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Police Face Up to Dark Past in New Exhibit

July 26, 1995

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) _ A wax figure lies twisted with hands shackled behind the back. A display case nearby holds a list of ``deaths in detention.″

A new exhibit at the South African Police Museum shockingly and surprisingly explores a dark past.

Museum director Maj. Mathilda Smal said Wednesday such depictions would not have been allowed a year ago. But now apartheid has been toppled, a black-led government is in power and police are eager to shuck their reputation as the brutal enforcers of white minority power.

To do that, they must build credibility, Smal said.

``Previously, it was police policy not to exhibit anything that would put the police in a bad light,″ she said. ``But I think we have the responsibility to show the wrongs that were committed in the past, so that they won’t be repeated in the future.″

The whole nation is engaged in similar soul-searching. Police officers are expected to provide some of the most dramatic testimony to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission being established to grant amnesty to those who confess to political crimes.

Even so, not everyone was ready for the revolution to hit the police museum. Smal said when she went to police statisticians for a list of those killed in custody, she was rebuffed and stalled.

In the end, she used names provided in a documentary about black nationalist leader Steve Biko.

The new exhibit, which opened in May as a permanent display, features a portrait of Biko spotlighted over the wax figure that depicts his condition after being beaten by interrogators.

The figure lies naked on its back, twisted in pain, with hands shackled.

It was all slightly out of place surrounded by dioramas of sensational murder cases in which police were the heroes.

Accompanying the Biko exhibit were photos of protesting children being chased by police in Soweto during the 1976 riots. A pile of pass books curling with age illustrates a written account of blacks protesting a requirement that they carry the identity documents.

``These are very sad stories,″ said Patrick Kekana, who visited the museum for the first time Wednesday after friends told him about the Biko exhibit.

Retired police officer Jan Groenewald, who described himself as a white separatist, brought his teen-age son to the 27-year-old museum ``to see how they’ve adapted it.″ He said he had expected changes after the nation’s first all-race elections last year.

``I accept that they’ll show a balanced perspective from the ANC point of view,″ Groenewald said. ``They’ve changed it for the new South Africa.″