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17 September 2001

Welcome to our torture chamber

South Africa may want to forget its past, but there is money to be made in the theme parks and museu

By Bryan Rostron

“Did you see Winnie?” asked Queen, who was showing us round the tiny red-brick house in Soweto once lived in by Nelson and Winnie Mandela. “She’s right outside.”

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was indeed outside, seated regally in a BMW. But bodyguards jumped out as soon as anyone approached the car. The boxy house, which is pock-marked with police bullets, has been turned by Winnie – much to Nelson’s disapproval – into a museum. You pay 20 rands (around £2) to be escorted by Queen through the five cramped rooms and shown some Mandela memorabilia. Winnie herself now lives a block away in a smart mansion bristling with security cameras.

What was Winnie doing there, lurking in her BMW, outside the home she shared with Nelson all those years ago? Checking on the day’s takings? Reliving old memories? Whatever the motives of the increasingly inscrutable Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, here in dusty Vilakazi Street memory was at least attempting to vie with making a buck. Elsewhere in Johannesburg, memory is being unsentimentally swept aside by mammon.

On the very site where the historic talks took place that led to the foundation of the “new” South Africa now stands Caesar’s Palace, a gaudy Las Vegas-inspired casino.

But perhaps Caesar’s is an appropriate symbol for iGoli, the city of gold, with its vulgarity and games of chance. Johannesburg, still home to improbable wealth and unspeakable poverty, has always been a ruthlessly changing city. Last week, newspapers reported that poor people were living in kennels.

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It seems utterly appropriate, therefore, that the stunning new Apartheid Museum, due to open in November, is located not in some leafy, security-patrolled suburb or tasteful cultural zone, but in the harsh landscape midway to Soweto, right next door to what was once the world’s richest gold mine and is today a spectacularly vulgar casino.

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Crown Mines ceased production in 1975. Today it is Gold Reef City, a theme-park mining town with amusement playground and fun-fair rides. The main attraction, however, is the casino, housed in a colossal, imitation colonial-style Edwardian mansion. Brash statues of golden bucks leap out of a fountain at the entrance, and the interior is a dark, hellish cavern filled with rows of tingling one-armed bandits and gambling tables.

As a sweetener to win the gambling licence, Gold Reef City initially hired a foreign architect and proposed a Disney-style tribal village, complete with lasers, to be called “Freedom Park”. Then a small, innovative local architectural practice was brought on board and the concept of the Apartheid Museum was created. Though financed by gambling profits, this important project has been met with equal measures of indifference and hostility by the casino owners. Memory is seldom an ally of mammon, and few of those chasing a quick buck in the “new” South Africa, whether black or white, wish to be reminded of our terrible past, which has left such a devastating legacy of inequality.

The Apartheid Museum commands a dramatic position: to one side, the casino and theme park; to the north, a spectacular view of disused mine dumps and rusting pitheads, fading into a shadowy horizon of high-rise buildings in central Johannesburg. The exterior of the museum, in total contrast to the garish excesses of the casino, is stark and raw, an amalgam of industrial, mining and even prison imagery that moulds into the harsh, khaki Highveld landscape like a top-security bunker. The entrance is a shocking coup de theatre. When I saw it, after so long, I felt sick to my stomach – the separate turnstile entrances are marked “White” and “Non-White”.

The concrete interior, with ramps and hallways, will tell a linear story. At present, the museum is a nearly completed building site. It will house photographs, artefacts, film and recorded oral histories. Like the stark architecture, there is no attempt to soften this bleak tale. There will be exhibits of torture equipment and a real Caspir, the police vehicle used to patrol the townships. The museum will take the visitor through the peace negotiations at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park (now Caesar’s Palace), the 1994 vote, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ending with an exhibit of that day’s newspaper headlines.

A few days before my visit, the minister of education, Kader Asmal, had launched the South African History Project at the Old Fort in Johannesburg, once a notorious jail. He pointed out that the study of history here was experiencing a serious decline. “After our passage to democracy in 1994, history was feared,” said Asmal in his address to historians and academics at the Old Fort. “It was downgraded in the curriculum and ignored in the schools.” Many schools still use apartheid-era textbooks. Teachers frequently comment on the ignorance among many of today’s students about even rudimentary aspects of our fraught past.

