Coming to terms with the past History: One sign of changes taking place in South African society is the police museum at Pretoria, which has exhibits dealing with the abuses and miseries of apartheid.


PRETORIA, South Africa -- Oh Biko, Biko.

The haunting words of Peter Gabriel's song "Biko" are not exactly what you expect to hear in this turn-of-the-century building. After all, this is the building housing the South African Police Museum, and the song is about Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977.

But in the room where the song is playing, the museum has a new exhibit, and it is one of the latest and most surprising of the transformations that have come about in this society.

Behind sheets of Plexiglas, a foot-long wax model of Biko lies face down, naked, hands bound behind his back, just as he was found 18 years ago in a cell less than a mile from here.

A seriously injured Biko had been brought to the prison in Pretoria from the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, having been driven more than 700 miles while lying in the back of a police van. He was thrown into a cell and, in effect, left to die.

His death would spark international condemnation and become a rallying point of the anti-apartheid movement.

The text in the museum's exhibit is fairly noncommittal. It recites a basic outline of the facts, notes that then-Police Commissioner James Kruger claimed that Biko suffered his fatal injuries by striking his head against a wall during interrogation -- and that a few days later that statement was retracted.

It does not mention Mr. Kruger's more famous words: When informed of Biko's death, his reaction was, "It leaves me cold."

But the overall impression of the room, with its muted lighting and the insistent rhythms of Peter Gabriel's song, is undeniably powerful.

"I never thought I'd see an exhibit like this in my life," says Mishack Mabotha, a teacher at a rural black high school who was at the museum with a group of students on a field trip to Pretoria.

"Of course before, black people were not allowed to see any of these exhibitions. But you must see it. It's part of history," he says.

Christo Ficket, a history teacher at a predominantly white, Afrikaans-speaking primary school, echoed those sentiments while on a visit to the museum.

"You learn a lot by seeing an exhibit like this," he said. "These are the types of things you read about in the newspapers, and now we can see it. It's important. When we go back to school, we talk about these things in class. This is the new South Africa."

"Sometimes when the black students come in and see these exhibits they get so excited, they start shouting and ululating," .. said Leonie Wagner, a museum official who trained as a sculptor and made the model of Biko.

The room has other exhibits, one of them on early protests against the laws that required blacks to carry passes whenever they were in white areas, to prove that they were employed there. Pass-law arrests and jailings, as common as parking tickets at the height of apartheid, were a major daily infringement on the rights of blacks.

One exhibit documents the confrontation between police and protesters in the township of Sharpeville in 1960 that left 67 blacks dead. Another documents the 1976 riots in Soweto, which began with protests over school policies but spread into outright revolt against apartheid.

While never attempting to justify the apartheid policies -- indeed at times making clear that the protesters' anger was justified -- the exhibits also show that police often found themselves in danger, confronting deadly weapons.

An adjoining room shows police facing the same danger in dealing with the white right wing as it resisted the end of apartheid and the beginnings of multiracial democracy.

Exhibits cover the right wing's 1993 violent invasion of the building where negotiations for a new constitution were taking place, and a battle between police and right-wing protesters at a speech in Ventersdorp by then-President F. W. de Klerk in 1992, a confrontation that left three dead.

These new rooms contrast with most of the rest of the museum -- an otherwise fairly standard combination of old uniforms and vehicles, and a series of paeans to good police work on a variety of cases, the more gruesome the better.

But upstairs more changes are taking place. There's a section on the death of Amy Biehl, an American graduate student who was killed in a township near Cape Town in 1993.

Another is dedicated to police who were killed during the years of the liberation struggle, on and off duty. Another shows the strong-armed tactics often used to enforce the strikes, "stay-aways" and boycotts against apartheid.

"We tried to show that the police suffered, the public suffered, black people suffered," Ms. Wagner says. "It was a difficult time for all of us."

In a back room there is a still-unfinished exhibit on Robben Island, the notorious island prison that held the political prisoners considered most threatening to the system of apartheid. Included is a reconstruction of the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 16 of his 27 years in prison.

"When we finish, we hope to get President Mandela here to dedicate the exhibit," Ms. Wagner says.

The transformation of the police museum is motivated by the same mixture of altruism and pragmatism that these days motivates the previously entrenched establishment into action.

"Obviously there were major political changes in this country, and we knew we would have to go along with them," Ms. Wagner says. "We try to be as balanced as possible. We have to recognize that these things did happen, but here we sense a lot of forgiveness from black people."

The changes can also be seen as a survival tactic. In its old garb, the museum could have been declared irrelevant and targeted for closure by a government needing to tackle a rising crime rate with limited resources.

But whatever the motivation for them, the new exhibits can have a genuine impact.

"Things like this can be an invaluable exercise," says Graeme Simpson, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. "It is part of an acknowledgment of a history and a past that has been systematically denied before."

And such an acknowledgment can have a profound effect on the victims of the years of oppression. "These things cannot be swept under the carpet," Mr. Simpson says. "They have to be engaged with. Retelling these stories can be a healing factor."

Andre Odendaal, who heads the Mayibue Center near Cape Town, a sort of archive of the liberation movement that is working on several museum ideas, agreed.

"Obviously it is important to fill in these gaps," he says. "For decades, black people were systematically written out of South African history.

"What concerns me is that museums don't try to turn this into some shallow 'rainbow nation' view of history, a happy history vTC that tries to paper over differences and say that everything is OK.

"There's always the danger that the new interpretations will be just as superficial as the old ones. We have to keep looking critically at our past, to keep history as a debate."

Whatever the reason it is there, and whatever the context in which it is placed, a face-down statue of a naked, bound Steve Biko in the museum of the police responsible for his death seems to have all the elements of just such a debate.

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