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

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic 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.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid