Although small in size, this museum has claimed fame in and outside of South Africa. That comes mainly from the story behing the museum: District Six was a very cosmopolitan area with immigrants from many places around the world. This was so in the late 19th century and continued well into the first half of the 20th. Close to the docks and surely not free of conflicts among the different groups, it was nevertheless a nice place to live. This changed when Apartheid policy was enforced more strictly and District Six delcared a Slum. In the “Group Areas Act” of 1966, District Six was declared a “Whites Only” area, so that the fate of District Six was sealed: Most of the buildings were demolished, the residents were forced to live in an assigned area according to their skin colour. By 1982, almost all houses have been demolished with only a couple of the former buildings still standing, mostly churches. District Six was renamed Zonnebloem (Sunflower), a name which is far from reality. It wasn’t until 1994, when the Apartheid regime fell, that the claims of the former inhabitants were taken seriously. Mots of them have been relocated to the Cape Flats, 25 kms away from District Six. A reconstruction program was started in the following years and in 2002, the first two new houses were handed over to former Distric Six inhabitants. The Museum gives you an insight about how District Six once was and what happened in the tragic years between 1966 and 1994. It was first intended as an archive and meeting place for the former inhabitants only, but it is open now for visitors too. If you only visit a single museum in Cape Town, let it be this one!
This museum goes into depth and detail into explaining the history before and during apartheid in a neighborhood called District 6. The guides told me the current government is trying to rebuild this area and restore the homes to those who used to live there. It has been a very slow process though. There is a lot of reading here so expect to spend a few hours.
The District Six Museum has a very personal and touching exhibition about the lifes and stories of the former inhabitants of District Six. District Six was a Cape Town neighbourhood which was declared a "white area" in 1966 and people were ordered to move to townships on the Cape flats. The eviction plans were meet with harsh resistence and the area was finally flatened after many years.
Nowadays new houses are being build and returned to the former inhabitants.
A great deal of Cape Town's cultural history is dominated by its white, European colonial developments and its subsequent replacement by a white-dominated state. While that history is certainly fascinating, it is inevitably set against a bacdrop of institutionalised racism that eventually became the apartheid regime of 20th Century South Africa. Visiting a township gives a strong feel for current difficulties and challenges, but you would need to have a very good understanding of the last 200 years of South African history to create a meaningful context for that visit. The District Six Museum in Cape Town provides that context, in a chilling and emotional setting.
District Six lies immediately to the east of the city centre, and was formerly a tightly packed network of streets, home to a strong multi-racial community. Around the turn of the 19th Century, these lower slopes of Devil's Peak were planted with vineyards, but were replaced over the years by small-holdings owned by both white and coloured people. From the 1820s, landlords let, sub-let and sub-sub-let ever decreasing areas for shacks, houses, shops, churches and hostels to an ever-growing urban population. The proximity to the city centre and dockyard jobs meant that this was popular location for manual labourers especially. It officially became part of the Cape Town municipality in 1867, known as Kanaladorp ["kanala" being a slave word meaning "help" but also having connotations of "self-help"], and like London's East End and SoHo in New York, became the first residence of many immigrants. These new arrivals came from all over the world - Portuguese, English, African, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Malay and there was a religious mix from Orthodox Jews to strict Muslims and bible-thumping Christians. It was the classic melting pot.
The District Six Museum was just one of the many initiatives to have flowed from this resentment and demand for justice for the community, and what started as a temporary exhibit on 10th December 1994 has turned into one of the most striking educational and cultural heritage facilities in the world.
The museum is a tribute to the people of District Six - not just those who are alive today but to everyone who lived there. In many ways, it is a tribute to all South Africans - of whatever colour or ethnic background - and a real commemoration of the way reconciliation and justice are put at the forefront of the new South Africa. It trumpets themes of peace, learning and harmony in a way that many Holocaust Museums try to do, but at Diistrict Six, they manage to encompass the whole of humanity without even seeming to try. This is a community museum that simply is, in my humble opinion, the very best in the world. It is a place that includes everyone, including whoever walks through the door, and says "You are one of us. It could be you who was living in District Six, and maybe it could be you living here sometime in the future."
The District Six Museum deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For those wanting more information about the District Six situation today - as opposed to information about the museum - visit the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust website.
You can experience life in District Six online through following an online walk with a former resident of the area.
The population of District Six had been around 3000 in 1840, and grew relentlessly over the years - every arriving ship left a family, wide-eyed and anxious, on the wharfside with their bags. Wave after wave of immigrants passed into and out of District Six. As with all municipalities around the world, its working class ghetto was a place to be endured, and the city refused to provide appropriate infrastructure for the area. Typhoid and cholera outbreaks took their toll, and when finally moved to act, the city fathers chose to evict people rather than improve the conditions. Despite everything (or maybe because of everything), District Six developed a robust, tight-knit community spirit.
Then in 1953, the Slums Act gave the authorities wide-reaching powers to expropriate property, and given the multitude of apartheid laws passed between 1949 and 1953, the people were powerless to prevent eviction. The beginning of the end for District Six came with the declaration of the lower parts of District Six as a 'white only' area and between 1964 and 1969, 18,000 residents were simply thrown out, or forced to move to distant suburbs. District Six, in its entirety, was formally declared a 'white only' area on the 11th February 1966, and in 1968 the demolitions began, with a rand plan to level District Six and extinguish the spirit of the area. Simmering resentment at the removals brought people together even more, and each and every demolition was challenged and resisted.
The District 6 Museum tells the story of how during the Apartheid years thriving black inner city neighborhoods were tore down and the residents relocated to the townships.