‘Too bad to look at’

They’d read about it in schoolbooks: the era when white men used canes to beat black schoolchildren, stripped naked lying on the floor, to discourage them from taking part in the Soweto riots against apartheid. But Basetsana (15) and Precious (14) had never seen film of it before.

Nor had they ever encountered entrances reserved for ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ – a reality reminder used to frame the minds of visitors to Johannesburgh’s Apartheid Museum. Symbolically, the girls entered through the wrong door.

A new flag

When apartheid ended, a new flag was designed for South Africa and formally adopted in 1996. It is unique in having six colours, which allow for many associations – red-white-blue for people of English and Afrikaans origin, green for Muslims, black-green-yellow for African National Congress supporters or red-white-black-green-yellow for Zulus. The Y-shape symbolises the ‘converging of paths’ and history ‘merging’ with the present-day.

Noose from a beam

There were pictures of the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned; there was a noose hanging from a cell beam where prisoners were hanged. All around was dark, grim.

Pictures, film, sounds, screams ensued… until the girls emerged into the daylight – for the first time on their day out in Jo’burg not smiling, not laughing, but solemnly recalling the fate of an earlier generation of young people, what they fought for, and what they achieved. It was, they said, ‘too bad to look at’.

Painful memories

Outside the museum, the girls talked with their SOS Children's mother, who went with them on the visit. Mama sat under a tree, looked to the heavens, then closed her eyes, and recalled painfully how she once ‘stole’ her sister’s identity so that she could vote for Mandela… so that she could vote for better times ahead for a future generation.