Durban – Death Row, the gallows and the hangman are perhaps more associated with Pretoria central prison, but the noose was also no stranger to the provincial capital.

At the Old Prison, now a museum in Pietermaritzburg bearing the same name, this happened first in the old Voortrekker-built section and out of a second-floor window when there were public hangings. Hangings later moved to a building built in 1934.

Exhibits representing the colonial era, Mahatma Gandhi-led struggle against Indian discrimination, and the Struggle era occupy rooms that were once dark cells. In a passage, there’s a replica of the gallows.

Nelson Mandela was in that jail, for a couple of nights after his arrest up the hill at Tweedie, near Howick.

He features in the exhibits but the focus is more on local people, such as Harry Gwala, Peter Brown and King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, who were also incarcerated at the complex a stone’s throw from the historic Pietermaritzburg Station and Fort Napier.

A highlight of the Old Prison Museum is the history of kaCetshwayo.

A video shows an actor playing the role of him protesting his innocence when he was tried by the British for treason after the Bambatha Rebellion, and imprisoned for four years.

“I am deeply concerned with the state of the Zulu people. We, as amaZulu, are not being treated correctly. The natives of India are governed and treated according to the law. Even the boer, who have recently been at war with the British government, have been settled down. But the amaZulu have been subdued and not treated in the same manner,” the recording goes.

Key in the era of fighting for the rights of Indians is the story of Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba. She was imprisoned several times in South Africa and India while standing by her husband.

Across town, at the Msunduzi Museum, an exhibit shows a shack typical of rural areas around the city both now and during the UDF-IFP war that flared in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country from the 1980s to the early 1990s.

A paraffin lamp illustrates the lack of electricity.

However, a video display goes against this grain, showing footage of what was known as the Seven Day War.

“This is the condition people were living in,” said a guide.

And still do in areas whose names he rattled off: “Vulindlela, Sobantu, Pumula, Ashdown, Edendale and Sobantu.”

Upstairs, in the cultural section, a near life-size model of a cow greets visitors along with displays of how cows are important to the various players in KZN’s history.

To the Indians they’re sacred animals and ornaments to this effect are on show.

To the Voortrekkers, a milk can and a pair of velskoene (shoes) illustrate the bovine’s worth and to the Zulu it’s a meat tray and cow-hide shields.

Display areas are devoted to each of apartheid’s race categories: whites, coloured, Indians and Africans.

Displays include sports trophies and banners and cups relating to sport achievements among Pietermaritzburg’s coloured community, a replica of a grave erected by Queen Victoria in memory of the Prince Imperial during the Anglo-Zulu War and an isigingci guitar made from an oil drum.

The Msundusi Museum has embraced the old Voortrekker Museum where a statue of Piet Retief – who gave the “Pieter” to Pietermaritzburg – stands tall, rising up from a base covered with garden flowers.

The Museum Passport Competition is offering prizes of up to R20 000.

“The competition is open to all schools from Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas, from Grade R to 12. When you visit each establishment, the offering will vary,” said Zama Nxasana, events co-ordinator for the Msunduzi Pietermaritzburg Tourism Association.

“Museums provide a unique interactive experience of getting up close to things we usually only see in books, newspapers or on television,” she said.

“Going to a museum can bring what is taught in schools to life by seeing real artefacts or objects.

“Research shows that those who have had first-hand experience of information are more likely to retain it in later life.”

The Museum Passport Competition, as it is called, lasts from Monday until July. To enter, schools must collect their documents from the Msunduzi Pietermaritzburg Tourism Association before 2pm on Monday.The Independent on Saturday