Saturday 27th January, 2001
Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa
Writer : 
Brady Gilchrist

Apartheid is gone but it effects will echo in retrospection forever. There are so many reasons why it evolved so many links to the issues of colonialism and the imposition of values and economic systems. I won’t even attempt to express any opinion on it from a political perspective, that is the job of scholars and historians. I will share my own impression as a person.

I’ve talked briefly about District Six in journals before but today James and I had a very powerful experience at the District Six Museum and then a walk through the fields that once held a community. District Six was created as a suburb of Cape Town for lower income earners and lies just west of the downtown area.

What was this place called District Six? In many ways it had been idealized as a community of tolerance, Whites, Blacks, Coloureds, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and many other people of unique ethnic backgrounds living together in a community. In many ways District Six was the antitheses of what South African communities were all about.

The museum bombards you with images and displays of struggle and oppressive policy. It is appropriately located in church, a church whose congregation was made up mainly of those who lived in the district. You are greeted by a beautiful building with a wooden interior. All along the walls are images and placards describing life in South Africa, and the diversity of District Six.

passbook-md37PP0563.jpg (97985 bytes)Control and oppression are difficult concepts but imagine for a moment how your life would be if you were forced by a law enacted in 1952 to carry around a pass card. This card controlled where you could go. Imagine what it would be like to have your movements completely restricted, imagine what it would be like to live in fear that at anytime you could be accosted by authorities and your pass demanded. Imagine that the punishment for not having that card could be prison or relocation. Imagine a world where Blacks, Coloureds and Whites had different busses, washrooms and beaches. Can you imagine a movie poster that says “Not suitable for children under the age of 12 and natives”. Can you accept a reality where colour of your skin could allow others to impose legal authority over you that would in many ways dictate the outcome of your life. Imagine a world where regardless of colour, your access to art, music and literature was controlled by “authority”. That was Apartheid. Apartheid put racism into law.

Apartheid should be condemned but there is a much bigger lesson which we may be missing. How many “Apartheid-like" circumstances happen even today in other parts of the world. Racism and prejudice, while they may not be written into law, still exist. People are denied freedoms, mobility and opportunities because of race, religion, socio-economic status and education. As a very small planet we can learn from South Africa’s past and the lesson we can take is to forever beware of ourselves and own tendencies to exclude with prejudice or prejudgement.

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Richmond Street District Six
Photo Cloete Breytenbach
Copyright Ethnic Art
Used by kind permission of the District Six Museum.

District Six hits you hard because of the stories. A community with respect, an urban development within easy reach of your job. A community that integrates schools, markets, light industry, entertainment, religion and a wide range of people with many different occupations and backgrounds. It sounds like the dream of every urban planner today. But life in District Six was hard, poverty was high and people lived in very close quarters. At its peak this 104 hector bit of land had 3,700 buildings and over 70,000 people living there. It was viewed by many as a slum.

During the past few days we have been running into people who lived as children in District six. What they have to say is all the same. It was a place where you could leave your door open, it was a place where people knew each other, it was a place where at meal-times you made more than was needed because your neighbours and friends might drop in, people shared.

Was it a slum? Perhaps to outsiders, but to those who lived there it was home, and from everyone we talked with, a home people respected.

The area was declared a Whites Only Area in 1966 and people were told to get out. By 1979 the government moved in and forced people to the Cape Flats into conditions which were much less habitable than District Six. The sense of community which had been there for generations was bulldozed into oblivion.

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A solitary mosque remains.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

It is now a wasteland. Table mountain looms up behind and the ocean can be seen down the hill. You stand in a field of dry, tan coloured grass up to you knees with the red African earth underneath. You see the rubble of buildings everywhere hidden beneath the grass. The outlines of the old streets long forgotten and eroded wind there way across the expanse. Off to our left are small squatter huts with a few residents milling about. I pick up a small piece of what looks like concrete, roll it around in my fingers, and wonder about the building it came from ... more importantly the people who passed within its walls. I hope they found what they lost. I close my eyes and see the giant map on the floor of the museum that was District Six and all the names written on the streets by people who once lived there. I struggle to hear the music and the voices but hear only the wind.

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The neighbourhood map in the District Six Museum.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

There is an inscription in the museum;

“It struck me that our history is contained in the homes we live in, that we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defined”
 Kafka’s Curse

If we spent less time pointing fingers and more time staring in the mirror trying to understand our human faults, the world might be a better place. It is up to each one of us to make this global village a place of peace, respect and representative of what we as a species are truly capable of.

Fair winds, calm seas and tonight for moment appreciate all you have, it matters.


Two Oceans Aquarium -
Team Adventure -
The Race -