Wednesday, March 20, 2013

District Six Museum

[Note:  Any of the photos in the blog can be enlarged for easier viewing. Simply click on them.  This may be useful for this blog entry, since the photos include artwork and small print.]

We visited the District Six Museum the Monday before we left Cape Town.  It was a powerful and worthwhile experience.  The vision for the Museum came from the former inhabitants of District Six.  The photos included here of the thoughts of the residents will hopefully bring this to life.

As apartheid expanded, such signs were coming down in the U.S. South 

District Six is a large neighborhood in Cape Town that has been mostly deserted for the past 40 - 45 years.  It leaves a big hole in the city map.  It is just east of the City Bowl and Gardens districts where we spent a lot of time, and just west of Woodstock.  There is not a train stop where one should be.

Beginning in 1966 and continuing for another 6 - 7 years, almost all of the people that inhabited District Six were forcibly removed from this area that sits below Table Mountain and near the waterfront.  This was to make room for whites who wanted to live there.  The ethnic composition of the neighborhood was mostly coloured, Indian, other Asian and Jewish.  Some 60,000 people were moved to a bleak, sandy area called Cape Flats, where they now live in informal settlements amidst a lot of gang violence.

These are bitter thoughts, which are quite understandable

To put this number in perspective, the total number of people forcibly removed by apartheid in all of South Africa over the years was 600,000.  We don't know the total for all of Cape Town, but it is likely that District Six comprised ~ 50% of the forced removals in Cape Town.  Other neighborhoods impacted included Newlands and Claremont, the areas near the cricket and rugby stadiums that are now leafy suburbs.

Based on what we read and saw at the museum and conversations we had with former District Six inhabitants, the neighborhood was run-down at the time of the forced removals. This was partially because the landlords intentionally let their properties deteriorate, as part of a government strategy to induce people to leave on their own.  It later gave the National Party an excuse to raze District Six, and move the residents to areas with much worse living conditions.

This narrative helped us understand the fear

More importantly, run-down or not, the lively social fabric of District Six was ripped apart when its residents were forced to leave.  By all accounts, it was a happy place where the impoverished conditions never got in the way of sharing good music, food and conversation.  When residents left, they often turned around to see their homes being bulldozed before they got to the end of the street.  An unfriendly world awaited them in the Cape Flats, where they were viewed as outsiders even without color differences.  They never saw many of their old friends again.

One of a series of 20 cooking-themed memories

Below is a series of 3 drawings by Lionel Davis, an anti-apartheid activist.  Lionel grew up in District Six and was incarcerated on Robben Island from 1964 - 1971.  He met Nelson Mandela during that time.

We talked to one 60-ish lady who was visiting the museum for the first time at the suggestion of her two 20-something sons.  It was clearly an emotional experience for her, and she began talking to us without prompting.  She mentioned how happy she had been when she lived in District Six, and how the government paid her family only 2000 rand (~ US$200) for her home when they were evicted. Sadly, many of the families later evicted received much less or nothing.

This perspective is particularly well articulated

The next day at an upscale shopping area near the V&A Waterfront, we talked to a friendly, humble shop owner named Rodney.  His family was removed from District Six shortly after he was born in 1971.  He mentioned that for many years after they moved to Mitchell's Plain in the Cape Flats, they never interacted with anyone outside of their own community.  Mostly because they weren't allowed to do so.

In fact, they were so isolated in Mitchell's Plain that they didn't even realize apartheid existed until a teacher pointed it out when Rodney was in the 8th grade.  Once Rodney's peers were informed about apartheid, they were suitably outraged.

Rodney is one of our favorite people that we met

After District Six was demolished, the plans to convert it into a more affluent neighborhood never fully took root.  This was partly due to successful efforts to stall development by organizations representing the interests of former residents.  A couple of nice churches were allowed to remain, and a few nondescript housing complexes closer to Table Mountain were expanded.  A large technical university for whites only was built in the early 1980's.  Otherwise, the area is a ghost town.

Memories of the past, and hope for the future

The end of the District Six story is yet to be written.  After Mandela became President in the 1990's, many older residents were able to reclaim the land they lost in the late 1960's. For others, it was more difficult.  The boundaries of some land plots overlapped the few buildings that had been built in the district.  Being the first to build in a now desolate area also involves money and risk.  There have been a lot of plans floated over the past 15 years, but not much has happened yet.  There is still hope.


  1. This was quite powerful, Sarah - thank you for sharing this. What an amazing experience for you and John!

  2. Thanks Adrienne! And thanks for all your support for us in doing this work. Hope you are well! We need to catch up!