Reality Check an exhibition including a virtual reality film on Walter Sisulu Accused no 2 in the Rivonia Trial

Reality Check at the Apartheid Museum 

Historically fascinating, technologically innovative, sensitively curated and a totally immersive experience – this is Reality Check, a little jewel of an exhibition currently showing at the Apartheid Museum until late March 2020.  Reality Check is an exhibition on Walter Sisulu which includes an animated virtual reality film based on the sound recordings of the famous Rivonia trial (1963-1964).

Poster for the exhibition

Excellent exhibition design and layout 

Located in a small intimate space in the museum, the exhibition is arranged spatially in concentric circles. The outer circle comprises a simple yet powerful and informative summary of 10 key aspects of Sisulu’s life, presented through very brief texts, photographs, charcoal drawings and posters; with, in the top register, a punchy sentence in very large font. The sentence relating to the last section reads:  “At one point, there were 3 Sisulu’s in prison. Years later, there were three in parliament”.  You cannot get a more succinct summary of the extraordinary history of the ANC and the move to a democratic South Africa, than this.  Large fabric drops hanging from the roof define a passage and form a second circle with texts and images covering 3 further themes relating to Sisulu – his global intellectual roots in non-racism; the influence of his travels; and then the man himself.   

The exhibition on the walls and hanging fabric panels has been curated by Nicolas Champeaux and designed by Grégoire Romanet 

Accused # 2 in the Rivonia trial 

In the centre of the circular space are 8 swivel chairs with headphones and virtual reality headsets.  Get ready for a truly immersive experience and hear the actual voice of Accused #2 from the dock at the famous Rivonia Trial over 55 years ago.  

Photo: Courtesy Twitter @FrenchEmbassyZA

Digitization of the Rivonia trial audio archive 

The only live record of the Rivonia trial was an audio archive housed at the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARRSA) made on “dictabelts” – fragile vinyl tapes which were completely unusable from the 1970s onwards and so were lost to history since then.  But in 1998 Henri Chamoux invented the archéophone a device able to read all formats of wax or celluloid cylinders.  So, in 2012, when NARRSA approached the French institute of South Africa and the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA), it was Chamoux who was able to restore the stretched dictabelts. This led to the digitization of the entire Rivonia sound archive.

From digitized archive to virtual reality films 

From this digitised archive, a team of French filmmakers produced a feature-length film: The State Against Mandela and the Others, a film which has received critical acclaim internationally. Clearly the title of this film alludes with irony, to how Mandela’s co-accused have been somewhat side-lined in the narrative record of this historic trial.  So, filmmakers Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Portes went on to produce the 16-minute virtual reality film about Sisulu: Accused #2: Walter Sisulu which is at the spatial and symbolic core of Reality Check.    

A courtroom scene, one of the drawings by Oerd Van Cuijlenberg used in the virtual reality film

While Oerd Van Cuijlenberg’s charcoal animated drawings function like courtroom drawings, their exaggerated caricature style verges on the stereotypical which is perhaps the one weakness of this exhibition.  But as a spatial adaptation of the visual archive, this film is extraordinary. As you keep swivelling in your chair, turning your head around for the full 360 experience and surround-sound, sensations of claustrophobia, vertigo, disorientation, and disempowerment bombard you. Percy Yutar in exaggerated scale with flowing black robe and hawkish features, suddenly swoops down on you, (and so Sisulu), from unexpected directions; or circles you, (and so Sisulu), as a looming bullying presence. Sisulu in contrast, is represented as being dwarfed physically by Yutar and the courtroom. But power relations are destabilized as this mild-mannered man stands his ground under questioning, with a dignity, strength, will and resistance that is prophetic of things to come some 30 years down the track.   

This virtual reality exhibition is a partnership between the Apartheid Museum, the Paris based film company Le Générale de Production, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the French Embassy and the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS). 

The exhibition runs until the end of March 2020.  Admission to Apartheid Museum costs R100. The museum is open daily 09:00-17:00 and is closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

This review has also appeared in the Johannesburg in Your Pocket’s On-line What’s on in Joburg 19th December to 8th Jan 2020 



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