A visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

The formation of a political system and the structuring of society on the foundation of racial segregation started long before the formal introduction of apartheid in South Africa. 

The ideology of having a separate society was introduced in 1910 with the Union of South Africa by Barry Hertzog, who was a Boer general during the second Anglo-Boer War, and Jan Smuts, who was a soldier and military strategist during the second Anglo-Boer War. The common belief that anchored this ideology was that White people would eventually be swamped by Black people in the country if the different races were not divided. 

In 1948, apartheid was introduced by the National Party, who had won the elections by only 40% of the overall electoral vote. In essence, apartheid called for the separate living and development of different people groups in South Africa.

The State provided better living conditions, development and basic rights to those racially classified as White, at the expense of the majority of the population who were classified as Asian, Indian, Coloured and Black (also known as African or Bantu). Black people bore the brunt of apartheid, being excluded by law from full economic and political participation, and being denied basic rights and free movement in the country. 

Life under apartheid

As someone living in apartheid South Africa, your every day experience was defined by your racial classification. There were 4 types of classification, namely African (also known as Bantu or Black), Coloured, Asian/Indian and White. Racial classification was entirely arbitrary, based on skin colour and hair texture. A test that was usually done on Coloured, Indian and Black people was a hair comb test. As a person of colour, authorities would stick a comb in your hair, and if it fell out, you were classified as Coloured if you did not look Asian or Indian. If the comb stayed in your hair, you were classified as Black. 

This is how arbitrary racial classifications were during apartheid rule.


This is an example of a Racial Classification Appeal Board. The Population Registration Act of 1950 allowed a person to appeal, in writing, his or her racial classification. It also permitted people to lodge objections against the racial classification of others.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 was used by the government to legalize racial classifications and add them to identity documents. As a South African citizen, these classifications dictated where you could live and work. They dictated the quality of education you could receive and where you could go to school. They dictated the type of career opportunities available to you, and the level at which you could participate as a citizen of the country. 

Here’s what an identity card looked like during the apartheid era.

There were over 143 acts under apartheid law that tried to govern every facet of social and political life. The acts included the Immorality Act of 1950, which outlawed sex and marriage across racial lines, and the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which legalized a separate education system for Black people – an education of lesser quality designed to teach Black children the skills of semi-skilled labourers.

This is the entrance of the Apartheid Museum. It mimics the racial segregation that seeped into all spheres of society.

The 1913 Land Act (which reserved approximately 8% of South Africa’s territory for Black people and approximately 92% for White people) as well as the mining and farming industries gave rise to a migrant labour system.

As a labourer in the migrant system, you were obliged to take a 6 to 18 month contract and move to your place of work without your family. If you were employed as a miner, you would live in an overcrowded hostel with other migrant labourers, work under poor and often dangerous conditions, and be paid a low wage. 

The low wages coupled with the State’s ban on strikes meant that White-owned businesses flourished at the expense of poorly paid Black workers. 

Not only did apartheid provide cheap labour for mines and farmers, but it also protected White monopoly over the business sector. Top jobs in commerce were mainly reserved for White people, while jobs in State owned companies and in government were reserved mainly for Afrikaans speaking White people who were considered politically reliable. 

Apartheid created a difficult life for people of colour in South Africa. Black families were torn apart by the migrant labour system, which often left women alone with the children in rural areas while men went off for months on end to work on farms or the mines for a pittance. The low wages were not enough to pay for living expenses in the city and to take of families back home. This resulted in poverty for many Black families.

Children also grew up without their mothers and fathers, often being raised by grandmothers and other extended family members along with other children in the family who had to be left behind by their parents. Apartheid desecrated the Black family structure, cutting deep into the fabric of Black society.

As you walk through the museum, you’ll see details about the rise of apartheid and the day-to-day experiences of those who lived through its terror. The end of the tour will walk you through the dawn of democracy in 1994 and through the process of reconciliation, which is still ongoing. In the background, the country’s national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika” can be heard, leaving you with a sense of introspection, triumph and hope.

Visiting the museum

The museum is open Monday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm. It’s closed on Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Admission fee is R95 ($7) for adults, and R80 ($6) for pensioners, university students and children.

Guided tours are only offered to 15 or more people.

For more details about the museum, visit their website here.

* images taken by me from the Apartheid museum.

4 thoughts on “A visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

    1. Eek, learning about those separate entrances and all the other stuff that happened under apartheid was awful… It reminded me of all the stories my grandmother used to tell me 😔

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