District Six

I walk around a lot. I do this as an antidote for sitting, but also because the character of a place lives on the street and not in a museum, at least not usually.

The District Six Museum is an exception. I was walking around District Six, but it’s not the District Six that existed in the early 1960s.

Learning that fact was what led me to look at the apartheid laws. That the entire population of District Six could be forced to move away was astonishing to me, and I wondered how that could be.

The Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in the 1960s was home to about ten percent of the city’s population. The neighborhood was comprised of Eastern Europeans, Malays, Indians, and African immigrants, ex-slaves, artists, musicians, and activists. This dynamic community was near the City Center and much of it had a view of Table Mountain and the harbor.

The mixed race community that had built up offended the then-apartheid government (remember that this is only a few years after the Group Areas Act of 1950,) and so on February 11, 1966, the government declared District 6 a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act.

Beginning in 1968, over 60,000 residents were forcibly removed to the Cape Flats, over 25 km away.

The government simply gave them notice and informed them of their new homes. The government considered the district as “physically and morally tainted by miscegenation” and unfit for rehabilitation. The houses and apartment homes were systematically bulldozed, from 1968 thru the 1980s. By 1982, almost all evidence of the district had been destroyed.

The cynical part of me thought that the location and view of Table Mountain probably had some influence, but surprisingly, the area remained empty. One news article referred to it as a “blighted area.”

Almost as soon as the area was cleared, in 1989, the District Six Museum Foundation was formed. Their goal was to protect the area that was formerly their home, even though it was empty.

The Museum was created in 1994. It provides exhibits and educational programs to tell the stories of the community that was displaced and dispossessed by the forced removals.

I spent a long while in the museum. It’s hard not to be moved by the memories shared by the former residents. It’s not that their individual memories are tragic. It’s that their memories are warm and their neighborhood was a real place with real people who were proud of it. Now it’s gone, and that’s tragic.

There are buildings again in District 6. It is no longer a large, empty piece of land, but it is not the same. Perhaps one day it will be a dynamic community again, but it will not be the result of natural evolution from this community that existed in 1968.

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