#SAHeritage: 11 Museums where you can reflect on the past this Freedom Day

2018-04-17 20:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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Two black hands breaking chains while forming a fi

Celebrate Freedom Day on 27 April by visiting one of South Africa's museums (Photo: iStock)

South Africa has a strong struggle history in the fight against racist oppression at the hands of the Apartheid government, and every year we commemorate breaking its shackles on 27 April.

While many may see it as a free day off for some long weekend fun, it's important to reflect on the path we have walked and the journey we still need to make for the future our country.

SEE: Exploring SA’s ‘Dark Tourism’ sites

This year Freedom Day will be an especially auspicious day, as we not only celebrate the father of our nation's centenary celebration this year, but we also mourn the passing and honour the legacy of Mam' Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, known as the mother of our country. She had a pivotal role in the fight against Apartheid and since her death, South Africans have started to explore more of her life and her fight for freedom.

Unfortunately, this liberation hero has few sites dedicated to her life that you can visit on Freedom Day, as many are either still being renovated, in disrepair or overshadowed by the legacy of her ex-husband.

Calls have already been made to rename Cape Town International Airport after Madikizela-Mandela, but while we wait for a push for more memorials dedicated to this warrior woman, there are other struggle-centric museums where you can reflect on the past on this important day.

ALSO SEE: Should Cape Town Airport be renamed to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Airport?

Mandela House, Soweto

Once the home of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela in Soweto, it is now a centre for the preservation of the family's history and promoting the ideals of South Africa's first democratically elected president. Beyond Mandela's life, you'll also be able to catch a glimpse of Madikizela-Mandela's home life as she fought for her husband during his incarceration. 

For Mandela it was where he felt free for the first time after his release, as written in his famous memoir: "That night I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography."

The Mandela family lived here from 1946 until the 1990s, and was eventually declared a national monument. A tour of the house takes about 20 minutes and R40 entrance for African Union citizens.

Robben Island, Cape Town

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.

It's one of the most iconic spots of South Africa's liberation history and an important landmark for Freedom Day, so expect big crowds for this site - best to buy your ticket beforehand if you decide to visit.

You also don't have to go to the island to learn more about its history - you can check out the visitor's centre at the launchpad of the ferries and if you walk along the dock you can also visit the waiting room where friends and family of Robben Island prisoners once sat to see if they are allowed to visit their loved ones, like Madikizela-Mandela.

SEE: Celebrating Nelson Mandela's centenary + 3 Madiba sites every South African must visit

Route 67, Port Elizabeth

Dedicated to the 67 years that Mandela spent on Robben Island, this outside museum trails through Port Elizabeth's inner city, his quotes engraved along the route, each representing a year in his 67-year struggle for democracy. 

It starts at the newly renovated Campanile building where a colonial heritage site is rebranded to free the silent voices of the past. The route also includes street art, heritage buildings and commemorates other pivotal points in the history of the struggle. 

It's free to walk but you can book a guided tour that will provide more details on the route and what each piece represents.

Nomoya Masilela Museum, Bethal

Although Bethal in Mpumalanga is an agricultural town, it has a proud struggle history with homages in the town to Richard 'Gert' Sibande and Nokuthula Simelane - both freedom heroes. Sibande helped expose the terrible conditions of farm workers in the area with the help of Ruth First and helped establish South Africa's first farm workers' association.

Simelane was an ANC courier between SA and Swaziland and was eventually kidnapped by an Apartheid spy. It is unknown what happened to her and her statue in Bethal commemorates the hundreds of South Africans who disappeared under the Apartheid government.

All these stories can be dived deep into at the Nomoya Masilela Museum, named after a student that was shot during school protests. The building is more than a hundred years old, and was once used as the area's magistrate office. The museum also covers the history of the Anglo Boer War and the early settlers in the area.

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Hector Pieterson Museum, Soweto

The Hector Pieterson Museum is only a few metres away from where the young life was taken during a student protest, memorialised forever in the iconic photo. This museum signifies the freedom to be taught in your home language, something that many died for in 1976.

The museum is a must-stop on a visit to Soweto, and houses the testimonials, pictures and other audiovisual displays from that fateful day, as well as the lead-up and aftermath of the protest. You can also find out more about the reason for the protest - the use of Afrikaans as the main teaching language in township schools.

Many Soweto tours include this on their stop and the museum is very close to the famous Vilikazi Street. You can also combine this with a trip to Mandela House for a full Freedom Day journey.

Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town

Slavery has always been the arch nemesis of freedom, and this dark part of human history can be understood at The Slave Lodge in Cape Town, one of the oldest buildings in the city.

Before Apartheid South Africa had a long history of slavery - the Khoisan who were seen as subhuman and forced into the kitchens and farms of settlers. The slave lodge has housed up to 9 000 slaves, convicts and mentally ill between 1679 and 1811, when human rights were discarded by oppressors.

The museum also has a collection of exhibits not related to slave history, which includes ceramics, silverware and Egyptology collections from around the world. Currently there's an exhibit that showcases the songs used in the struggle against apartheid.

SEE: The Isizwe Music Museum: Recognising SA's music history


Sol Plaatje House, Kimberley

Sol Plaatje, a founding member of the ANC, was pivotal in the fight for media freedom in his work as a journalist and was an African literary hero. He provided important insight into the Anglo Boer War from a non-white perspective.

He was also the first black South African to write a book in English, and was fluent in nine languages for someone who had very little education opportunities at the time.

His home-turned-museum also hosts a library for African literature to celebrate his love for the written word and a must-see for bibliophiles.

Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria

Although a heritage site, the Voortrekker Monument is a testament to the history of Afrikaners and their search for freedom from the British regime. It is celebrating its 80th year in 2018 when architect Gerard Moerdijk designed it and the Great Trek from the Cape is commemorated in the world's longest historical marble frieze.

Although viewed as an Apartheid monument, it focuses on historical accuracy and remains an important site for the descendants of Voortrekkers who want to honour some parts of their heritage.

The site has many attractions, including the Communion Wagon, a museum filled with Voortrekker memorabilia and scale model replica of the Trek Monument in Tanzania, where some Afrikaaners settled after the Anglo Boer War. 

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Newtown, Johannesburg

The arts also played a role in the fight for freedom, from struggle songs to political theatre, and Newtown is the best place to engross yourself in our vibrant history of the arts.

Besides the craft markets, music shows and general party vibes, Newtown has its own heritage trail that pays homage to its mining and industrial history where workers fought for their rights. It was also the spot for one of the first multiracial demonstrations in 1931. The Mary Fitzgerald square is named after the first woman trade unionist and the first woman to be a public office holder in Johannesburg.

Newtown is also home to the Market Theatre that was established by anti-apartheid activist actors in 1976, and was known as the 'Theatre of Struggle' where all races shared the stage in defiance. It would be best to do a tour to see all of the relevant heritage sites.

Luthuli Museum, KwaDukuza

Our first Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli was the voice of non-violence during the mid-90s in his struggle against oppression. Starting out as a teacher, he eventually became president of the ANC and endured four banning orders in his time, restriction his freedom of movement.

The Luthuli Museum in Groutville, KwaDukuza, includes his home from 1927 surrounded by a landscaped garden where visitors can contemplate the values enshrined in Luthuli's life.

Admission is free and many exhibits pass through the museum that includes Luthuli's love for soccer, a focus on xenophobia and captured conversations between Luthuli and another Nobel winner - Nelson Mandela.

SEE: #SAHeritage: As Durban glitters with Christmas lights, a new heritage route is announced

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Anglo Boer War Museum, Bloemfontein

Set in the heart of what was once known as a Boer Republic, the Anglo Boer War Museum provides an understanding of this tumultuous period in South African history between 1899 - 1902.

The exhibits unfold the progression of the war during that period, highlighting the horrors of the concentration and prisoner-of-war camps as the two sides fought for autonomy and control. The museum also aims to depict the suffering all communities endured during this time and promote negotiations as an alternative to war.

The museum is also home to the National Women's Memorial, an obelisk that commemorates the women and children who didn't make it during the war, or suffered bitterly inside and outside of concentration camps. The ashes of Emily Hobhouse, an English philanthropist who fought for those incarcerated during the war, was also placed at the base of the obelisk.