Dan and Emma
Our week in Cape Town has been filled with activities, so much so that we barely have time to think about how our time together is drawing to an end. The schedule has included trips to sites like Robben Island, where prisoners such as Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela were held during the apartheid regime, as well as visits with speakers such as Rev. Xola Skosana at the Way of Life Church, ANC freedom fighter and activist Tim Jenkin, and Pastor Alan Storey at the Central Methodist Mission. However, one day that really stood out to us and brought together many of the themes that our group has been exploring since Johannesburg, was Tuesday, which included the “slave route tour” and the visit to the Slave Lodge and the District 6 Museum.
At the Slave Lodge Museum of slavery, our guide and heritage activist Lucy helped us to explore how Cape Town engages with its history. The lodge itself was built in 1679 as a holding space for slaves that were being shipped from locations such as Madagascar and India. In Lucy’s opinion, the history of slavery in Cape Town has not been dealt with appropriately. For example, the spot where slaves used to be auctioned is marked by a faded plaque that is barely noticeable, and the upper floor of the museum inexplicably filled with cutlery and china, pretty antiques that have nothing to do with the slavery narrative. Meanwhile, Afrikaner monuments dot the city as large solid men striking victorious poses. This is what people see as they walk through the streets. Interestingly, in Windhoek, we noticed a similar tension. German and Afrikaner monuments are spread throughout the city, and even the street names retain their German titles. Slowly, the government is making changes, but then, there is a balance that must be struck: Is it more important to improve conditions in hospitals or to build a multi-million dollar museum to commemorate the apartheid era? Looking further back, during our time in Johannesburg, we experienced the contrast between Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument. These costly and competing memorials are another example of the issue of reconciling history. As students we are not sure we can provide answers as to the best way to remember the complex histories of countries like South Africa and Namibia, but this does not mean that the task is impossible. The District Six museum stands as an example of how community members can use their history to empower themselves in the present.
District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867, and although it was originally a mixed community of freed slaves, immigrants, and tradesmen, by the beginning of the twentieth century the process of forced removal had begun. In 1982, 60, 000 people were forced to move to desolate areas called the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were razed by bulldozers. Although the real-estate is desirable, the group “Hands off District 6” managed to put enough pressure on the government and contractors so that the land would remain barren. Today, the message has changed to that of “Hands On District 6.” Former community members have been leading the successful charge to have housing rebuilt for former residents if they so choose to come back.
The District Six Museum was established in December of 1994 with the intention of shedding light on the traumatic forced removals. Yet, in many ways, the museum functions as much as a memorial as an informational center. The space, once a church, prominently features testimonials of residents as well as a portion of a giant cloth on which thousands of memories are scrawled. When one walks in the door a large pole with street signs fixated to it is the first thing in sight, forcing visitors to understand the fact that these places, which once existed, no longer do. Activists like Lucy would probably like to see other aspects of South African history reclaimed in a similar way, in a way that gives strength to people who were once oppressed. Reconciliation is a process that is far from complete, but if government and community members can work to remember history in such a productive way, an important step will be made. Of course, this idea is not only applicable in the Southern African context, and while we students are sad to be ending this experience, we are also looking forward to applying our experiences to improve our respective homes.