Remaking history

South Africa's dynamic new museums are not just showcasing the past - they are reinventing the count

Red Location gets its name from the colour of the corrugated-iron shacks that once lined its streets. Built in 1903 to house black African workers who had been forcibly removed from the city, they quickly rusted to a sombre maroon. Today this dusty, windy quarter of New Brighton township, Port Elizabeth, on South Africa's Indian Ocean coastline, is crowded with matchbox houses where children play and laundry hangs out to dry in the sun.

It seems an incongruous setting for a museum - but then, that is part of the philosophy behind the Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle, which recently won the inaugural Lubetkin Prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects for an outstanding building outside the EU. By the time a visitor arrives at the museum, he or she has got a feel for what township life is like. And for the local residents it is a functional space: outside, there is a covered plaza that provides shade and shelter to people chatting as they wait to catch a bus. "Our challenge was to reconstruct a past which had been destroyed, to give voice to people who had been stifled," says Jo Noero of the Noero Wolff architectural partnership, which designed the museum. "Our aim was to help a community to reclaim its history."

Red Location's humble appearance belies the area's status as a crucible of the anti-apartheid struggle. It was here in New Brighton in 1952 that one of the first acts of defiance occurred: non-white railway workers were arrested when they refused to show their racial classification passes to enter a station. The event sparked a passive resistance campaign that spread nationwide. Several anti-apartheid leaders came from this place - including Govan Mbeki, father of President Thabo Mbeki - and it was here that the African National Congress launched its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Every aspect of the museum's architecture has roots deeply embedded in local history. The distinctive "saw-tooth" design of the roof is intended to echo the design of the factories that surround Red Location, in which trade-union activity provided the impetus for the anti-apartheid movement. Inside, the architects have used the rusting steel familiar from the township to create huge containers that house exhibits on various aspects of the struggle. These are known as "memory boxes" - a concept harking back to the boxes, carried by forced migrant workers, that they filled with objects to remind them of home.

Hanging from a row of monumental columns underneath the soaring roof are banners of local heroes: leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, women's leaders and trade unionists. Maps, graphics and text detail the history of Red Location and the pivotal role it played in the battle against apartheid. The vast space is broken up by the memory boxes, so each visitor must pick his or her own way through the museum. Noero devised a design that departs from conventional linear progression - the idea is that as visitors go they construct their own version of the past. "We worked to disrupt that idea of a single line of history by deliberately creating a variable sequence of spaces," he says.

One of the most evocative exhibits is an apartheid-era army Casspir - the armoured personnel carrier that was used to transport troops into the restive townships. So familiar was its distinctive shape that it became a symbol of apartheid oppression. Stooping to get inside the vehicle, one can imagine how crowded it must have been with 12 armed soldiers inside it and can peer through the holes from which the troops' guns would have pointed. Next to the Casspir are written accounts from Red Location protesters of their encounters with the vehicle. A white former soldier recounts how, on one foray into the rioting township, the troops could catch only a ten-year-old boy. He tells of his disgust when the boy was beaten.

In another memory box, three nooses dangle to symbolise the union leader and Red Location resident Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba - ANC activists who were all hanged together in 1964. A whole wall is covered by stacks of files containing the cases of people who died or were executed in the anti-apartheid struggle. As one steps into the room, a recording recounts the last, defiant words of the three men. Then the room fills with the stirring protest song they sang as they walked to the gallows.

Surprisingly, however, a visit to the museum is not a grim experience. Besides the rousing music, the exhibits feature colourful graphics: surrounding the Casspir are vintage anti-apartheid posters, T-shirts and graffiti exhorting the township people to throw off their shackles. This is brought alive by the shouts, whistles and music audible through the walls of the museum, a reminder of the teeming life in the township outside. One leaves with an overriding feeling of exhilaration, because the emphasis is on the eventual victory of freedom and democracy.

The Red Location Museum is the latest in a crop of exciting new South African museums that have sprung up in the post-apartheid years, reconstructing the country's history and refashioning its identity. In Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Memorial commemorates one of the first students to be killed in the 1976 student uprisings; it lies just down the street from old homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In Cape Town, a 45-minute boat trip takes you to Robben Island to visit the austere prison where Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were jailed. It is an extraordinary experience to see the cell block and work yard, and take in the view of Cape Town and Table Mountain. There, in the sea off the tip of Africa, the sense of isolation is authentic and moving.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is set, inappropriately enough, in the grounds of Gold Reef City, a large amusement park and gambling casino just south of the city centre. In order to procure their gambling licence, the developers pledged land and money to create the museum. The entrance is in the shadow of a towering roller coaster and within earshot of the delighted shrieks of its clientele. At first, this seems unsettling - but very quickly the visitor is absorbed by the comprehensive and richly detailed exhibitions, which paint the broad history of South Africa.

The displays highlight the economic forces, including the Johannesburg gold rush of the 1880s, which attracted miners, white and black, and eventually gave rise to the system of racial separation that became apartheid. Especially arresting is an interview with a young Mandela shortly before his detention in 1963. Even then he was thoughtful and judicious with his words, showing signs of the wisdom and magnanimity that would impress the world when he was released from prison 27 years later.

The emphasis here is on the breadth of the country's history. Refreshingly, there are no simplistic ideas of good or bad guys. "We have tried to be as inclusive as possible, to show how many different individuals, groups and communities shaped our history," says Wayde Davy, a manager at the museum. "We are telling a story of victory, and it should be a beacon of hope."

As you come out of the Apartheid Museum, the Johannesburg skyline, with its skyscrapers, hills and gold-mine dumps, looks more coherent than before: even the amusement park somehow fits into South Africa's spellbinding history.

These young museums are an important part of South Africa's efforts to create another identity for itself. The visiting European, Asian and American tourists explore at the same time as South African students, both black and white. All are absorbing a complex truth, not only about the evil of apartheid, but also about how that experience has forged a nation which is grappling to overcome its problems of unequal development, poor education and crime.

"We want these museums to have a deep impact: to move people intensely, to inspire them to go out and build a better future," says Noero. "We want people to come out feeling compelled to work for a better society." These are ambitious goals that broaden the familiar concept of a museum. The exhibits are not displays to be enjoyed over a latte, but disturbing, moving and ultimately thrilling experiences that will help those who see them to make sense of South Africa's turbulent history - and to look to its future with a measure of optimism.

Andrew Meldrum is southern Africa correspondent for the Guardian