Joburg’s top museums of SA history
Johannesburg has a number of excellent museums on the contemporary history of South Africa. Make Melrose Arch your base and within a radius of just 15km you’ll find a number of places that share the remarkable stories of our country. Far from being depressing reminders of a turbulent past or harbingers of a bleak future, these places celebrate exceptional people of all creeds who have called our country home.
One of South Africa’s leading heritage sites, lies tucked away in well-heeled Rivonia. The farmhouse and outbuildings on the property functioned as the nerve centre of the liberation movement and provided refuge to its leaders, including Nelson Mandela.
They operated from here for almost two years before the police raid in 1963 that would lead to the Rivonia Trial. By then Nelson Mandela was already imprisoned on Robben Island, but he’d lived on the farm as a worker, called David Motsamayi, known for wearing blue overalls. When police found evidence of his presence, he was brought to Pretoria to stand trial with the other Rivonia trialists. His famous speech in the dock was the most profound moment of the trial, and his words are today inscribed on the walls of the building that houses the Constitutional Court.
Leave enough time to take in the superb exhibits and audio-visual displays using evocative old recordings – you’ll be transported.
- Location George Avenue, Rivonia
- Distance from Melrose Arch 12.3km
Constitution Hill is a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy. The site is a former prison and military fort that tells of its turbulent past, and the future is represented by the presence of the Constitutional Court. The history of every South African lives here because apart from its famous prisoners – including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Albertina Sisulu – this place held ordinary men and women of all races, beliefs, ages and political persuasions.
The architecture is as impressive as the place itself. The political significance Constitutional Court is reinforced in its architectural significance.
The slanting columns in the foyer suggest lekgotla, the traditional meeting place where legal disputes are resolved, often beneath a tree. The concrete roof has slots designed to create the effect of dappled sunlight filtering through leaves.
The chamber has a ribbon of glass that emphasises the transparency of its proceedings.
The judges’ seating has been designed to be at the same level as the public gallery.
- Location Kotze Street, Johannesburg
- Distance from Melrose Arch 8km
The pre-eminent museum in the world when it comes to 20th century South Africa, the Apartheid Museum was the first of its kind and illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid. The exhibits were assembled and organised by curators, film-makers, historians and designers. They include provocative film footage, photographs and artefacts that show events and human stories. A total of 22 exhibition areas takes visitors on a journey that vividly brings the past to life.
Look out for a bright red Mercedes produced especially for Nelson Mandela, marking his release from prison in 1990, by workers at the Mercedes-Benz factory in East London. They built the car in their spare time for no pay and the company donated the parts and facilities.
- Location Northern Park Way and Gold Reef Road, Ormonde, Johannesburg
- Distance from Melrose Arch 15km