For 25 years the District Six museum in Cape Town has been a gathering place of former residents, and a memorial of what was lost. At the helm of the institution is director Bonita Bennet, who ensures that memories are kept alive and artefacts are tenderly taken care of.
Old suitcases are neatly piled against a pillar; the lid of the top one is enticingly open. Inside are the poignant memories of a District Six woman: a pretty cup, a matching saucer and baking utensils are carefully, reverently placed. It tells a story of a neighbour, mother, daughter.
She must have loved her kitchen. In another case the pride and joy of a man who played a brass trumpet and marched in the iconic Bloemhof Crusaders Christmas band.
Memories Stored In A Suitcase
The suitcases are one of many installations at the District Six museum that director Bonita Bennet oversees. It may seem trivial to some, but the possessions were precious to the owners and their families.
For many they are the only reminders of a place they once called home.
Bennet holds the memories of generations of people, all races, religions and cultures, who lived in District Six and were then summarily removed after the area was declared a whites–only area on 11 February 1966. By the late ‘70s it was a wasteland; decades later it remained so. No white people came in to build their houses.
Bennet says the items were given to the museum, knowing that this is where the memories, associated with their lives in District Six, finds a home.
The Essence of District Six
One Capetonian who has the essence of District Six in his soul is radio presenter and executive member of Camissa Solutions, Clarence Ford.
Bennet and Ford are holders of Cape Town’s memories. They both use their public positions to remind people from where they came. The travesties that led to their hurt, the sweet memories of shops and special places, and having friends from different races.
Bennet and Ford say they hold memories so that people can find themselves, where they come from, to understand their legacies, to grasp it, and to grow from it.
Ford was five in 1972, when he and his family were forcibly removed, shunted off to live in Grassy Park and Parkwood. He has vivid memories of the area that about 66 000 people called home. Bennet, a teacher by profession, has worked at the museum for 15 years. This year, the District Six museum celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“It’s a unique museum. Most museums start with collections; District Six started with objects from a poor community. People had their stories to tell. Their keys, kerbstones with street names on them, memories in shoe boxes. We’ve kept all of that,” she says.
Bennet says the role of a museum like the District Six Museum is to ensure that people and their stories are at the forefront of whatever they do.
“We cannot create a narrative around the displays. The narrative belongs to the people,” Bennet says.
Bennet has made sure that the memories will live on. The archives are a constant source of work. This is a place where oral histories are recorded, as a memory against forgetting. As a way to hear a resident’s voice decades later.
The Museum’s Urgent Work
People have turned to the museum to support their land claims.
“The museum has supported claimants by compiling supporting documents (sometimes by finding former neighbours who could assist with the verification of claims), providing information such as maps, photographs, and documents, and serving as a place of reunion for a symbolically reconstituted community as claimants found one another in the museum space,” Bennet says.
She smiles, thinking fondly of the many people who bring their parents’ and grandparents’ precious belongings.
“People know it has some value; maybe not monetary, but rather to remind others. They know it will be safe at the museum.”
The museum’s work has become even more urgent as those dispossessed, many of them elderly, are dying. One of the saddest aspects of District Six is that there is still no end in sight for the rebuild and rebirth of District Six. While some houses have been built, the majority of former residents are still waiting to return home.
The land lays barren and is still called Zonnebloem. In 2019 Bennet started pushing for the area to once again be called District Six.
While she waits on the authorities, the work continues, archiving, outreaching, fundraising and seeking out the forgotten so that it can be dusted off and its memory returned.
Healing and Memory Through The Museum
Ford lobbies for many causes, and runs campaigns, projects, and events. Healing and memory are at the heart of what Ford does. District Six cannot be forgotten, it must be renewed. District Six forms a part of Cape Town, but it is the very name that should be changed.
With his ability to bring people together, he is lobbying to rename the Cape Town Metro to the Camissa Metro. In much the same way the Pretoria Metro was renamed the Tshwane Metro.
Cape Town was called Camissa by the Khoi people. Camissa means Place of Sweet Water because of the springs that to this day flow from the slopes of Table Mountain. It is this water source that attracted people from far and wide to settle and populate what is now Cape Town.
“Diverse people from east, north and west settled and intermingled to create a Creole identity that today is uniquely and beautifully Cape Town. It is important to celebrate the role of water in our biological and social lives. It is imperative for us to embrace Camissa as the essential building block from where Cape Town and its rich diversity stems,” Ford says.
Ford says restoring names is critical to unlocking the ancient resonance with the land and its significance.
“We cannot forget, because of the pain it caused many people: people who were born in the city and called it home. People who knew no other home. People who were forcibly removed after centuries of residing there. All because of a plan by white supremacists to exclusively reside and trade in the city. This was not about a house, but about being robbed of a home and all the emotions that come with a home,” Ford says.
- Address: District Six Museum, 25A Buitenkant Street
- Costs: General admission is R45 and a guided tour costs R60
- Operating hours: The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 09:00 to 16:00
- Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Words by Lynette Johns