|The Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, one of Johannesburg's most undervalued attractions, boasts a special "art" piece which staff at the museum call their "Mona Lisa".|
It's as unique as the real Mona Lisa - the first jet engine fighter plane, designed and manufactured by the Germans towards the end of World War 2. It was the first two-seater night fighter, called the ME 262, and the one the museum has is the only existing plane of its kind in the world.
"Nobody had seen anything like it before, when it first appeared. Thank goodness the Germans made it towards the end of the war, because it would have had a devastating effect if they'd had a chance to use it," says Allan Sinclair, aviation and military art curator at the museum.
Photographer: William Martinson - 2013 12 06
The museum, the only one of its kind in the country, is regarded as the "spiritual and symbolic home of regular and reserve soldiers and veterans in South Africa and throughout the world".
Situated at the top of the 200-acre site that consists largely of the Johannesburg Zoo and Zoo Lake, the Museum was opened in 1947 by the Prime Minister, Field Marshall Jan Smuts, with the following words: "We are gathered here today to open what may not unfairly be looked upon as a memorial to the greatest united effort our country has ever been called upon to produce [participation in World War 2]. Memorials, of course, have more than one use. They serve to remind us of what is the past, of great deeds of heroism and sacrifice; they also serve as a pointer, and sometimes as a warning, to the future."
The Museum is an impressive memorial to the past with its collection of World War 1 and 2 fighter planes - some the only remaining planes of their kind in the world - tanks used by the South African Defence Force in war in Angola, armaments, medals, military insignia and uniforms.
It also has an interesting section on resistance to war, including the Rebellion of 1914, the Ossewa Brandwag, and the End Subscription Campaign. All in all, it has 44 000 items in its display halls and archives.
The Museum's library has a unique collection of books, journals and archival material, as well as official South African World War 2 art and photographs. It conducts interviews in the library as part of its ongoing oral history collection and has a number of publications for sale.
A recent display covers the resistance movement Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC. "We are looking for more material and anecdotes to enlarge this display," says Sinclair.
Recently the museum acquired a large white touring truck, parked outside in the car park. It has canvas blinds through which tourists could peek at animals on tours that were conducted from Kenya to Cape Town, by Africa Hinterland Safaris. In reality, it was used by MK to smuggle weapons into South Africa, under its metal benches.
The Museum serves as an unusual venue for conferences and functions. A number of military-related organisations use the Museum as their base and are stakeholders in the Museum.
In the grounds and well-kept gardens of the Museum is The War Store. It offers the visitor an array of badges, weapons, uniforms, helmets and books. And opposite it is the Vargas Café, named after Alberto Vargas who painted voluptuous women on the noses of World War 1 planes.
Although the Museum has a glorious display of war machinery, its purpose is not to glorify war, says Sinclair, but "war is a fact of life, and those who fight in wars are special, and this Museum is a memorial to them".