District Six was known as the soul of Cape Town, and home to nearly 10% of Cape Town’s population. It was a restless melting pot of freed slaves, persecuted Malays, and opportunistic Asians stewing as community artisans, musicians, merchants, immigrants, and laborers in a broth of grit, sweat, determination and talent. The vitality of the district inspired a body of poetry, prose, music and theater infused with swagger.
However, during the 1960’s, a generation of District Six residents lived in fear because of the color of their skin. The Afrikaner-centric government looked to apartheid as a means to squash opposition among the rank and file majority, prompting an official decree to rezone the district as a “whites-only” area, displacing more than 93% of the 60,000 residents.
Government officials offered several reasons in defense of their policy. They regarded the district as a slum; it was crime-ridden and dangerous–overwhelmed by immoral activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. They claimed interracial interaction inside District 6 bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races.
By 1982, the government was relocating the “colored.” They were sent to dusty Cape Flat townships with insufficient infrastructure, while 25 km away, their old homes and businesses were bulldozed, leaving only the houses of worship behind.
Despite government claims, most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor.
By 1991, apartheid was repealed, and on December 10, 1994 the District Six Museum was launched in a historic Methodist Church building at 25A Buitenkant Street.
The museum serves as a remembrance to the events of the apartheid era as well as the culture and history of the area before the removals.
The ground floor is covered by a large street map of District Six, with handwritten notes from former residents indicating where their homes once stood.
Other features of the museum include street signs from the old district,
displays of the histories and lives of District Six families,
and historical explanations of the life of the District and its destruction.
In addition to its function as a museum, it also serves as a memorial to a decimated community, and a meeting place and community center for the residents of Cape Town who identify with its history.
Our tour of Cape Town’s darker side continued with a trip to Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township in Western Cape with a population of over 50,000.
Originally conceived in the 1920’s as a company residence for shipyard workers from surrounding villages, the existing barracks are home to multiple families occupying a two-room unit.
Our tour began optimistically with a walk through the Cultural Centre on the edge of the township that has partnered with local artists to rehabilitate the neighborhood…
and reinforce arts education as a means of promoting self-esteem and securing a successful career path for talented residents through ceramics,
We continued our visit with a guided street walk through the neighborhoods…
Over and over, we asked ourselves, “How can people live this way?”
Realizing that we were a half-hour away from our luxury hotel made us uncomfortable and acutely aware of the abject poverty and abysmal living conditions surrounding us.
Unemployment stands at 40%,
and sanitation is an afterthought.
After negotiating with the house matriarch, our guide ushered us into a dank hovel fit for a family of four families. Several small children were playing on the floor, while adults went about their business of doing laundry,
or relaxing in front of a pirated broadcast on a vintage TV.
It was an awkward moment that may have been intended to shock us or educate us; I’m not sure which. But the people inside were nonplussed by our appearance, as if our intrusion was a routine occurrence.
If only we had been forewarned of this encounter, it would have given us an opportunity to gift them some wholesome food and clean water.
The citizens of Langa and the 2.5 million living in other townships on the edge of Cape Town struggle daily. Even now, as before, they rely on each other to survive, while the government offers little more than lip service in exchange for votes.