Welcome to Week 31 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit the Correctional Services Museum, or Prison Museum for short, in Pretoria.
In another #Gauteng52 episode of “I Almost Didn’t Write About This Because It’s So Freaking Weird,” I bring you the Prison Museum.
When my friend Ted told me he was going to visit South Africa’s Prison Museum, on the grounds of an actual prison, curiosity got the better of me. I became even more excited when I googled the place and found an article saying museum-goers must walk through the visitors’ area of the prison to get to the museum.
Ted and I drove to the Kgosi Mampuru Prison, formerly Pretoria Central Prison, not far from downtown Pretoria. We pulled up at the gate and drove through after a cursory search of Ted’s trunk.
The Prison Museum building is just inside the prison grounds, to the left of the front gate. The museum, which used to be the prison manager’s house, has its own parking lot.
Next to that parking lot is a small building that looked full of civilians — presumably the visitors’ area. We never got the chance to walk through it. Maybe we would have if we’d arrived on foot? Who knows. I was sad though.
I took very few pictures at the Prison Museum. Halfway through our visit, a stern prison officer discovered us and told me photography is not allowed.
Inside the Prison Museum
The Prison Museum suffers from an identity crisis emblematic of many other South African museums, and 21st-century South Africa more generally.
The moment I walked through the door I could see this is an apartheid-era museum, created before democracy. (Interestingly though, the description of the museum on the Department of Correctional Services website says it wasn’t opened until 1992, just two years before Nelson Mandela was elected president.)
The current government seems to be putting forth some effort to maintain the museum, but not enough to properly update the place so it makes sense in modern times. The result is confounding, especially because there are very few explanations of any of the items on display in the museum.
Ummm…huh? The bust on the floor depicts John Vorster, one of apartheid’s most notorious strongmen. I only know this because Ted told me. I have no idea what’s going on with the scary wooden sculpture next to him.
This structure, placed awkwardly in front of a bunch of portraits of early 20th-century prison staff sports teams, is a well-known apartheid torture device: Prisoners were tied to it and beaten from behind. (I know this because I saw one in the museum at Constitution Hill.) With the exception of the handwritten blue paper on the wall that reads, “Corporal Punishment Triangle”, there is no further description of the device.
The placards behind the torture device. There were many photos like this in the museum, portraying all-white groups of prison staff engaging in recreational activities. The most hilarious picture showed a group of guys in bathing suits at a pool, having a pillow fight. The caption read something like, “Prison staff engage in a pillow fight.” I’m devastated I don’t have a photo of that.
With the exception of one small section of the museum with a life-sized replica of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, and a small cabinet with prisoner crafts — sculptures made with melted wax, match-stick houses, etc. — every item on display seemed to be from the pre-democracy era. I saw no other mention of the anti-apartheid struggle and very little mention of black people at all. I did enjoy looking at the wide range of prison guard uniforms worn over the decades, especially the women’s uniforms.
I was also fascinated that an actual prisoner was working in the museum as a janitor. He wore an orange jumpsuit and shot me a friendly smile. I sensed he wanted to be photographed and I longed to photograph him, but I had a strange feeling the stern prison officer would probably notice me doing that and tell me to stop taking pictures. (She did that anyway about three minutes later. Fortunately she didn’t make me delete the ones I’d already taken.) I managed one covert shot of the friendly prisoner.
A Walk Around the Prison
When the stern prison officer inevitably approached to demand I stop taking photos, Ted distracted her with a bunch of other questions about the prison. She eventually warmed up to us and told us about the Gallows, another section of the museum that was supposed to open several years ago but never did.
The Gallows is where many high-profile South African prisoners were hanged over the years. (The death penalty has since been abolished in South Africa.) Ted asked the stern officer if we could see it, but she said we couldn’t because it’s inside “C-Max”, the maximum security section of the prison, and they had just had riots there. But after some prompting, Ted convinced the stern officer to take us for a short walk to look at C-Max from the outside. I’m sure she wasn’t supposed to do that so I’m intentionally not naming her.
The C-Max building is the original prison building and it looks like a red brick castle. It killed me not to take photos of it but the stern prison officer was obviously having none of that. (I did ask.) Ted snuck a couple of shots with his phone.
As we walked back to the car, a prison van stuffed with men drove past. One man pressed his face against the tiny barred window at the back, and waved. I didn’t have time to wave back.
The Prison Museum is at 001 Kgosi Mampuru Street, Pretoria. Visiting hours are Tuesday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Call +27-12-314-1766.