Forced removals legacy lingers 50 years on

CARL COLLISON

The District Six Museum will be conducting a year-long commemorative programme to mark 50 years since the area was declared for whites only.

The programme will start with the annual walk of remembrance to the site of Hanover Street, on Thursday February 11, the day on which, in 1966, the declaration was made. The walk will be followed by a programme of reflection, storytelling and performances.

Added to this year’s remembrance walk, the museum will also be calling on people to support its drive to have District Six declared a national heritage site.

Expanding on this campaign, Bonita Bennett, the museum’s director, said: “People can voice their support by signing a pledge, which will be circulated from the museum from today. They can also do so online. A national heritage site social media campaign will also be launched on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.”

Ms Bennett added: “The implementation of the policy of forced removals has played an important part in the history of Cape Town, and District Six is but one of these areas so affected. The prominence of the District Six story provides a platform from which to investigate the impact of forced removals nationally, and to explore their ongoing impact on contemporary communities.”

By way of illustrating how, half a century later, the impact of these forced removals is still felt today, Ms Bennett said: “Over the past few months, we have had detailed discussions with former residents of District Six, returnees, youth and others about whether the impact of displacement is still relevant in their lives, even today.

“For many, it was a resounding and obvious ‘yes’, as they were very clear that the way their lives have turned out, one of the key impacting factors has been the apartheid displacement.

“For others, it was a slower and more reflective ‘yes’ as they analytically tried to piece together timelines of their lives, realising that at certain points along that personal historical journey, their life choices were limited by where they had moved to, what they could access from there, and what they had lost and subsequently were excluded from.

“In addition,” she said, “the impact on children born in the apartheid ghettos, racially defined, created a mentality where people began to believe that they were born coloured, African, white, etc as their primary identities, not common humanity being the linking characteristic.

“I can testify to the childhood confusion and disconnect brought about by growing up in a place that you are almost too reluctant to bond with and embrace as home, because the way that your parents and their generation live in these places – home to us – is as if they are passing through on their way back to a place that was their prime example of what home should be.

“Growing up with this disconnect influences that very important phases of identity formation. Some families were able to absorb and mitigate that if the internal family structures had some semblance of coherence, while others could not – resulting in that identity formation being linked to alliance with a gang structure, for example.”

The second part of the commemoration will take place on Saturday February 13, at 11am. This will include a walk down Keisergracht with banners depicting District Six communities as well as other communities affected by forced removals. The programme will end with speeches, performances and music.

The museum will also be refreshing its permanent exhibition, Digging Deeper.

Said Ms Bennett: “We believe this will enhance the experience of museum visitors and will complement the programme of public education, walks of remembrance and other reflective activities planned for the February 2016 period. Film screenings, oral histories, a conference, performances, storytelling events, various acts of memorialisation and intergenerational conversations will also form part of the year-long programme.”

On the need for these intergenerational conversations, Ms Bennett said: “sometimes there are challenges in terms of the youth understanding the significance of the remembrance work being done by the museum” before adding, “but I am sensitive to the fact that young people always seem to be characterised as not knowing about the past, or not caring about the past.

“Certainly, the youth who visit the museum and join our programmes demonstrate a different perspective and remind us that this is not always true. Also, youth do not exist in isolation from the rest of society. As the older generations we need to demonstrate a different way of being and a different way of relating to history and the world in order to engage youth more.”

Ms Bennett added: “The greatest achievements of the museum lie squarely in its future. The power of the site of District Six remains its greatest asset. It continues to speak to many thousands in the city, and the rest of the country, of the demand that we build cities ‘not of races, but of people’ and that this simple demand becomes a component for every vision in every community in the nation.”

* For more information about the District Six Museum’s programme for the year, call 021 466 7200 or visit www.districtsix.co.za