When the apartheid government swooped on District Six, Cape Town in 1965, forcibly removing its occupants and declaring the area a “whites-only” zone, the rich fabric of an impoverished but vibrant community was torn to shreds.
Over 60 000 people were wrenched from their homes, livelihoods, community centres and societal networks, and relocated to the bleak plains of the Cape Flats, several kilometres away.
District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, both sites of diverse and vibrant subcultures, posed similar threats to the apartheid government, which was intent on enforcing “separate development” for different ethnic groups. Sophiatown was razed to the ground in 1957 to make way for the “white area” of Triomf (meaning “triumph” in Afrikaans).
In an effort to preserve the memories of District Six and create a monument to the thousands of people around the country forcibly relocated under apartheid, the District Six Museum Foundation was established in 1989. In 1994, the District Six Museum came into being.
According to the museum’s website, the museum “came into being as a vehicle for advocating social justice, as a space for reflection and contemplation, and as an institution for challenging the distortions and half-truths which propped up the history of Cape Town and South Africa.
“The Museum is committed to telling the stories of forced removals, and assisting in the reconstitution of the community of District Six and Cape Town by drawing on a heritage of non-racialism, non-sexism, anti-class discrimination and the encouragement of debate.”
The District Six Museum is a heritage project in itself. Part of its mission is to provide the space for former inhabitants of District Six to share and explore their memories and develop new interpretations of both the past and the present. The museum also functions as a forum where debate and policy development is initiated.
The museum houses an impressive collection of historical materials, photographs, paintings, artefacts, physical remains like street signs, books and studies as well as audio-visual recordings of District Six, most which were donated by its former residents.
The museum has several partnerships with other dispossessed communities, both in South Africa and around the world. It is a founder member of the International Coalition of Historical Site Museums of Conscience.
The museum, the Stepping Stones Children’s Centre and Ons Plek, a shelter for girls, are all housed together in a building belonging to the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. The museum is geared for individuals as well as group and school tours, and is open from 9am to 1pm on Mondays and 9am to 4pm from Tuesdays to Saturdays.
There is also a bookshop and coffee shop, and the museum’s Memorial Hall is available for hire for conferences or other gatherings.