Among the affluent classes in the “new” South Africa, which today include a growing black bourgeoisie, there is an escalating predis-position to amnesia, both of recent history and present poverty. Nowhere can one see this better than in the architecture of prosperous Johannesburg.

The modern style of wealthy Johannesburg, both residential and corporate, might generically be termed “gargantuan vulgarity”.

Johannesburg is increasingly a tale of two cities: a run-down downtown, the former central business district, now largely a poor black city; and, a few miles further north, Sandton, the glossy corporate and shopping headquarters for a reconfigured elite, both black and white.

In the plush northern suburbs, there are signs of building acti- vity everywhere. But there is little evidence of originality or local inspiration. There are pastiches of almost every conceivable European style, from mock Georgian to sham Italian Renaissance.

The day after visiting Gold Reef City, located to the south, I decided to check out the new, even plusher and more whimsical casino to the north of the city – a gargantuan simulation of an Italian fantasy, or as it styles itself: “A Tuscan village under one roof.”

Halfway, I took an unexpected detour. A tourist sign said: “Liliesleaf Guest House.” Liliesleaf! Once the secret headquarters of the ANC, where Nelson Mandela (in the guise of “David”, a servant) operated clandestinely. A police raid here led directly to the Rivonia Trial, and the long incarceration of several ANC leaders, including Mandela. The house is now in a private residential security zone. A guard raises the barrier. The tasteful upmarket guest house is furnished with grainy police photos from that fateful raid. It is also used for corporate retreats; the young woman who showed me round said that many executives who book in have absolutely no idea, prior to arrival, of what once went on here.

This forgetfulness, no longer exclusively on the part of whites, is a negation of so much: our recent history, the continuing inequality, even the fact that we live in Africa.

There, suddenly, in the dry brown landscape is a huge Italian hill town, with towers, battlements, Renaissance loggias. Even the name – Montecassino, the site of a terrible Second World War bombardment – highlights the complete absence of any sense of irony or history. Like many an Italian hill town, it is designed for siege, huddled, looking inward, protecting itself against a threatening wider world of shifting, uncertain social currents. Inside, it is an expensive recreation of some prototype Italian fantasia – cobbled streets, cafes, chic boutiques, faded palazzo facades with half-open wooden shutters and the family washing hanging out. The autumnal leaves are made of silk. In the central piazza, to which you gain access over a mock-stone footbridge, is the gambling emporium: ranks of serried one-armed bandits and busy gambling tables. Even though it is midweek, and midday, hundreds of punters are playing the machines.

Here, at last, in the virtual reality Mediterranean twilight, is what appears to be a colour-blind universe. The punters are of varying colours and class distinctions. It is, like the pretence that this is not Africa, an illusion. The serving staff are all black.

In this “new” South Africa, there is a new frontier, evident in the reproduction architecture, which divides the new elite, whether black or white, from old realities. Mammon, however, cannot altogether suppress memory. The following day, Jeremy Rose of the Johannesburg architectural firm Mashabane Rose took me on a tour of another of his landmark projects, financed by the government and due to open next year: the Hector Peterson Museum. A haunting site, this is where the Soweto student uprising began on 16 June 1976. Out of various windows, you can see where students first gathered to protest, the police station that hurriedly sent out armed patrols to counter the fateful march, and the spot where Hector Peterson was shot. The terrain is flat and dusty; here the sense of that recent past is still raw, palpable. Next door is the “Uncle Tom Community Centre”. The closest house is a shebeen. Hector Peterson’s mother makes her living running an informal roadside stall. Nearby are the homes of Walter Sisulu, Archbishop Tutu and Winnie Mandela.

I mentioned that when I visited the old Mandela home in Vilakazi Street, Winnie had been outside in a BMW. “Oh, she often does that,” said Rose. Recently he saw Winnie there when one of her chief accusers had crossed the road right in front of her.

So, unbidden, the past comes back to haunt us.