“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird, that cannot fly.” – Langston Hughes of District 6.
I chose to write down this quote in particular, amongst the rest that were on display at the District Six Museum, because it was something that stood out and spoke to me. It reminded me specifically of the play we saw, “Kat and the Kings,” a production by David Kramer. This was a story set in the late 1950s of South Africa, which focuses on the life, and dreams of Kat Diamond. Kat believed he was the most talented singer and dancer in all of District Six, and along with his group of mixed-racial friends, he believed could blur the lines of apartheid and become and an acapella sensation. What was most interesting to me about this play was that it was based on true events, and inspired by the memories of real life Kat, Sallie Daniels. Although it was a struggle to make their dream come true, they continued to work hard, harder than most because of their skin color, to break through the lines and perform not only for their friends and family but for clubs that are denoted as “whites only.”
Throughout our trip we are constantly reminded of the struggle that many black South Africans must endure. Although the apartheid is considered over, throughout our journey and the people we have come to speak with it is clear that there is a forever lasting imprint on these people and this country that may never be solved. District Six became a place for people to come together and feel comfortable within their own skin within the surroundings of the 1.5 square kilometer area until that too was taken away.
After the release of slaves in 1838, there were a large number of ‘free blacks’ that needed housing, but who were basically left with nearly nothing. Former slave owners took advantage of this situation to create slums, which consisted of cramped homes without running water or sewage, in which they rented rooms to artisans and laborers. Although District 6 did not have the best conditions or nearly enough room for every one to live comfortably, it was an area that was centrally located near the city of Cape Town, making it a vivacious multi-racial community that enjoyed lively entertainment, as we were able to see through the production of ‘Kat and the Kings.’
“…Hanover Street runs though the heart of District Six, and along it one can feel the pule-beats of society. It is the main artery of the local world of haves and have-nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling, and the idle, the weak and the strong. Its colour is in the bright enamel signs, the neon lights, the shop-fronts, the littered gutters and draped washing…” –Alex La Guma New Age 1956.
On February 11th, 1966 District Six was proclaimed a “whites only” territory, enabling the National party to destroy all buildings, except for religious buildings, under the idea that District 6 was considered a ‘slum,’ therefore the clearance was considered a ‘good’ mass eviction. Over a time period of 10-12 years approximately 60,000 people were removed from District Six itself and were told to move to new townships or the Cape Flats, but still basic amenities necessary for a decent life were nonexistent in these new living conditions. Now the area that once was District Six is empty, except for the churches and mosques which are the only original buildings left.
The class visit to the District Six Museum immediately grabbed my attention from the moment we walked through the door. Surrounding us were not only descriptions of what had happened, but actual artifacts that were collected and brought by former District Six residents to inhabit their new home, which honored that of District Six. Learning about the foundation and development of District Six was interesting to me, but not as surprising as the act of classification amongst the people living in District Six. While I knew people were classified into different groups based on race and color of their skin, I was unaware how these classifications took place. I came to learn that they were not nearly accurate and were primarily done to simply divide and rule. The pencil and the needle test were the primary test in which people were classified. For the pencil test a lead pencil was stuck into the person’s hair and if the pencil fell out of their hair, they were classified as white, but if it stuck, then they were black. The needle test came after in which people were pricked with a needle and how one reacted to the pain therefore classified them as colored or black. It was amazing to me how much effort went into the act of classification just to simply divide and rule.
In recent times the government has made an attempt to re-build District Six and make it into the place it once was, although this process will never fix or resolve the problems this government once forced upon these same people. In this attempt to repay the people of District Six the government is allowing people to make claims about living in District Six, and if they are approved they will then be able to become apart of the re-development, although paradoxically, they are being asked to pay for their new homes they hope the be built on the same land that was once taken away from them.
Although I cannot say that I have been through any type of experience that is nearly close to representing something such as the apartheid or the idea of my home being taken away from me, I was able to feel a connection when I got a chance to speak to Joe Schaffers, a guide of the District Six museum and a former resident of District Six. He explained to me the pride he still held with him from living in District Six and how all the people of District Six will always hold some type of pride from living in such a community. He pointed out all of the artifacts that people brought to the museum that had remained and reminded them of their former home. It was amazing to me the types of things people were able to take at such a hectic time. What stood out to me the most were street signs. A street sign is something that I pass every day on the road as I drive to and from my home. Something that I never think as a representation of myself or my home, but as I learned more about the community of District Six, and looked around at the numerous street signs that hung around the museum I thought twice about the simple things that make each of us who we are and make our individual communities what it is.
I feel that I was able to take a lot from this museum and I hope to be able to learn more about the people that once populated District Six, and hear their individual stories. I know there are attempts being done to make up for the loss these people endured but I wonder if they will ever truly be able to forgive the government and the people that once took everything away from them? I wonder if the former residents of District Six will ever find a place that feels like home again and brings the comfort that District Six once gave to them? All in all, I wonder if people around the world will stop fighting for power, just for the sake of it, and learn to live together in peace.
Twitter: District Six was place of pride and community, until the government came in to not only take the people’s freedom away, but their homes too.