District Six museum, Cape Town: a commemoration ground

“We were told that we didn’t qualify to live there anymore because of the colour of our skin.” – Joe Schaffers, ex-resident of District Six. Removed in 1967 at the age of 28.

“Every day to work I would pass by my house, out of which my wife, kids and me had been forcefully removed. Every day I would stop and look at it, seeing the bulldozers getting closer. Until one day our house was gone, just a vacant plot remained, on which I stood with an empty heart.” – Noor Ebrahim, ex-resident of District Six, Cape Town. Removed in 1970 at the age of 26.

“Many streets from which people were removed and houses demolished are still empty today. The goal was to divide people and break us.” – Ruth Jeftha, ex-resident of District Six.

Today Joe, Noor and Ruth are here, at the District Six museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Housed in a former church and the only original building of the District Six that is still standing, more than a museum, it is a commemoration place where former residents reaffirm their identity by sharing their life stories with visitors, celebrate their heritage, confront the complexity of history, and try to come to terms with their forced removals.

Ruth is warmly hugging a few South African teenagers who have been greatly touched by her own story she shared while taking them through the museum. Noor is vividly talking to some visitors. Joe is taking time to explain not only his own experience of the forced removals but also the consequences of these dramatic events that are still very vivid today, about 40 years later:

“So in a nutshell people of Dutch, English, German, French, and Portuguese origins settled here. Former slaves from the Caribbean Islands, Mozambique, Malaysia, Indonesia, or Madagascar joined in. Some Jews from Latvia and Lithuania also settled here. All these immigrants called District Six their home with the common acceptance of the other as human beings. So there was an eclectic mix of cultures and religions. We had Anglicans, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Methodists… in fact the whole spectrum of religions. And we all felt that we were at the same level. Music, especially Jazz united us even more. The government did not like District Six. They wanted to make it a “white only” area. Along with all these laws that segregated people came the Group Area Act, which depicted where people of what colour could stay. On 11 February, 1966, this multicultural area was declared a white area.”

Although Joe has told his story many times I read the sadness in his eyes. In front of me sits a man who has been a mere victim of the apartheid regime and who has now dedicated his life to tell people about what has happened to raise the awareness of its psychological outcomes. With a soft voice Joe continues to explain how his life has changed after 1966 and how the Group Areas Act of back then still influences the lives of many Capetonians and South Africans today:

“Between 1966 and 1984 they moved 60,000 people to the so called Cape Flats, 36 kilometres out of District Six. [The Cape Flats cannot be missed when you fly into Cape Town as they must be crossed to make it into town, and are also famous as one of the most dangerous townships in the world] The government categorized and split people of colour into different race groups. I was cut off from my social environment amongst strangers: shops, friends, colleagues, churches, workplaces… you know, all that you identify with? Gone! One day to the next. Gone! Beyond the money pressure, as now people needed to commute to work on the same salary, the psychological damage has been huge. Mothers had to work instead of taking care of kids to compensate for the additional costs, and this changed the family structure drastically. There were no schools nearby, no day-care to bring your kids to, no sport clubs, no recreational areas, no libraries, no nothing. Kids gathered at street corners, and this lead to gang formation which still today is the root for violence, prostitution, and drugs that are making life in the Cape Flats so dangerous.  We were all sitting in isolation after being removed out of District 6, all miserable. No barbwire, watch tower nor military guards were needed to keep us there. Only the psychological force of the apartheid regime was enough to keep people in the townships via an intense countrywide brainwash.”

Joe gets interrupted as a new group of visitors enters the museum. Letting his words sink in I move in the central hall where I walk on a hand painted map of former District Six that has been signed by residents. Street signs cover the walls. Pictures, many of which taken by Noor, are displayed showing families proudly posing in front of their houses, then, the same house with the bulldozer next to it, and the last one of the series with the bulldozer and a pile of stones… I get closer to a group of visitors quietly listening to the energetic Ruth and, as I catch her story, I just cannot stop listening:

“My mother didn’t want to move. She got her eviction order in 1966. In 1981, she was still living in District Six, she was the only one. Living amongst bulldozers and trucks, having been disconnected from power and water for a long time, she just refused to move. She was forcefully taken to Mittchels Plains on a Saturday in 1981. She was put in a matchbox house amongst thousands of similar houses in an unknown place for her. Two days later on Monday, I went to look for her. She was dead. She was a vibrant healthy woman of 58. A so called heart failure struck her… Or a broken heart, 2 days after they took her out of her home…”

After her moving story I catch up on Ruth. We sit together on the “whites only” bench. Ruth smiles. “When I was young I could never imagine I could sit on one of these benches that were everywhere in town. Today, I can. Regarding my story, I have suffered from a lot of anger and sadness that turned me into a very bitter person. But bit by bit I started realising that we cannot change the past. Letting these feelings of oppression and anger rule will lead to only more bitterness. Instead, I share my story now, here in the heart of District Six. To restore my dignity, not to change the past, but to embrace it and with this change the future.”

And if her words aren’t enough for a conclusion in itself on how to move on from here to a brighter future Joe catches up on us. “You’re done with your story?” he playfully bullies her. To then continue himself: “South Africa should have been the shining light in this world. We have no natural disasters, enough living space and agricultural land, sea ports to trade… Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost through the greed of a minority and we are set back, and now we have to convince the world that we can be a force to reckon with, and I can assure you we will.”

It is the power of these people moving forward that makes South Africa unique as it is. It is the will to carry on and to make it better. It is daring to look back into the past and learn from it, to prevent this from happening again. The District Six museum is certainly not a museum. It is a place where part of South Africa’s future takes shape, a place where everyone can share their feelings of oppression and hope to make humanity humane, day by day.

Today, the area once known as District Six lies among the posh Capetonian suburbs of Walmer Estate, Zonnebloem, and Lower Vrede. A large part of District Six is still an empty land even though some new houses have been built to which a total of 139 families have returned. The restitution is a complicated and long process and highly political. Hopefully, District Six will be reborn and set the example as a neighbourhood where a mix of people shares values as human beings: the true rainbow nation.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • To learn more about District Six, check out the District Six Museum website to plan your visit while in Cape Town.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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