District Six Museum
by Travel Writer Sasha Arms
Charting the forced removal of thousands of coloured people from a Cape Town district during the apartheid, the District Six Museum relies on narrative as it's medium, being almost entirely populated by accounts from those it happened to.
The Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town was a thriving community from the 1800s right up until the 1970s. Populated by former slaves, Malay people and other immigrants and their future generations, District Six was widely regarded as a liberal and urbane place in a central Cape Town location.
Nowadays, it’s a different story. There are wide expanses of land that remains building-less and overgrown with weeds and foliage. It stands out like a sore thumb – it’s almost unheard of to see prime land in a city location unused and wasting away.
Have a walk around District Six to witness this for yourself before visiting the District Six Museum, which will help you to fill in the gaps about why the situation is like this.
Inside the District Six Museum
The museum stands in a former Methodist Church on Buitenkant Street – the church was closed down during the apartheid due to its manifest stance against the regime. The museum is small and discrete from the outside; traditional and cosy from the inside. It’s somehow fitting for the quiet dignity the displaced residents of District Six assumed when they became very real victims of the apartheid regime.
The first thing visitors see if the museum’s centre point – a large map on the floor where previous residents have labelled where they used to live by hand. The sheer scale of it becomes very real and apparent – thousands of pen marks indicate thousands more homes that were lost. There’s even a bench at the side of the map for visitors, and previous District Six residents you image, to sit and contemplate the fact.
Accounts of events adorning every wall in the museum describe exactly what happened. In 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act. The government used the idea that different races living in close quarters engenders contention, and made claims that the area was a crime-infested ghetto in order to support the segregation. Black and coloured inhabitants started being removed in 1968 and by the early 1980s, more than 60,000 people had lost their homes. They didn’t only lose their homes. Most were moved to the Cape Flats township 25km out of town, meaning that commuting to their jobs was no longer possible or financially viable for many. Not to mention the fact that communities and the resounding community spirit once enjoyed had been split up.
Back in District Six, homes were bulldozed to the ground en masse, with the idea that redevelopment would take place to build accommodation for the new white residents. Before this could happen, however, the international community stepped in, applying pressure to halt such barbaric treatment of thousands of people. The result was that the redevelopment plans stopped and white people were not moved into District Six as planned. But the displaced residents were not moved back either. The area pretty much became a wasteland.
The District Six Museum was established in 1994 and it’s full of the histories of District Six families and how the Group Areas Act affected their lives. Street signs from the bulldozed district, kept by someone who was consigned to dump them into Table Bay, makes the situation feel very real for visitors, as do the treasured possessions of the displaced families that now feature as museum exhibits. The reconstruction of South African author Nomvuyo Ngcelwane's home – consisting of a single room with a bed, table and kitchen to house her parents, three siblings and herself – suggests a frugal but happy life that is overshadowed by a cloud of imminent destruction. Photographs feature carefree lives before the segregation was announced, then piles of rubble scarring the community after homes were destroyed. Written excerpts illustrate the confusion that festered when rumours suggested that other homes were next on the list. Despair and loneliness is the theme of writings once residents had been relocated far away.
The memorial hall on the ground floor at the back of the museum memorialises one particular street in District Six – Horstley Street. The floor has tiles on it with written accounts and thoughts of previous residents. The Sound Domes on the first floor are also effective – stand on the footprints in front of the mural and listen to accounts of District Six life narrated by former residents.
Stop at the café and tiny shop before you leave – they're both very cosy and run by enthusiastic employees.
The future of District Six
An ex-resident of District Six, Stan Abrahams, sums up his feelings on the District Six displacement today: “We want the Museum to be a place of healing, but we don’t want this to happen again. We dare not forget.”
There have been a number of plans bandied about to give displaced residents their land back all these years later, but visitors can see for themselves when wandering around the area that this obviously hasn’t come into fruition. A few properties were rebuilt on the land and in 2004, Nelson Mandela handed over the keys to some elderly residents who were returned. Unfortunately, the scale of relocating people back nowhere near matches the scale of original displacement, and there are vast stretches of land still completely unused.
A visit to the District Six Museum is an emotional one, particularly as it’s told from the perspective of former residents and the situation hasn’t really been rectified for many. If there’s one museum you visit in Cape Town, it should be the District Six Museum, with its hard-hitting account of the reality of the apartheid and the insight it gives into Cape Town’s people.
Sasha Arms is a freelance writer, editor and web communications strategist. She has travelled extensively, particularly across South Africa, Europe and the Americas and has contributed to a number of notable publications, including the Lonely Planet Bluelist. Read more about Sasha Arms