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January 7, 2009

1

Q’s AFRICA week: 3. The Tragedy of District 6

by quaesitor

We wanted to give the children a sense of what has happened in South Africa. And so after failing to get to Robben Island (because it was booked up until after the New Year), we plumped for the District 6 Museum. And I’m really glad we went there. It had a profound affect on all of us.

Visit the official District 6 Museum website here. But it’s an extraordinary place so, of course, a virtual visit doesn’t convey the power of this building: a converted church in the heart of what was an incredibly rich, vibrant, and above all multi-racial community right in the heart of Cape Town. Consequently, District 6 was anathema to the apartheid ethos of separation, and therefore had to go. Under the infamous 1950 Group Areas Act, the place was razed, cleared and recreated as a whites only area, the job being only completed as recently as 1984. I can remember 1984 well – it’s not that long ago.

This museum is a testimony and a memorial to those who suffered under such irrational and cruel injustice. It is heartbreaking to look up close at the huge floor map of the district, now on the main museum floor. And all over it, former residents have written in by hand where they used to live, where they had their hair cut, where they went to church etc etc (see below).

Amenities for Whites Only...

Particularly powerful is this poem, presented as one of the first things you see on entry. I’ve transcribed it here:

Remember Dimbaza.
Remember Botshabelo/Onverwacht,
South End, East Bank
Sophiatown, Makuleke, Cato Manor.
Remember District Six.
Remember the racism
which took away our homes
and our livelihood
and which sought
to steal away our humanity.
Remember also our will to live,
to hold fast to that
which marks us as human beings:
our generosity, our love of justice
and our care for each other.
Remember Tramway Road,
Modderdam, Simonstown

In remembering we do not want
to recreate District Six
but to work with its memory:
of hurts inflicted and received
of loss, achievements and of shames.
We wish to remember
so that we can all ,
together and by ourselves,
rebuild a city
which belongs to all of us,
in which all of us can live,
not as races but as people.

The lurking question after seeing this is how would we have felt if it had happened to us. I asked one of the children, and he saw the point – “I would have wanted to kill the people who did this”. But this is one of the enduring miracles of South Africa despite all its profound problems and challenges. It did not become a bloodbath of retribution – instead there was magnanimity, as evoked up by the second verse of this poem. As powerful reflection of gospel forgiveness as any from recent history…

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But of course, this sort of thing is not ancient history. It is not even recent history. It is in fact CURRENT AFFAIRS. Look at this image from Zimbabwe and a town called Murambatsvina, near Harare:

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