By Steven Kotze
When the proposal to create KwaMuhle Museum was drafted by a committee of academics and activists in 1991, a central element of the new museum they envisioned was a permanent exhibition on the Durban System. It was seen as vital to portray the methods of social and economic control used by the “Native Administration Department” of the then Durban City Council over Africans who came to the city seeking work. When KwaMuhle was eventually opened to the public in 1995, the first gallery at the entrance of the new museum was therefore dedicated to this topic, and remained a key attraction of the permanent exhibitions. Over the past two decades, countless visitors to the site have commented on the moving depiction of the struggle by ordinary African people for dignity in the face of state repression by the apartheid government.
Our understanding of this history, as well as its significance in the development of South African society today has increased over this time period as well. In addition, as part of Local History Museums policy to evaluate the condition and relevance of all permanent exhibitions after 15 to 20 years, Director Sinothi Thabethe made a decision to bring the Durban System exhibition up to date with current history on the subject. This important display was thus closed temporarily to the public in July 2016, and since then team of researchers and designers have been working closely with Mr Thabethe to update the content and stylistic approach to the Durban System exhibition. One pleasing and unexpected consequence of this short-term closing of the Durban System has been frequent enquiries from visitors about when it will be re-opened.
It is very clear from the feedback our Education Officers have received that this exhibition is regarded as central to the story of KwaMuhle Museum, and an essential aspect of local history for both South Africans and foreign guests of all ages to engage with. It is anticipated that the revamped permanent exhibition on the Durban System will be re-launched for visitors in the first half of 2017, and will be announced with a formal exhibition opening.