District 6 – Government Destruction of a Community
Before visiting South Africa, I had never heard of District 6 nor known its importance in apartheid. When many people on the ship stressed the importance of visiting the District 6 museum, I knew I had to go to learn what it means. The simple way to describe what happened at District 6 is government sponsored forced removal of peaceful neighborhoods made up of people of color. In other words, the government destroyed neighborhoods and segregated all non-white races in order to try to eliminate their cultures and social structures. It didn’t just happen in District 6, but to over 40 communities around Cape Town and many, many more around South Africa.
The District 6 Museum is in a converted church which was left over from the destruction of the neighborhood. Religious sites like a few churches, a temple, and a mosque, were the only buildings left over, so it is fitting for this museum to be in an original church. While the museum is not large, it does have quite a bit of information to take in. When entering, one can pay 40 Rand (about $3) for a self-guided tour, or one can pay 55 Rand (about $4.50) for a tour guided by someone who was living in District 6 at the time of removals. Our guide was Mr. Brown (I didn’t catch his first name), who is half Malaysian and half Scottish. With his Malay features and darker skin tone, one would never guess he was half European. I mention this because it is relevant in how he was treated during Apartheid; if he had had lighter skin, he would’ve had more rights.
Mr. Brown lived in the heart of District 6. He described District 6 as being a peaceful mix of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. There were Indians, Persians, blacks, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and more. He described it to be a place where everyone respected the differences of others. They weren’t afraid of each other nor did they have any large conflicts due to religion or race. He described it to be this vibrant place, where neighbors helped each other out, people mingled in the streets, and where there was this positive energy with the mix of people living there. Even after Apartheid began in 1948, District 6 was thriving. In the 1960s, the government created a plan to remove the inhabitants of District 6 and over 40 other communities, and the people in these communities were forced to move to designated areas, usually further from cities and segregated by race. You can think of these designated areas as being similar to Native American reservations; government designated land that says you can’t live where you used to but you must move there. For most of those being moved in Cape Town, they were moved to the Cape Flats, miles away in the flatlands outside of Cape Town.
When they were moved, they lost their communities that had been established over the years. Whereas they used lived in a community of beautiful homes with character, they now lived in standard plain homes that all looked the same. They had new neighbors after having the same neighbors for years and years. The church choir was split up to the point where they couldn’t perform any more. Those who played soccer could no longer play with those who they’ve played with their entire lives. Those who worked in Cape Town now had extended commutes. Whereas they used to walk to their jobs in fifteen minutes, they now had an hour and a half commute from their homes to the city and also had to pay bus fare to and from.
With all this, you can probably imagine the destruction of a close-knit community. It’s not just that they lost their homes, but they lost their way of living within the communities. They had to start from scratch to rebuild their communities and their lives, which were so intertwined with those in their immediate neighborhood.
It was very interesting to hear Mr. Brown’s stories and viewpoints. He loved his life in District 6, and he did not hide his disgust for towards the government and what they did to him and his community. He showed us maps and pictures of what District 6 used to look like. He showed us his house on the map and talked about his neighbors. He compared pictures of what District 6 looked like before the removal to what it looks like now. This vibrant community with colorful buildings and people is now largely grass with poorly maintained walkways. The government says that they are working on bringing people back to their community, but it seems like they are taking their sweet time in doing so. It can be difficult for someone to prove they lived in a place, and the government has promised to build new homes in this area, though they say the funding isn’t there to do so.
This is certainly a horrifying story of the South African government deliberately trying to destroy the lives of people of color. Sadly, this peaceful community with its unique culture was uprooted by the government and forced into segregated areas, which has caused Cape Town to still be one of the most segregated cities in the world. Hopefully, those who were impacted so negatively are paid back for the hardship the government has caused to them and their entire family trees.