How District Six Museum preserves South Africa's pre-apartheid history

Old Apartheid Sign in the District Six Museum

The museum was created in 1994 to preserve the heritage of a racially integrated and ethnically diverse community that was destroyed by apartheid policies. After people of color were forcefully removed from District Six, their homes were bulldozed. Today, the museum serves as an educational heritage project and also a catalyst for rebuilding, repopulating and revitalizing the overall District Six community.


What was life like in the District Six community before forced removals?

District Six was a diverse place. There was a wave of Jewish immigration. There were former slaves who came from a wide range of places -- the West Indies, Malaysia and East Africa. They were so-called free blacks, people who had come to Cape Town looking for work from the Caribbean and West Africa.

People living in the District Six area might belong to the local church or mosque or Hindu temple or Jewish synagogue. We identified something like 60 different religious institutions.

All of these people lived in this small, densely populated neighborhood. Of course, it wasn’t paradise. I am not saying there were no problems. But it was a community that was able to regulate itself and function. It invested its own resources to make sure that none of its members went hungry.

It was a diverse community where people were different, but the quality of life, even for poor people, was high. That is a major part of why today they feel so attached to this region. They had such a high quality of life even though they were poor.

District Six was cosmopolitan, but it served the interest of the apartheid government to prevent it from remaining a racially integrated place.

How life changed after the forced re settlements

About 60,000 to 70,000 people were moved out from District Six between 1966 and 1982. You can imagine the impact that it made, because the city center was deserted. You no longer had a population of people who could use the shops, use public transport, etc. The downtown area of the city became a ghost town after 5 o’clock in the evening when people left work.

Besides the violations of peoples’ rights, it was bad for the city and the local economy. The people that moved away from the city found themselves in places with little infrastructure. Very often the homes were not built properly. There were no schools. They were far away from places of work. Before, they could walk to work from their homes to their places of work in the city. Now, they had to commute for two hours, and there were problems walking through dangerous bush.

All the securities, all the safety nets that a poor community has, that District Six had, were eliminated. These safety nets had been built up over generations. There had been families living in community; neighbors helping each other.

The geography of Cape Town is such that there is this beautiful mountain and you have the view of the ocean and the view of the city. When the town was much smaller, the District Six area was the least desirable place to live, but it became a very desirable place to live. So people from District Six were removed from the area. Many were sent to the Cape Flats, which is basically an area on the other side of the mountain.

The Flats area is a big plain of land that has been environmentally eroded. The government created an urban sprawl -- vast townships of black, brown and Indian people who live on these plains. The further you move away from the mountain, in general, the poorer people become and the darker their skin becomes.

The idea for the District Six Museum was developed.

The founders of the museum felt very, very strongly about what we were trying to do here, which is to transcend racial language and racial discord. We also are trying to say that District Six is not only a story about the past. We would like to work with it as a model of the city that we want to live in for the future. With these messages, people can go into the world, and they can make decisions about their lives that, hopefully, will develop a more civic-minded, diverse citizenship in the country.

Some of founders said, “District Six was a new South Africa, but it was a new South Africa way ahead of its time.” Today, we want to move away from racially ghettoized neighborhoods, but we are still living with apartheid inside peoples’ minds -- and inside their value systems and their practices. The key principles, the primary agenda of the redevelopment here, is to achieve a level of social justice.

How does remembering the past -- instead of burying it -- help bring reconciliation and actually strengthen the nation?

People are entitled to forget if they want to forget. But we have to make sure that the option to remember is available for people who choose to do so. There are many people who still come into the museum and say, “It has taken me five years to build up the courage to come in and see this place.” We try to create an environment where people can feel and express emotions. Some people cry. Some people get nostalgic. Sometimes they do both in the same moment.

What are some of the objects that help visitors experience the museum?

The defining feature of this museum is that District Six was destroyed. They are remembering something that is not there anymore, so when people come into this place, one of the first things they see is a column of street signs. It is amazing how people respond to that column. Very often, it is the first tangible evidence that this place used to exist. It is a new affirmation that says, “This really happened.”

The first exhibition is called “Retracing the Streets” because life was so profoundly in public places -- playgrounds and the streets. People try to remember what street the school was on, where the shop was, where they used to go dancing. These street signs have become an important part -- the symbolic part -- of the story and an affirmation of their experiences.

The other important artifact in the museum is the map on the floor, which was an important innovation. It’s a reproduction of the old neighborhood. People come into the space and get on their knees with a pen, and they write their family name on the spot where they used to live. They often put in another detail, maybe saying they were close neighbors with the Smith family. This all stays on the map.

The most amazing transactions happen on the floor. Sometimes, neighbors meet people on the map whom they haven’t seen in years. It is a funny balance that one has to manage because, for some people, it is a sacred place. It is almost a place of pilgrimage. For others, especially the younger generation, and for some of the older generation, it is a place of celebration.

People have to remember that our constituency is demographically getting older. Within 20 years time, most of the generation which experienced forced removals will be gone. If people are going to be delivering on our mission to make sure that human rights issues are addressed and that the habits of public discussion and public engagement endure, then have to be building interactions between the older generation and younger one.

The story of the district isn’t finished. District Six Museum Foundation are still telling the story of the reconstruction of the district, and it is happening as they speak.


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