When caught up in the holiday gaiety of Cape Town’s incredible natural beauty and cosmopolitan urban delights, the city’s dark history is easily forgotten. But like any responsible traveller, you don’t want to be that person – ignorance, however unintentional, is not what you’re about. Which is where a trip to District Six comes in.
Once a lively, multiracial, inner-city district, the devastation of District Six under the Afrikaner regime began in the mid sixties and is still remembered in this area today.
Here you will witness harrowing, personal accounts of how people were treated during the country’s apartheid years, that – although specific to this small inner-city district – will ring true for the majority of non-whites living across South Africa at this time.
The once-vibrant-cultural-centre was declared a whites only area in 1966. Largely made up of a non-white community, around 60,000 of District Six’s residents were given an eviction notice like no other. Having been forcibly removed and displaced to the barren lands of the outer-city realms, the majority of their homes were then bulldozed by 1982 in an attempt to completely destroy their memory. And the segregation didn’t stop there. Once relocated, they were then marginalised further dependant on race, meaning that mixed couples and – in extreme cases – families, were made to live apart.
The end of apartheid, in 1994, saw part of District Six turned into a public museum aiming to tell the stories of its former residents; today, packed to the brim with artefacts, photos and expressive art, District Six is much like a living memorial.
“District Six is a blot which the government has cleaned up and will continue to clear up”, said South Africa’s former Afrikaans Prime Minister, Pieter Willem Botha. Housed inside the former Methodist Mission Church, this museum offers the opportunity to take a walk through history and is deeply moving.
On the floor is a map of district six in its former glory, with all the original street names and some of the family names of those who lived there. Walls are adorned with faded photographs and written accounts, whilst artifacts include the original street signs that marked out the community’s home and the “Europeans Only” benches that were inflicted upon the multi-racial community.
To make the most of this sobering experience, a guided tour is a must. Most of the guides are former District Six residents, each with a story that is is as horrifying as it is fascinating resulting in a truly immersive insight into Cape Town’s history.
Here, in District Six, you will soon discover that South Africa likes to confront the complexities of its history by addressing it head on. Having had no control before, this is a way for District Six’s former residents to claim their history back for themselves.
Discovering South Africa means discovering its past too. Whilst in Cape Town, take the included hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus to the District Six Museum and spend around 40 minutes here.
Nestled between Table Mountain and the Waterfront in central Cape Town’s main city bowl – it became the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.
9am-4pm, Monday to Saturday.
R40 for a self-guided tour or R55 to be led around by a guide (who are often ex-residents, so it’s definitely worth the extra pound).
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