Exploring SA’s ‘Dark Tourism’ sites on Human Rights Day

2018-03-01 19:00 - Kavitha Pillay
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Robben Island. (Photo: iStock)

Cape Town - Most of us partake in “dark tourism” activities at home or abroad and do not even know it.

Some museums, places of historical or political significance, and sites where major events occurred that changed the course of time and defined history as we know it, are all considered “dark tourism” sites.

According to Dark-Tourism.com, “dark” in this context metaphorically refers to "a dark chapter of history". War museums and memorials, such as Hiroshima in Japan, the catacombs of Paris, the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York are all examples of popular dark tourist sites around the world.

SEE: 'Disaster tours' considered as Bali volcano threatens tourism industry and economy

For South Africa’s Human Rights Day, we decided to take a look at some of SA’s dark tourism destinations that hold historical importance in the nation’s quest for equal rights.

Human Rights Day commemorates the establishment of SA’s Human Rights Commission and the constitution, while also being a reminder of the Sharpeville massacre in which police opened fire on protestors against the carrying of ‘pass books’.

While on one hand the day is a celebration of our freedom and equality, on the other it is a sombre reminder of what people had to endure in the struggle for equality.

ALSO SEE: #Madiba100: SA plans top Nelson Mandela's centenary celebrations across SA for 2018

At SA’s dark tourism sites, visitors pay respect to the memory of those people who led the country to positive change, and acknowledge the hardships faced by many in their plight for equal rights.

You’ve probably visited some of these sites before, and in most instances, haven’t really taken note of the immense historical significance of each place and what classifies as “dark” in the country’s history.

Here are the places you can visit over Human Rights Day or the upcoming long weekends.

Western Cape

Robben Island

Nelson Mandela and many other political activists were imprisoned on this island off the Western Cape coast, which is now a World Heritage site and museum. It reminds South Africans about the country's difficult past and the price these struggle heroes paid for our freedom.

SEE: New Robben Island tour guide service and solar plant

Castle of Good Hope

The over 350-year-old castle originally served as a replenishment station for ships passing through the dangerous coast of the Cape, between the Netherlands and Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

It was built by Jan Van Riebeek upon his arrival in 1652 and was declared national monument in 1969, with the Military Museum opening in 1995. 

SEE: Castle of Good Hope: History 'to be made compulsory in schools'

Iziko Slave Lodge

The Slave Lodge is one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town, which through our changing exhibitions addresses issues around human rights.

"Under the umbrella theme, ‘From human wrongs to human rights, exhibitions on the lower level of this museum explore the long history of slavery in South Africa," says Iziko.

District Six

Over fifty years ago, residents of District Six were forcibly removed from their homes to make it a “White Area” and today the recreation of District Six is underway as the city recaptures its vibrance.

Visit the District Six Museum for a hands-on experience, which also offers a space for reflection on the injustices of South Africa’s past, or go on a self-guided tour around the streets of District Six.

SEE: District Six revisited: 5 ways to capture the community's spirit

Eastern Cape

Campanile memorial

Port Elizabeth’s iconic Campanile memorial was officially relaunched and opened to the public in August 2017. It comes with breathtaking views, an art gallery and state-of-the-art bells - and the renovated 50m-tall building now boasts a top-notch lift topped with a viewing portal where visitors can enjoy 180-degree views of the harbour from the observation deck capsule.

Some of the upgrades and renovations to the 1820 Settler commemorative memorial include a complete overhaul of the interior of the building as well as the Campanile’s 17-ton bell carillon. 

SEE: Living Heritage: Campanile memorial re-opens after 2 year-long renovations

Originally only housing 23 bells, according to Economic Development, Agriculture and Tourism Mayoral Committee Member, Andrew Whitfield two additional bells were installed with new inscriptions dedicated to the people of Nelson Mandela Bay and the deceased crew of the SS Mendi, a ship which sank in 1917 in the English Channel and resulted in the deaths of 646 people, most of them black South African.

Whitfield says the long-awaited re-opening of the Campanile shows the diverse heritage of Port Elizabeth. 


Mandela Capture Site

Just outside Howick in the KZN Midlands is one of the country’s most interesting historical places – the site where Nelson Mandela was captured.

Artist Marco Cianfanelli built the sculpture with 50 steel column constructions between 6.5 metres and 9.5 metres tall. They are aligned to form a portrait of Nelson Mandela and in the background one can see the hills and valleys of the Midlands.

The steel columns are a representation of Mandela’s imprisonment where he was captured in 1962 before he was sent to Robben Island. Visitors can also stroll through the museum at the site.

Talana Museum

The museum, just outside the town of Dundee, comprises 23 buildings dedicated to war, agriculture, mining, industry and domestic life. The museum also hosts live enactments for visitors, with the aim to "bring history alive".

Talana Museum is within short driving distances of some of the most famous battlefields in the country - Blood River, Rorkes Drift, Fugitives Drift, Isandlwana, Elandslaagte, Spioenkop, Colenso and the Siege of Ladysmith. 

Pietermaritzburg Railway Station

The Railway Station situated in KZN's capital city was constructed in the 19th century, and has more significance than its aesthetic beauty and services.

This was the station at which history was made in 1893 when Mahatma Ghandi took a stand against racial inequality and began his life-long fight against discrimination, after being thrown off the train for sitting in a “whites only” compartment.

SEE: Historic Golden Gandhi Rupee sold in Durban

Blood River heritage site

The Blood River heritage site, near Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal, is a unique battlefield in South-Africa. According to the heritage site's website, on 16 December 1838, Voortrekkers defeated King Dingane’s impi.

Visitors can see a museum exhibit depicting the history of Blood River, unique bronze wagon laager and granite wagon monument, and the exhibit about Zulu culture across the river at the Ncome museum.

SEE: #SAHeritage: SA’s 10 most endangered cultural heritage sites revealed


Union buildings

The Union Buildings in Tshwane have been "the backdrop for some of the country’s most pivotal moments", such as the march led by South African women of all races on 9 August 1956, protesting against the apartheid pass laws.

It is also the place where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 as the first democratically elected president of SA.

SEE: PICS: Madiba blanket at Pretoria's Union Buildings sets new world record for SA

Unfortunately, you cannot go inside the buildings, but visitors can explore the terraced gardens.

Plan your trip: