Memorials in South Africa

A wooden stool with tinware is a reminder of the former high-security prison on Robben Island. It was established as a museum in 1997. The apartheid era is also documented in the Freedom Park in Pretoria, Constitution Hill in Johannesburg and at other memorials. The hope that these sites would help forge a common cultural identity in South Africa has not come to fruition.

Credit: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash


Prison on Robben Island

Robben Island lies about twelve kilometers off the coast of Cape Town. The island owes its name to the seals that used to have their habitat there. Before a lighthouse was erected, numerous ships were wrecked on the treacherous rocks in the water. The imprisonment of political prisoners on the island goes back to the 17th century. The surrounding rough sea made it impossible to escape. In the mid-19th century, over 300 lepers also lived here, at first voluntarily, later against their will.

In 1961, the South African government began using the island to isolate political opponents It built a new high-security prison there. A less secure building was used for common criminals. In another building, Robert Sobukwe, chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), spent six years in solitary confinement.

In the beginning, the prisoners slept on the stone floor on thin straw mats. Later, metal cots were provided. The prisoners were even allowed to take correspondence courses, although they couldn’t receive diplomas. It was not until 1989 that Mandela, after being transferred to Cape Town, was able to obtain a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of London. A year later he was released and soon after appointed president of the ANC.

The high-security prison was closed in 1991 and the cell block for common criminals closed five years after that. The large prison archive was transferred to the University of Western Cape.

A number of former island prisoners assumed important political offices in South Africa. After he was elected president in 1994, Mandela appointed eleven of his fellow prisoners to his government. Presidents Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma were also former inmates of Robben Island. The latter was imprisoned again in 2021 for refusing to testify on corruption charges. 

Today, the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been open to the public since 1997. Official tours of the site, attended mostly by tourists, start by boat in the harbor of Cape Town and take about three and a half hours. Visitors are shown the prison where Mandela was held, the island cemetery, Sobukwe's house and two quarries where the prisoners performed forced labor. Many of the tour guides were previously held as prisoners on the island or worked there as guards.  

In addition to guided tours, the Robben Island Museum (RIM) offers educational programs, such as visits for school groups, camps on human rights issues and seminars for adults. A learning center with a library has been set up in the former cell block where criminals were once held. The museum receives the equivalent of more than twelve million US dollars annually for its work. Following allegations of corruption, the Ministry of Culture appointed a new administrative board chairman in 2020. That same year, the staff went on strike for higher pay. Victims’ associations also accused the museum of not offering enough support to former prisoners.

Similar memorials have also been established in other prison sites in South Africa. As early as 1991, a commission of the ANC developed a memorial concept to promote a “common cultural identity.” In the former Pretoria Central Prison, where almost 4,000 executions were carried out, President Zuma opened a museum in 2011. The restored gallows are on display there, among other things. Admission is free for visitors, but the prison is still in operation.

The former Johannesburg Fort, where both Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela were imprisoned, also contains a museum. The 80-hectare grounds also house the Constitutional Court and tours are led by people who experienced the women’s prison personally. “Constitution Hill” receives annual state funding equivalent to 3.5 million US dollars and receives more than 50,000 visitors yearly.


Website of the Robben Island Museum

Study by the legal scholars Clifford Shearing and Michael Kempa on the Robben Island Museum (restricted access)

Constitution Hill Website


After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison

A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg

Twitter: @afterdictatorship
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With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development 

Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

“Taxi Rank for Whites” reads the white sign in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It is one of many relics of apartheid policies on display in the museum. The exhibition documents the decades of racial segregation in South Africa. The privately funded museum not only shows the unequal treatment of blacks and whites, but also promotes the values of the first democratic constitution.

This may be the only museum in which people of different skin color have to enter through separate entrances. This is the first thing visitors experience in the Apartheid Museum. To convey an impression of everyday life during the time of racial segregation, visitors are arbitrarily classified as white or non-white. Afterwards, they are only allowed to use the museum gate assigned to their classification.

Founded in 2001, the museum tells the recent history of South Africa – from the gold seekers who flocked to Johannesburg in the late 19th century to the emergence of the South African state in 1910 and the new constitution that came into force in 1996. A major focus is on the policy of apartheid introduced in 1948 and its demise in the 1990s.

The first courtyard contains massive concrete pillars emblazoned with the constitution’s central values: Democracy, Reconciliation, Diversity, Responsibility, Respect, Freedom. In the exhibition hall, countless objects, posters and films are presented, providing information about segregation in everyday life.

Beginning in the 1950s, the inhabitants of South Africa were designated either “Indigenous,” “Coloured” or “White,”; “Asian” was added later. This classification, which was also registered on one’s identity card, formed the basis for 148 apartheid laws. The struggle against the discrimination of non-whites became increasingly violent, and did not end until the early 1990s.

The exhibition’s presentation is not neutral, in fact, it has a clear political message, which is stated on the website: “Freedom brought peace to our land in 1994 after centuries of colonialism and more than 40 years of life under apartheid.The permanent exhibition is a trip through time that traces the country’s footsteps from these dark days of bondage to a place of healing founded on the principles of a democracy.” In the last section of the exhibition, visitors are asked to symbolically add a stone to a pile, pledging to fight racism, prejudice and discrimination.

The museum’s establishment goes back to the tender for a casino license in 1995. At that time, a consortium of companies agreed to build the complex and won the bid. The museum is run by a non-profit organization and is located close to the Gold Reef City Casino amusement park.


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