is getting a bit lengthy, I’ll continue to tell you about museums in Johannesburg in the next post!

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