I want to tell you about the three kopjes in South Africa, each with its own museum on top. (You could visit my 2017 travel blog here if you were so inclined).
The Voortrekker Monument atop a tall hill (or kopje) caught my eye because of its colonial and “pioneer” narrative and I wanted to see how it was handled in the post-apartheid era. I was disappointed. Severely disappointed. The place has lost none of its 1942 worship of a white past and done nothing to improve its 1942 depiction of the natives as untrustworthy and duplicitous. The giftshop (its only virtue is that it is open) is full of white Afrikaans memorabilia, including memorial coinage from the apartheid era. The interesting effect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to be that the old white South African population feels that they are fully reconciled and can now celebrate their past freely. All good here!
It is a dark reflection of every pioneer monument in Canada, which has not fully come to terms with its own TRC or problematic past.
Across a valley atop another Kopje sits Fort Schanskop, a military outpost built to defend Pretoria in advance of the British invasion (it never worked). The group that manages the Voortrekker Monument also runs this fort (the military ran out of money in the 90s and turned it over) and they don’t seem to know what to do with it. There’s one staffperson and four rooms open. It’s fine, I guess. The labels are all printed on 8×16 paper and laminated, but aren’t quite as bad as that makes it sound. But its got so much potential!
But across another valley on top of another kopje is the Freedom Park. This was Nelson Mandela’s personal vision, and I get the sense it was part of trying to balance the Voortrekker Monument, partly because the road between the two is called “Reconciliation Road.”
Freedom Park is the absolute bomb. Only the Apartheid Museum tops it in my list of amazing South African experiences. The museum at the bottom takes me through African history from creation to present day in amazing fashion, and so thoroughly decolonized as to be the perfect antidote to the Voortrekker’s Monument’s sickening (And familiar) lionization. It’s got that same mix of media, the same relevance, the same calls to action. Oh, it’s so good!
Except that when I ask about the giftshop a staffperson shrugs. “No, they closed that.”
Above the museum is a number of symbolic structures atop the hill. Tall posts symbolize the reeds that some African legends say humans emerged from. An eternal flame recognizes the victims of SA’s various struggles, while a wall of heroes acknowledges the leaders of the long anti-apartheid struggle. Small sculpted walks and labyrinths and pools provide reflection space for visitors.
Guess which of these museums was full of tourists?
Guess which is the one where I was the only visitor?
What was so great about Freedom Park/hapo?
- Indigenous African ways of knowing and sharing…
- Acknowledging that museums are not neutral…
- Engaging visuals…
- Truth bombs…
- Multi-use spaces aplenty…
- Engaging exhibit design with authentic voices…
(Granted, they can have a bit too much text…)
But oh the truth bombs!