The story of Apartheid in South Africa is nothing new to me, however the story of District Six was a whole new ballgame. The fact that I knew very little made the District Six Museum even more meaningful. Here’s what I learned: In February 1966, it was declared that District Six (the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town) would be a whites-only area. In total, more than 66,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes and communities. And, at the same time, their houses and other community buildings were flattened by bulldozers as the government attempted to rebuild a “clean” community that did not involve people of color. What struck me most about District Six, was that in that other well-known situations of racial discrimination, the “unwanted” people were forced into a relocation center—the Jews were forced into ghettos and concentration camps, the Native Americans and African Slaves (in the case of the States) were forced into reservations and work plantations. In my years of history classes and research, this is the first instance I can think of where the discriminated group was forced out of a district, rather than into one.
Before the declaration of District Six as a “White Group Area” it was a multi-cultural, vibrant community—there were people of all ages, backgrounds, classes, races, and nationalities living together in a big melting pot. Yes, there were still hardships—small living quarters, poverty, etc.—but they were all existing and living together. Then, during the period of Apartheid, someone decided that the mixing of cultures and races was unclean and dangerous. They decided that the only way to fix this “problem” was to force out all the colored people so that only whites remain. Then they began to bulldoze the land—this remodel included starting from the ground up, as well as building new streets so that it was a completely different, unrecognizable area.
When I walked into the museum, the first thing that caught my eye was the big map of District Six on the floor. This map was a layout of the district, including all the street names, and had been signed by former residents in the places where they had lived before being removed. On the edges of this map, there were poems—poems of hope, poems of sorrow, poems dedicated to the mothers who had lost their sons in the violence, poems declaring that the pain and tragedy would not last. There were two poems in particular that resonated within me, both written by Peter E. Clarke:
The situation is so bad
That when we meet
In the dark street
Each other up
With cautious, questioning eyes.”
We live in a time of storm
But this weather
will not last
This tide will turn”
I can’t quite put my finger on what drew me to these two poems in particular, but I think that they both make powerful statements about District Six. Questioning Eyes tells the story of a time where there was harmony and peace between cultures, but it has gotten to the point where anyone could be the enemy. A community that once was thriving on its intercultural relationships had now become a place where anyone could be the victim, and anyone could be the attacker—people are turning on one another because a ‘higher authority’ created an air of superiority. On the other hand, Poem offers up words of hope. It gives hope that the storm would not last, the idea that they would be able to make it through. It gives the reader the strength to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to trust that equality will one day be restored. Two poems, beautifully written, from the same place of discrimination and sorrow.
Walking through this museum—this space dedicated to the memory of District Six and to the destruction that happened there—I had so many thoughts running through my head. I will never ever be able to understand what it’s like to be forced out of your home. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of racial discrimination happening today, both back home in the States and all around the world, but I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, at predominantly white schools. I’m Hispanic, but I’m also German—and I’m lucky enough that the color of my skin doesn’t make me the target of any discrimination. However in District Six, this could have been an entirely different story. During our guided tour, the tour guide showed us examples of pass books. He pointed out how there were two people whose skin color looked basically identical however one was classified as white, and one was classified as colored. This struck me: there was no process, no systematic approach to one’s ethnicity, it was just based off the color of your skin and the person who was making that judgment. In grade school we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover—but that’s exactly what was happening in District Six. If you looked colored, then you were labeled “colored”, if you looked white then you were labeled “white”. But sometimes even if you looked white, you were labeled “colored”. That’s it. Someone made a decision about who you were and there was no way to escape that label, regardless of your actual ethnicity.
When you make these decisions—when you choose to completely tear down a community, to reform and rebuild it—you make the decision to completely destroy a part history. There are so many homes and business that were lost. So much cultural engagement that is now absent to those of us in Cape Town today. Yes, we have museums and pictures and stories that have been passed down, but it’s not the same as being able to walk through those neighborhoods and to see with our own eyes.
I think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to decide that we are too good to live in a multicultural community, to decide that we are too good to mix with other cultures. I like to think of myself as having a very welcoming, accepting view of cultures that are different than my own. I’m an Intercultural Studies major because I think that our differences are what make us beautiful and I want to learn as much as I can about the cultures that make us unique. And I sometimes find myself assuming that everyone thinks this way. I find myself thinking that it ought to be common sense to love someone regardless of the color of their skin. But in those moments, I realize that this is, very unfortunately, not the way everyone thinks.
Back in the States, we have a presidential candidate who does not realize the pain and destruction that comes from distancing yourself from other cultures. He thinks that America is weakened and is “losing” because we let in immigrants and people of other ethnicities. He thinks that he can “make America great again” by kicking certain races out. But what he doesn’t realize is that when we embrace one another, and we embrace the rainbow of diversity that we each represent, we allow for a merging of cultures that benefits all sides. I’m not saying these things to throw shade, or to turn this into a big political argument, because that’s not the point. I’m saying it because I’m an optimist: I want to think that one day everyone will realize the joy and beauty that comes from multicultural communities. We should not be afraid of who we are, or where are ancestors come from. We should not fear each other, we should embrace each other. And I pray that this museum continues to serve as a reminder of the hurt and destruction that comes from trying to “clean” ourselves of intercultural relationships.