To get to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, visitors pass through the gates of Gold Reef City, a complex that also includes a casino and an amusement park. The museum exists because in 1995, the South African government decreed that any group seeking to capitalize on the country's growing wealth by building a gambling institution needed to prove the development would have a socially conscious element in addition to spurring tourism and creating jobs.
Akani eGoli submitted a bid for Gold Reef City that included the museum, and six years later, South Africa had its 80 million Rand ($8 million) monument to the darkest era in the nation's history.
Its proximity to the casino notwithstanding, the Apartheid Museum is stunning, both in the exhibits and the architecture.
Five leading firms combined to design the structure and grounds. "The building itself has power, which is what is needed to put across the powerful message the museum has to offer," director George Till said in 2003. "It is the most important public building to be built in the last 20 years."
He's correct. Descend into the depths of the venue and you quickly forget you could be shooting craps within a 10-minute walk.
The museum features an impressive array of archival footage and photos, objects from the era (a series of decommissioned weapons and a tank), and symbolic displays (131 nooses hang in a room representing those men and women who lost their lives to execution). The overall effect is powerful.
A temporary Nelson Mandela exhibit, which examines the life of the country's first black president in passionate detail, was originally shown from November 2008 to November 2009 but returned for the World Cup.
The biggest sporting event on the planet has created a surge of visits to the museum. Security guards stationed throughout the premises said they were aware of more tourists walking through the corridors. Jerseys from countries including the United States, Mexico, Brazil, England, and many others provided color in the dark, intentionally depressing halls. Four Chile fans hurried through so they wouldn't miss their squad's important match against Spain in Pretoria later in the day.
Bits of casino-esque absurdity creep onto the premise. While standing at a vantage point where Soweto, where the war against apartheid centered, lies in the background, visitors are distracted by a loop-de-loop roller-coaster. Truth Café, where visitors sip cappuccinos or eat snacks after passing through the museum, sells a "Truth Commission Burger" and a chicken schnitzel called "Respect" (free range, of course).
Despite these shortcomings, it's well worth a visit to the museum. Hopefully a significant percentage of the 450,000 tourists will find their way to the location. The World Cup should be about more than simply soccer.
The museum expertly educates about a terrible time for the country. Conditions are improving, but as the nearby slums remind visitors, Mandiba's nation has a long way to go.
As I prepared to drive through the gates of Gold Reef City, a security guard asked me to turn off the engine of my car, then immediately turn it back on again. I asked why.
"A lot of cars get stolen from the parking lot," he responded. "I want to make sure you have the key to your car."
Real South Africa is all around.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com and is reporting from the World Cup in South Africa.
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