Global Perspectives on Human Language:
|District Six and Apartheid: Politics, History and Memory|
I begin this piece with an important disclaimer: though I write about District Six and the District Six Museum, my knowledge is limited. I was given a small though personal and informative tour of District Six by a former resident, of its few remaining buildings that stand out as if out of defiance, and the open grasslands that betray no sign of a past vibrant life. I have visited the museum twice, both times too short to fully absorb the tragedy and injustice it presents. The following words are only a modest attempt to share my thoughts about the significance of what has happened in District Six.
District Six (D6) lies just outside Cape Town's business center and neighboring harbor. From its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, D6 was ethnically and socio-economically diverse. Spurred by increasing commercial trade at the harbor, the end of slavery (1934) and division of neighboring farmsteads into residential plots (1838), former slaves, immigrants and laborers flocked to the area (D6 Museum). Continuous waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa over the late 1800s and early 1900s maintained the ethnic diversity, even when railroads and tramways helped the rich move out into more homogenous areas of their own (Field, 64). By the end of the century the residents of D6 were mostly working-class from a uniquely diverse array of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.
Over the decades D6 maintained this diversity. By the mid-twentieth century, there were eighteen churches, three mosques and four synagogues (Field, 69) in the same area speaking Yiddish, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Afrikaans and English (McCormick, 45). The decaying buildings, dirty streets and overcrowded housing also found during that time period reflected the community's poverty, however, the need to cooperate across ethnic and linguistic groups for economic survival compelled people toward unity. (McCormick, 49). Although there were tensions among different peoples within the community, D6 exemplified cordial co-existence between people from different countries, religions and languages, and thus presented a counter to apartheid ideology.
With the rise of the Nationalist Party in 1948 and the Native Laws Amendment Acts (1952, 1955) District Six stood out as a community that was inconsistent with the party's ideology of apartheid. In February 1966, P.W. Botha, Minister of Community Development, declared District Six a white suburb, and began the process of removing 60,000 people over the following 15 years. Under the banner of slum clearance, the apartheid regime zealously dislocated families from their neighborhood, and, as if to avoid guilt, sought to erase any evidence of D6 by flattening almost all buildings. Only houses on two streets of the original neighborhood remain today.
Next to Cape Town's center, the land looks oddly sparse, with open grassy areas intersected by vacant streets and peppered by a few buildings. A former resident pointed out what appeared to be a trail path down the middle of the open expanse. Later at the museum I saw that same empty street in a picture juxtaposed with an earlier image of the street filled with buildings and people. The urban trail that pleasantly cuts across the wild grass is a faint reminder of where Richmond street once stood, a river of city life with grimy concrete sidewalks, an endless array of colorful stores, and the home of an entire community. The magnitude of the destruction's injustice is only dwarfed by its totality.
Next to the two pictures in the museum, I found a long stretch of cloth in which former residents write memories and messages to D6 friends and neighbors. I can't help but stand there, in front of all the entries, and read the countless stories of children playing on the streets, of parents buying bread from the local vendor, of people spending time with a neighbor. I'm struck that all remember their long lost addresses and that so many share a desire to return. The destruction of D6 represents an overwhelming discontinuity in the residents' lives. Their memories appear to fall into two periods: those of the warm days with friends in District Six and the traumatic days after their displacement to a "foreign land".
Below the hanging cloth, a room-sized, cloth map of D6 lays on the floor. Black lines represent streets and along those street are the names of the residents who lived there. With each street in the map, with each family accounted for, an entire community is reconstructed from the vacant grasslands that now exist. The museum makes it impossible not to feel overwhelmed, not to comprehend the immensity of a community destroyed.
Terence Fredericks, Chairman of the District Six Museum Foundation, explains the role the museum seeks in post-apartheid South Africa: "When people were forcibly moved out, their buildings were bulldozed and the government was bent on erasing all memory of the area...While the people and the buildings had been cleared, we were determined they did not erase memory" ( www.dulwichcentre.com.au/DistrictSix.htm ). Apartheid South Africa depended on a manipulated history, one that justified the oppression of 90 percent of the population. With every expansion of apartheid's power a history was created to establish legitimacy and marginalize dissent. Thus, District Six was bulldozed "for the good of the residents", to eliminate the social ills in slums, and not for the wishes of a powerful white population, the bearers and benefactors of apartheid's racist and oppressive ideology. The exhibitions at the museum represent an attempt to reclaim the past by engaging the former residents of D6 as well as the rest of South African society. By remembering the past and sharing their memories, the community defies personal dislocation, historical annihilation and the power of apartheid.
The former residents of District Six actively protested and boycotted businesses in order to prevent development in their land. Through a long process they regained the rights to return to their land and in early 2004, 4,000 people were given 'symbolic keys' to their future homes in a new District Six. Simultaneously, the engagement with the apartheid past has helped to transcend that legacy in multiple national domains: its wealth, history and consciousness. Painted on a large pillar in the museum is a poem explaining the intent of D6 residents. The last sentence reads:
We Wish To Remember
So That We Can All
The history and character of District Six represents a bulwark against apartheid-truths as well as the breathtaking callousness of apartheid policies. The utter destruction of a diverse, vibrant community by apartheid promoters and benefactors seems like an all-too accurate microcosm of South African history. The residents' past and present resistance to historical annihilation offers hope and strength to the national effort of overcoming apartheid through remembrance, collaboration and reconciliation. Acknowledging the differences of other cases, the District Six community and museum represent examples that may be emulated by others to transcend the legacies of the past.
Above: a museum display of the street signs that once stood in District Six. After the creation of the museum, a sympathetic bulldozer operator came forward, confessing that he had collected the signs from the rubble.