News / Africa

South African Museum Defies Odds to Become Top Tourist Attraction

Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth honors fallen apartheid heroes, but still faces challenges on various fronts

Inside the cool interior of the multiple award winning Red Location Museum, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Inside the cool interior of the multiple award winning Red Location Museum, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Darren Taylor

Even when the weather’s stiflingly hot, the interior of the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s south coast is cool.  The facility’s made largely of blue steel, oxidized iron and mottled concrete. Its angular pewter façade is reminiscent of the many factories that blight the city, which is the industrial center of South Africa’s motor trade.   

“This museum, in both design and exhibits, reflects the reality of this area’s struggle against apartheid.  The struggle wasn’t warm and sunny; it was painful.  It was like a never-ending winter,” says Chris du Preez, curator and acting director of the institution, which has won several international architectural awards.

Corroded metal walkways hang over visitors, reinforcing the impression of a prison.  There are few bright colors to attract attention to exhibits inside Red Location Museum, only shades of grey.  Corners ooze dark shadows.  There are no carpets to soften steps on the granite floors.  Voices echo ominously through the dim passages.

An aerial view of the Red Location Museum, situated in Port Elizabeth's sprawling New Brighton township ... It's the first such memorial in the world to be built in the middle of an impoverished shantytown ...
An aerial view of the Red Location Museum, situated in Port Elizabeth's sprawling New Brighton township ... It's the first such memorial in the world to be built in the middle of an impoverished shantytown ...

“With this space, the designers wanted to create an uneasy, disturbed atmosphere; it’s almost like you’re isolated and separated from the rest of the world when you come in here,” says Du Preez.  “Alone, oppressed, confined ….”

He adds, “The factory design as seen from the outside is in honor of Port Elizabeth’s worker unions, who by means of industrial unrest and strikes played a big part in ending apartheid….  And, yes, the museum also resembles a jail, to honor all those in this region who were imprisoned and executed by the apartheid state.”    

Memory boxes


The repository has become known internationally as one of the most remarkable human rights memorials in the world.  Upon entering, visitors are confronted with huge, looming slabs of cement.  The stone monoliths display large photographs of anti-apartheid fighters – some still living, others long dead – who were active in Red Location, the impoverished township that’s home to the museum.  The activists’ stories are told on sheets of paper below their images.

One of the museum's many exhibits focuses on the killing of 20 people by security forces in 1985 in Maduna Road, in Langa township in the Eastern Cape
One of the museum's many exhibits focuses on the killing of 20 people by security forces in 1985 in Maduna Road, in Langa township in the Eastern Cape

In other exhibitions, local events that proved to be turning points in the war against white supremacy are conveyed by words, pictures and sound.  As a visitor approaches a photograph of a line of helmeted white policemen, faces taut and brawny arms holding automatic rifles, heart-wrenching sobs emerge from an overhead speaker.

The terrified crying represents some of the victims of the so-called “Langa massacre.”  In 1985, after a funeral, apartheid security forces opened fire on a crowd of mourners in Maduna Road in nearby Langa township, killing 20 people.

But the museum’s centerpieces are 12 massive “memory boxes,” 12 by 6 meter high constructions made from the same red-rusted corrugated iron that locals have used for decades to construct their shacks, and from which “Red Location” takes its name.   

“Each memory box exhibits the life story or perspective of individuals or groups who fought against the apartheid regime,” Du Preez explains.

The museum also draws attention to abuses perpetrated by South African security forces during the apartheid era
The museum also draws attention to abuses perpetrated by South African security forces during the apartheid era

In the memory box in honor of activist Vuyisile Mini, a gallows rope hangs from the ceiling.  In 1964, the Port Elizabeth trade unionist became one of the first African National Congress (ANC) members to be executed by the apartheid state.  A narrator tells Mini’s story; it booms from speakers as soon as a visitor sets foot inside the tarnished edifice.  

Not a ‘normal’ museum …


The museum’s positioning is highly symbolic.  It was in the Red Location area, in the early 1950s, that former president Nelson Mandela formulated his “M-Plan” to organize ANC members into a nationwide underground network.  It was here, in the early 1960s, that the ANC first took up arms against the apartheid government when it established the first branch of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.”  And throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Red Location witnessed many vicious battles between black militants and white soldiers and police.

