You Can’t Paint A Rainbow on a Monster

I work at the District Six Museum. Like all museums, the District Six Museum works with history. However, there are few ways that make the District Six Museum unlike any museum I’ve encountered on this trip and even at home.

At District Six, the focus is on the people—not the great men that are commemorated in most South African museums (you’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit about Mandela, Biko, or Chris Hani in the D6 halls). Rather, the museum highlights the stories of the everyday people that lived in the multiracial District Six community, owned their homes, and were forcibly removed as a result of Apartheid era laws. Lining the walls of the café and café hallways are posters on which still-living, removed District Six residents have handwritten their stories, wistful memories of waking up in their homes, in a vibrant community between the sea and Table Mountain. Recollections of traditional foods, such as sweet pastry koeksisters and coffee, curried bobotie and snoek fish, can be found on these posters as well, accompanied by hand drawn decorations created by the women themselves. Such is the history that the District Six Museum deals with: the quotidian experience told by those who may not have created anti-Apatheid political dissidence, but experienced the horrors of the Apartheid regime nonetheless.

Tour guides at District Six are not young men and women who have extensively researched or studied the Apartheid era, they are older, ex-residents of District Six who were forcibly removed from their homes and their communities. Take Noor Ebrahim, a 70 year old ex-resident whose story constitutes a large exhibit in the main display room at District Six. Everyday, Noor tells his story to groups of yearning museum visitors and learners, showing photographs of his old home, family, and friends, pinpointing the location of his house on the massive floor map (which displays the streets and street names of District Six before it was bulldozed and reformatted by the Apartheid government), and giving listeners an authentic glimpse into what life was like for himself and his family growing up in District Six before being evicted to the Cape Flats for being a non-white citizen. Being able to converse with and question Noor about his time is the closest thing to experiential learning that one can receive at a Museum. Many of the museums we have visited hire spectacular tour guides, who possess formidable knowledge about the effects of the Apartheid decrees that dispossessed and disenfranchised the non-white majority population of various communities and regions. That sort of knowledge is important, but the District Six Museum is far more attuned to grappling with tales and memories that come directly from the source.

I mentioned earlier that there were posters of ‘ordinary’ women and their stories in one section of the museum. These women are actually part of a workshop group that the museum runs every Tuesday from 9 am to 1 pm called Huis Kombuis (Afrikaans for Home Kitchen). The ex-resident women of Huis Kombuis trek from various outskirts of Cape Town (to which they were removed over 40 years ago) to their hometown of District Six to collaborate and create art pieces and sundries that reflect the residential lifestyle of the pre-bulldozed District Six. Beautiful pillows, featuring traditional blue and white floral designs, crafted with paint and candle wax, are sowed together by the women. Using old photo albums, they create collages of themselves in the city, imposing pictures of their families over photos of their old homes, over panoramas of District Six streets and buildings that were bulldozed and can no longer be found. These creations will eventually be displayed, yet that is not the purpose of Huis Kombuis. Rather, the museum runs the workshop and museum staff such as Tina, who is the head of collections, give their time and effort toward facilitating the workshop so that they may revitalize the these women’s memories, giving them a space where they may be recollected, cherished and shared. These ‘ordinary’ women may not have been a part of the direct struggle against Apartheid; they were not critical cogs of the dissident response that eventually disabled it either. Yet in hearing their personal stories and struggles it becomes clear that these women are extraordinary, everyday heroes. Patience Watlington grew up on Church St. in the pre-bulldozed District Six, in a multiracial environment where her colored skin was never seen as an impediment for her dream to work in the medical field. When her family was removed from District Six to the wastelands of Bloemhof Flats and her home bulldozed, her prospects seemingly disappeared. Yet the proximity to the city center that she lost in being removed didn’t stop her from becoming a midwife/nurse at the Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—though the journey was an arduous one she faced it everyday, dealing with aggressive, racist passbook officers and an unwelcoming new, all white population in order to work out her dreams. In hearing the stories of women like Patience, Joyce Jonathan, Marion Sheppard, and other participants in Huis Kombuis, I now understand a bit more about what makes the District Six Museum experience so unique. Memories, and oral histories in general, don’t possess the same historical accuracy that has come to be respected in academic settings and texts. Memories can wither; they can be reconstructed and transformed. Yet therein lies their beauty and power, the sort that one encounters when reading a novel or fairy tale; these qualities are so often lost in textbook history, which turns the past into a story of the haves and the have-nots in order to highlight power dynamics. At District Six, the process is just as important as the outcome: though Huis Kombuis is a product development workshop and the creations will be sold as merchandise for the museum or be used as features in the exhibit space, the magic happens during the workshop, where laughter and recollections run free—this is an experience that Kerri and I are so fortunate to be a part of.

Though District Six is a museum that works closely with older ex-residents who have directly experienced Apartheid the museum also actively reaches out the younger generation, the ‘freeborns’ who are growing up in the first era of a democratic South Africa. Last weekend Kerri and I worked alongside law students from the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University (who work with an organization that focuses on legal education for the youth, CLASI) to organize a ConCamp weekend for students from various high schools around Cape Town. The 3 day long workshop focused on teaching the students constitutional literacy, stressing the importance of the youth in matters of social justice and reversing the legacy of Apartheid. At the end of the weekend, the students competed in moot courts, debating over cases of land dispossession created by the law students. As an American student, it was an enriching experience: I had the opportunity to watch these young students enter the camp, relatively unaware of the complex issues they would be faced with, and see their transformation as they grappled with problems that highlighted the intricate relationship between identity, land, power, laws, and geography. 16 year old Zainab, a fair skinned ‘colored’ girl told me that she couldn’t understand how people designated as colored discriminated against black Africans despite the fact that both groups were considered inferior during Apartheid and so many black Africans were responsible for its eventual dismantling. This reflection came after we had visited an interactive Apartheid exhibit at the Cape Town International Convention Center on Friday, where actors played roles that existed during Apartheid. Walking in, we were confronted by aggressive passbook officers, who questioned us with racist undertones. I encountered a white woman, sitting on a bench that was marked “Slegs Blankes” (Whites Only), who yelled at me, threatened to call the police, and invited Kerri to sit with her on the bench. Though the experience was quite jarring (to the point of being questionable), the effect was quite profound. Zainab was brought to tears by the passbook officer, but through the anguish she encountered at the exhibit came a increased willingness to confront the sorts of issues related to the social ripples created during the Apartheid Era that still affect everyday life in South Africa today. As a poet who accompanied the museum staff and a large group of ex-residents on a remembrance walk throughout the bulldozed, undeveloped areas of District Six said in reference to dealing with the vestiges of Apartheid, “You can’t paint a rainbow on a monster”. Seeing the young students begin to understand why reversing the legacy of Apartheid was a task that would fall largely upon their shoulders was an extremely gratifying experience.

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I only have three weeks left on my trip but I’m still excited for the coming projects that we will be tackling at District Six. I can’t thank DukeEngage enough for giving me the opportunity to engage with living history in such a dynamic way. And I can’t thank District Six enough for opening their doors to Kerri and I and allowing us to take part in such varied projects and assignments that have not only deepened my understanding of South African history, but also broadened my mental framework in regard to global sociocultural issues. When I return, I will bring these experiences home with me and apply them to my own life, community engagement, and academic pursuit.

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