Places to Visit in Cape Town: The District Six Museum

Visiting the District Six Museum

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I first learned about the history of District Six during my final year in High School. The book 'Buckingham Palace - District Six' by Richard Rive was part of our prescribed reading list for that year. (It is still on the syllabus for High School students as I write.)

I started reading the book dreading the potential political spins and resentment one might expect with a work of this kind, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was simply a story of ordinary people living their day-to-day lives in a small part of Cape Town called District Six. The characters in the story were fictional but were loosely based on the authors own experiences in and memories of life in that neighborhood.

The story had me hooked from the first page, and the ending left me in tears. This was when the tragedy of what happened to so many people there finally hit me. It not only reaffirmed the human aspect, but just how many families were affected by the forced removals and demolitions in the area.

Having read the book, I told myself I would eventually visit the museum. I was finally able to do so on the 11th of February this year, 2013. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I met someone very interesting along the way.

I'm writing this hub to share my experiences and to take you along on my journey and not to create or spur on racial conflict or drama. South Africans of all races, ages, and backgrounds look back on what happened here with sadness, so let's remember the occupants of the area and honor them and their memories by experiencing District Six in the one way we're able to.

Join me on this amazing journey and view the pictures and videos to get an idea of what life really was like in this special corner of Cape Town before the sixties.

What Happened in District Six

Apartheid was what brought on changes for the residents of this corner of Cape Town, and when this particular district was declared a white only area, that was where it all started. This happened quite a few years before the first buildings got torn down, so for a few years people of all races still lived in the district as if nothing had really happened.

Many of the former residents believe that it was the Government's way of separating the different races from living in harmony in this particular community. The City's goal was to restructure the area and to create new buildings to clear the reputation the area had as a slum or a 'bad part' of Cape Town. According to outside sources over a thousand new homes were built in the 1930's as part of the restructuring plans, but few residents could afford to rent these buildings due to the high rates.

Once demolishing started, those residents who refused to leave their homes and relocate, were removed by force, and some even stood by to watch the machines demolish the homes they grew up in. Most residents who could not afford alternative housing or purchase homes elsewhere were relocated to the Cape Flats. Approximately 60 thousand people were relocated but provision was lacking and out of these 24 thousand ended up on a waiting list. The flats they were offered were small and the areas lacked the warmth and sense of community they shared in District Six.

Whites Only

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Cultural and Religious Diversity and Harmony

It's important to remember that many of the families in District Six had lived there for generations and that the area held a great deal of memories and sentimental value for its residents. One home would house many family members, and the pictures below show the typical accommodation of a family of six. Sometimes an entire family would live in just one room, but they were happy. The area was a poor one and was considered a slum, but the residents had an incredibly strong sense of community and pride.

All races and religions lived peacefully side by side in District Six. Regardless of whether someone was White, Black, Colored, Asian, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish, they were welcomed as part of the community. One of the excuses for the demolition was that this was a crime ridden area, but according to previous residents, it was safe enough to sleep outside in the evenings. There seemed to be a level of mutual respect that is somewhat missing in our modern society.

A Typical Living Area for a Family of Up to Six People

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Music in District Six

The area had a vibrant music scene as well and what is known as 'langarm' bands today started back then. The museum has a collection of records by artists of the time. Musicians from the area said that residents preferred to hear the hits and well known songs from some of the films from the time and when they wanted to 'jazz it up' they were often told to switch back!

The Cape minstrels or 'Kaapse Klopse' as they are known today, were also popular. They would come together for a carnival on New Year's eve and parade through the streets. These bands most often played Dutch songs but with their own unique and distinctive twist. The Vikings Malay Choir was just one of these bands. District Six may have come and gone, but the New Year carnival is still held yearly.

Langarm Pioneers

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Cape Minstrels at the New Year Carnival in Cape Town

The People of District Six

The area was a poor one, and most of the residents were hawkers, shopkeepers, artisans or laborers. The children often left school early to work to help provide for the family. The pictures below show some of the artisans earning their daily bread. There's also a special display for one of the barber shops that used to be in the area. The barber donated his tools to the museum so what you see in the pictures was what was used in the shop.

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District Six in Pictures and Poems

The photos below are all of District Six residents going about their daily lives. I'll include captions where necessary, but the pictures themselves speak loudly. The soul of the district is palpable when viewing these images and reading the poetry beneath.

I was fortunate enough to speak with an author and former District Six resident while visiting the museum. Scroll down past the gallery to view video clips, pictures and listen to the recorded conversation we had.

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District Six Art

There's a small room at the top of the balcony at the District Six museum. The outside is plastered using stencils to create writing. The inside looks like a bed room where all the walls and items have been plastered over. The recorded conversation I had with Noor Ebrahim describes this room and explains what it was the artist wanted to convey. It is his representation of his room is District Six. The room was very small so I was unable to capture all of the inside on one picture but I took a number of pictures to show the amount of detail that went into the artwork. There are cups and an iron kettle, curtains, a chest of drawers, a plastered-over cupboard, trophees, photos and much more. The attention to detail is simply astounding, and I consider myself privileged to have been able to step inside it and experience it for myself.

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Noor Ebrahim

The Museum has a special corner set aside as a curios shop and this is where I met Noor Ebrahim. He not only mans the counter at the curio corner, but also shares many a riveting tale with visitors from all over the world. Noor was born in District Six and lived there for half his life before the evacuations and demolishing started.

A book entitled 'Noor's Story - My Life in District Six' caught my eye, and he went on to tell me that this is his book and his story. I told him that I had read 'Buckingham Palace - District Six', and he shared with me that he lived on the same street as Richard Rive. The only difference between the two books, is that Noor's story and the various tales between its covers are real and based on real people and events. I knew that this was a book I had to have. Most of the pictures come from Noor's own collection and offer a real and heart warming insight into the day-to-day lives of the District's residents.

The first video below is a recorded conversation we had about some of the exhibitions at the museum and about what life was like in the District. The quality is a little lacking because of the background noise, so my apologies for that. I did all I could to clear up the audio, and felt I had to share it anyway, because being able to hear these things first hand was such an experience.

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Noor's Story

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'White' and 'Black' Benches

The second video is not my own, but shows Noor speaking to another visitor about life in District Six. This particular clip illustrates the wonderful sense of humor and warmth that seems to have been a big part of what made this part of Cape Town (and its residents) so special.

Walking the 'streets' of District Six

This video is by the same creator as the second and shows the map of District Six on the museum floor. Noor takes the time to point out where he was born and where he lived. The picture below shows some of the signs showing street names from District Six.

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Home is where the Heart Is

The Walk of Remembrance 11th Feb 2013

The day I visited the District Six museum also turned out to be the anniversary of the day the District was declared a whites only area. A special walk of remembrance was organized and started at the museum at 11am that morning. I feel that the day I finally got to visit was significant, and that there was a greater meaning behind why I had to find my way there on that specific day. The pictures below show the small boxes that were handed out to visitors on the 11th of February. Each box contains a few pebbles and small pieces of the rubble from the District Six area. This is just a sure sign that times do move on but the story will never be forgotten. They took the people out of District Six, but they will never take District Six out of the people.

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