Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun

The past few weeks have brought an array of different experiences, emotions and adventures. Our program director Bill left, and the group welcomed Bob, our director for the latter portion of our stay. We met Denis Goldberg, Desmond Tutu and Tony Ehrenreich. Brandon and I helped orchestrate a Constitutional Literacy Camp for Cape Town’s youth. We’ve been horseback riding, great white shark diving, ridden elephants and walked with lions. And we’re all realizing, I think, that we’re in the final stretch of our time here in Cape Town, and with that realization comes a certain level of anxiety. So I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness that is this blog post.

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Last weekend, Brandon, Ella and I were driving through Hout Bay, a beautiful port town that enjoys both mountain and beach views. Our taxi driver was a white British man who had spent the last ten years living in Hout Bay, and described to us the demographics and landscape of the area. He was pleasant to talk to, and I was excited to learn; so at first I was grateful for his presence. Pointing to the cardboard and tin shacks of an informal settlement, he designated this section of Hout Bay as where Africans (meaning blacks) lived. Across the way by the mountains was the coloured area. And then there were the white homes in the heart of Hout Bay, where he lived. The frankness with which he described this racial separation was chilling. The justification he offered was disgusting. Coloureds, blacks and whites, according to him, preferred their separation because it meant they could keep their communities with their unique traditions and cultures in tact. It also hindered violence, and kept the ‘spirit’ and ‘charm’ of Hout Bay alive.

IMG_2876Hold up, what?

There, in our cab ride to go beach horseback riding, I received probably my best lesson on the pervasive and inescapable legacy of apartheid. Our driver, I perceived, did not consider himself a racist. And that to me was the saddest part. Here was a man that wasn’t even from Cape Town… who was friendly and helpful and whose company I honestly enjoyed. Yet that same man was propagating and justifying the very same ideals we vilify the apartheid system for creating.

I was reminded of this experience the other day when Brandon and I were working at a Constitutional Camp that District Six was hosting. Twenty-five kids from schools in Cape Town and its surrounding townships came to dissect and learn about constitutional laws dealing with land restitution and dispossession. There, we had ample opportunities to gauge the perspectives and experiences of Capetonian youth who were more than eager to share their political and social views. One in particular, I think, gives voice to what is happening (sadly) in Cape Town today: “I don’t know why we discriminate against black people nowadays even though they gave us what we have. We have to thank so many of them”. That voice belonged to sixteen year old Zainab who, when asked to reflect upon her impressions of a ‘Reversing the Legacy’ exhibit we attended, ended up identifying that, in many ways, the legacy of apartheid has yet to be reversed. Later that afternoon, our group visited Robben Island where we learned more about just how much black people did for South Africa. A day later, President Obama also visited the ex-prison and wrote that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island”. Juxtapose Zainab’s statement to Obama’s and you’ll find yourself unbelievably frustrated. Because the extent of the coloured population’s racism (coupled with the fact that the racial designation of ‘coloured’ is an apartheid-construction) is just that… frustrating. And heartbreaking.

Reading this blog over, I realize that the tone is a bit downtrodden, which is not a fair representation of my experiences on this trip. The general rule of thumb, I’ve found, is that for every tough or sobering encounter I have, two glorious ones follow. Meet Revina. The coffee shop attendant at the District Six Museum, Revina is a resident of the primarily black township Langa. I don’t normally like to exploit people’s stories to achieve emotional or dramatic appeal, but I think Revina’s story is too important to ignore. Revina is the mother to five or six children (I’m sorry I can’t remember which). Her eldest son died in a shelter in Langa that lit on fire. She cares for his surviving daughter. Her other sons left home. She provides the only income for the family as her husband is a pensioner. Yet, it is for the sake of her two ‘baby girls’ (her sixteen year old daughter and her granddaughter) that she works so hard and remains so positive. Last week, Revina asked me, her ‘tall lady’, for help. Her daughter hopes to attend American university and Revina wanted me to talk to her. The next morning, we met and I found a sharp, curious and realistic peer in front of me, questioning financial aid, asking what standardized scores were and what she needed to be doing as a second year high school student. Completely unprepared, I did a sub-par job attempting to explain the conundrum that is the college application process – a process throughout which I had supportive parents, two guidance counselors and countless teachers to help. Revina’s daughter doesn’t have Internet. But she promised to e-mail me once school resumes, and I have a feeling she’ll follow through.

The point I’m trying to make is elementary, but I’ll say it anyway. Cape Town may still be plagued by the legacy of apartheid, which is completely understandable but nonetheless upsetting. But it is also bolstered by an engaged and politically aware youth who spend their winter breaks at constitutional literacy camps and come to their parents’ work to discuss college opportunities with a nameless American student. That’s inspiring and uplifting. With Madiba in the hospital, things in Cape Town are a bit on edge. But as the floor map at the District Six Museum reads:

“Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun”

– Kerri

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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.