Shacks on the perimeter of the museum....Red Location is named after the red shacks, which locals make from rusted corrugated iron
Shacks on the perimeter of the museum....Red Location is named after the red shacks, which locals make from rusted corrugated iron

Yet despite the institution’s ideal location in terms of historic symbolism, heritage expert Du Preez says the museum has been “beset by challenges” from the beginning.  In 2002, when government began building it, the local community – the very people who stood to benefit from the project – launched protests against it.

“There was a little bit of problems because the community voiced their dissatisfaction.  They wanted houses; they were not interested in a museum,” says Du Preez.  

Adding to the resistance, he explains, was the fact that for many black South Africans a museum was a “very foreign concept … In the past, museums and that sort of cultural kind of thing was limited to white South Africans.”

The curator says many black South Africans still don’t know what a museum is.  

“Most of the people around here thought that we were going to have animals here.  I was constantly asked when I started (work here), ‘When are you going to bring the animals?’  Some people still come in here expecting to see animals, as if this is a zoo!” he laughs.     

With all the confusion and opposition, the project stalled for two years.  But as soon as the provincial government built some houses in Red Location and promised more, construction resumed.

Museum curator Chris du Preez, near an exhibit focusing on murdered Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko
Museum curator Chris du Preez, near an exhibit focusing on murdered Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko

The museum was built and launched in 2006, but new challenges soon emerged.

Ironic, ‘contradictory’ memorial

Du Preez explains, “This is the first museum (in the world) that’s actually based right in the middle of a (poor) township.  That causes all sorts of problems.  For example, the museum is operated by the local municipality and therefore it’s seen as a government institution....”  

This means that when the locals are unhappy with state service delivery, as they often are, they knock on Du Preez’s door.  He laughs wryly, “When people have problems (with government) and they want to protest or show their (anger), they do it here in front of the museum!”

Du Preez thus describes the facility as “not a normal museum” and a “very complex, even contradictory space.”  He agrees it’s ironic that something that’s been built to honor activism has itself become the target of community activism.

A large poster of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, on one of the museum's memory boxes', which are made out of the same rusted metal as locals use to construct their shacks
A large poster of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, on one of the museum's memory boxes', which are made out of the same rusted metal as locals use to construct their shacks

In the same way as the people of Red Location fought to oust the apartheid state, so do they continue to fight perceived injustices perpetrated by the present ANC government … using the museum as a focal point.

Du Preez, however, understands why the people living around the institution often vent their fury on its premises.

“Some of these people still live in shacks here; they still use the bucket system (because they have no toilets); they use communal taps; unemployment is major in this area,” he says.



15,000 visitors every month

But Du Preez insists the Red Location Museum is now “very much accepted” by the local community, despite the frequent anti-government demonstrations on its grounds.

“We don’t even need … security in this area.  We’ve never had a break-in here; we’ve never had problems in terms of crime here.  Because people protect this place; it’s their place,” he says.

Visitors are able to read the life stories of famous local anti-apartheid activists inside the museum
Visitors are able to read the life stories of famous local anti-apartheid activists inside the museum

Evidence of the facility’s growing popularity is found in visitor figures.  They show up to 15,000 people visiting it each month.  Many of these visitors, says Du Preez, are young white South Africans.  This further encourages him.

“They don’t see color anymore.  They don’t have that (apartheid) baggage.…  They show great interest in the struggle history; they’re moved by it just like any black kid is moved by it,” Du Preez says.

Outside the museum is the noise of a multitude of grinders, jackhammers and drills.  Scaffolding rattles as workers ascend it.  A major expansion to the apartheid memorial is underway.  An arts center and arts school are being built, as well as Africa’s first completely digital library.  Here, users – through computers – will soon have access to books and other sources of information that are wholly in digital form, speeding up research and learning.   

Through all the change at and ongoing challenges to Red Location Museum, Du Preez is certain that it will continue to be a venue for vociferous demonstrations against the state.  And he says he’s “totally at ease” with this.

He smiles, “In a sense, the protests have themselves become exhibitions – and proof that South Africa is finally a democracy.”   

You May Like

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 Million by January

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid