I was very impressed with South African museums in general before I started my internship at the District Six Museum. In Johannesburg, we visited the Liliesleaf Farm, Constitution Hill, and the Apartheid museum, all of which had touched me with their narratives of the horrific injustices of the apartheid system. The District Six Museum in Cape Town was no exception. It tells the heartbreaking story of the 60,000 District Six residents who were forcibly removed from their homes during the apartheid regime. Under the Group Areas Act, coloreds, blacks and whites were not allowed to live together in harmony like they did in District Six. The very existence of this neighborhood defied the government’s perverse ideology, which led to the destruction of thousands of these houses in the name of apartheid.
I must confess it took me a while to understand the great significance of the museum, and understand what role I would play. Whenever I have gotten involved in a civic engagement project I question not only the impact of my work, but of the institution that I work for. And so, I began to ask myself: why should we dedicate a space to remember only one of the thousands of atrocities that took place during the apartheid era when there are others that are probably more poignant? What am I, as a Public Policy major, doing here? How does this relate to my interest in economic inequality and development issues?
I guess I only started to realize how important this place was as I discovered that the museum goes beyond storytelling and offers a space for the discussion of human rights issues and social justice in general. Last week, for example, we worked with South African law students in a constitutional literacy program to teach high school students about the rights they are entitled to. The museum’s education department works hard on making sure today’s youth remembers and embraces the museum’s moral imperative of “never again.”
When I visited the District Six Museum for the first time, I was surprised by the sense of authenticity and intimacy that I felt in this space. I was clearly not in front of a pretentious museum production. On the contrary, our museum does not have the fancy large TV screens or the special lighting effects that well-funded museums usually do, but it has an important story to tell, one that is still very relevant to today’s South Africa. In a country where inequality is so pervasive, social justice issues are constantly on the radar. Just two years ago the entire world witnessed again the brutality of the South African police forces when 47 miners were murdered in a strike for a wage increase, an event that became known as the Marikana massacre. More places like the District Six Museum are necessary in South Africa to raise awareness of the dangers of social injustice and human rights violations.
Unlike any other museum I had visited, the District Six museum offers visitors the opportunity to interact with former residents of this colorful neighborhood, like Noor Ebrahim, who claims to have had the biggest family in District Six, with 300 cousins. He is one of the founding members of the museum, and as he writes in his book, this museum has not only given him a reason to live, but also hope for the future of South Africa, where the story of District Six can now be told without fear of retaliation. Noor has given me two tours of the museum and both of them have transported me back to the time when District Six was a vibrant community and neighbors would go to the bioscope on the corner of Clifton and Hanover streets for an afternoon of fun or to the time when the New Year’s Eve carnival celebration would fill Hanover Street with Malay choirs. His nostalgia of the glory days brings District Six back to life and puts a face and place to the injustices of the apartheid system.
I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work for a cause that I would have never expected to feel so identified with. Working for the museum has really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as for the questions that I was asking myself when I began my internship, I honestly don’t have an answer. I have no clue as to how this directly relates to my interest in economic development, but it does not have to when I am learning so much about the importance of keeping these events relevant. We need the youth of today to remember what happened in District Six and about the other atrocities of the apartheid regime so that they can uphold the the moral imperative of “never again.”