Effects of District Six
Reporting from Cape Town, South Africa
12 April, 2013
Coming from a different continent brings a freshly innocent perspective. Curious foreigners read about South Africa, of the ills of apartheid, always being left with a feeling of closure because of the ANC’s success in 1994. When these curious foreigners then come to South Africa, they expect to see recovery. I expected this. At first, this is what I thought I saw, distracted by the loveliness of the beaches, views and diverse night life Cape Town has to offer.
This façade dissolved when I realized who was mainly enjoying these aspects of Cape Town with me: White people. Blacks and Coloureds, instead, try to sell ice cream on the beach or sell drugs on Long Street. Street signs even give way to Afrikaans and English. Where is the Xhosa ‘EXIT’, the Zulu ‘Look both ways’? The new ‘Rainbow Nation’ encourages a more accepting society, but there are clearly many wounds still exposed.
One of these open wounds is the hurt of District Six. After the government declared the area White only, thousands were forced to move to townships. With a force that can move thousands upon thousands from their homes, how could the ghost of apartheid not still aggressively linger in Cape Town?
District Six seems to be slowly forgotten by locals as time wears on and foreigners appear, for the most part, unaware of it, but those who were directly affected by the forcible removals remember it. One of the main commemorations of District Six is Cape Town’s District Six Museum.
Joe Schaffers, a curator there, makes it his mission to tell as many people about District Six as possible so that it will not happen again. His account of District Six illuminates how apartheid still affects people today.
At 28-years-old, Joe Schaffers and all his friends and family were forcibly removed from District Six. Joe moved to the township of Hanover Park, separated from friends and all that was familiar to him.
“When you think you’re safe, and someone breaks in to take it away, you realize you’re not that safe… what represented comfort no longer exists,” says Joe, touching a picture of District Six entitled “42 sites of removal.” One of the remnants of old homes was his.
“Many died of broken hearts,” Joe says, referring to those extricated from their homes in District Six.
Pass Laws created under apartheid removed Blacks and Coloureds from ‘White areas’.
“If you were injured,” Joe gestures toward a White visitor, “and if the ambulance that came to help you was an all Black ambulance, they couldn’t help you. You’d have to wait for a White ambulance. Even if you were at your last breath; too bad.”
Pass Laws are ‘in the past’, but their ramifications are still present today, as especially seen in townships. The gangs we see today, Joe explains, developed according to the relocation’s placement from District Six, organized by race.
“It’s like putting a bunch of rats together in a small space; they’ll start killing each other.”
Joe further explains the reason behind youth unrest and the ‘gangsterism’ it encourages, saying, “If you didn’t listen to your parents, you would were given a hiding!... Moms and dads would leave the house for work and around half past five or six in the morning and would return at six or seven at night! ... This leads to unstable township homes!”
He also discusses the dissolving of education and the decline of health with the relocation.
Joe continues on to say that “barrack-like structures” make up the townships, and because they are “so hastily built and of poor quality,” when people had to settle in, the structures “developed cracks, leaks and dampness, which gave rise to respiratory illnesses such as TB, bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma.”
Today, the museum helps not only to remind the community and visitors of District Six, but to also heal wounds. At the District Six Museum, ex-inhabitants of District Six are encouraged to write their names on the floor map and memory cloths to psychologically reclaim the areas they used to live in.
“Kids blame themselves,” says Joe in regards to children living in the townships,
“and they need to know it’s not their fault. They are constantly being brought down. The need to know that just because they’re born into this, doesn’t mean it’s their fault for being who they are.”
Joe speaks of how the story of District Six is so often lost in the new attitude of comparisons: “It’s all about the ‘I have’ and the ‘I have not’s’.”
As addressed by informative posters in the Museum, Hands of District Six (previously called Friends of District Six) lobbied against any development in District 6.
Mr. Schaffers has dedicated 35 years to working with displaced communities. The City Council recommended him for the Service Excellence award.
When asked how to fix the damage incurred with the evacuations of District Six, Joe smiles and says, “To take things forward by acceptance of each other: unity.”
Curious tourists and I might have initially expected recovery, but the process of healing apartheid’s deep wounds will take the patience of years to come. Unity, as Joe hopes for, is hopefully soon to come.
Women in the World and the Ripple Effect Section, Sasha Martin:
I made my own major, The Nature of Emotion as investigated through literature, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science and other interdisciplinary fields, and am minoring in Creative Writing. I created Unleashed for the general empowerment and knowledge of women and men everywhere, and continue to be involved as editor, designer and writer. I am an editorial and PR intern for City Lights. I happen to love the Unleashed staff quite dearly, as well as readers like you. It's amazing what words can do! Feel free to email me at Unleashed. I hope you enjoy!