Day 11 : District Six and the Townships
For the morning's ‘cultural tour’, we have an 8:30 am start. Out of the twenty or so of us on the tour, just nine chose to take this trip. I can only guess as to why the rest of the party have taken this trip but I’m thinking their reasons have more to do with experiencing the opulence that South Africa can offer the few, rather than the challenges that are the experiences of the many.
Our guide for the day is a mixed-race man in his thirties, called Hassan. He and I have spent half an hour chatting before departure. I had struggled against deafness to maintain a conversation with him for much longer than I would normally be willing. I do this because of what he represents to me. I know that through him and because of him, today, I will touch the real South Africa.
The guidebooks do nothing to prepare you for the reality of the experience. The museum is housed in an old chapel building in what was indeed known as District Six. We have driven perhaps fifteen minutes from our hotel and alight from the coach in a quiet and unassuming part of Cape Town. At the entrance of the museum is a plaque. It reads:
All Who Pass By;
Remember with Shame
the many thousands of people
who lived for generations
in District Six and other part of the city,
and were forced by law
to leave their homes
because of the colour of their skins…
Father Forgive Us.
I step inside from the day that is already bright, wholly unprepared for the darkness and light that both await me within.
The museum's ground floor is essentially a single large open space. Its first floor is a mezzanine gallery, where the old church's overspill congregation would have sat, back in the consecrated days. As we step inside the door, I turn first to my right, where a series of revolving boards tell the story of District Six. It is essentially the history of apartheid. The process of removal and marginalisation began in the early twentieth century. But it was in 1966 that the District was designated ‘Whites Only’, by a parliamentary motion sealed with a Prime Minister's pen. By 1982 it had been enshrined by the bulldozer and the identification card into the destruction of the homes of some sixty thousand people. They were removed to the area of Cape Flats, to occupy what subsequently became known as townships.
My group calls me to the front so that I can hear the words of our guide, Noor Ibrahim, who begins my enlightenment as to the nature of the New South Africa. For Noor, an elderly Muslim, explains in simple, quiet tones, a gentle smile held permanently on his face, the story of his life as a resident of District Six: how his home was destroyed, his family forced out of the spaces where they had long since sunk their roots. He points to the floor of the chapel-museum where almost all of the space is devoted to an enormous, colourful map of District Six. The authorities had razed the buildings and erased the roads from the face of the earth, but they were incapable of removing the memories stored in the minds of its people. He points out the location of his former house and I see that many, many others have also written their names in the spaces where their own homes had stood. Noor leads us into a small room, made up as a typical District Six home would have looked before the coming of the bulldozers. It is nothing special – just a couple of beds, a small table and chairs and a cooking area. The shelving is decorated with artistically cut newspaper. These are a people who can see beauty wherever they look.
And now, the spirit of the museum begins to descend upon me, as Noor has seen it do on visitors countless times before. He opens the door of the little mocked-up room to allow us to wander around. I step back into the main museum area and ask him how he deals with the anger he must feel. "There is no anger now," he says quietly, a smile on his face. "I have forgiven, and seek only reconciliation." And that is so clearly the energy of this edifice to a humbling and shameful past. These people have learned something of inestimable importance: that returning hate and anger to hate and anger merely breeds yet more hate and anger. But to return gentleness to hatred, forgiveness to anger and reconciliation to intransigence, conceives love. And when gestated for as long as is needful, love gives birth to growth, and to joy, and to peace. These are the qualities I see on the face of Noor and in every exhibit in the museum as I make my way slowly and reverently round the room. The floor is inscribed with poetry from the age of incarceration. Those who command imprisonment can take away distractions and withhold the music of song, but they cannot silence the eloquence of the spoken word, nor can they disfigure the beauty of cadence and rhyme. This, it seems to me, is why we turn to poetry when all else fails us. I visit the bookshop before I leave the museum. I buy a copy of Noor's life story which he signs for me, together with two books of formerly banned poetry that dates from the days of darkness. As I prepare to leave, I am transfixed by a large plaque by the door, which reads:
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,
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, rebuilt a city which belongs to all of us, in which all of us can live, not as races but as people. Shaking, I step back down into the morning sunlight and make for the coach, in the knowledge that I have stood in the presence of a gatekeeper of God, in the entrance hall of heaven. The words echo through the cavern of my mind: ‘Father, forgive us, for we knew not what they did.’
Climbing back up into the coach, it is clear that the museum has a similar impact on my fellow travellers, for there are tears in many eyes. A quiet contemplative energy has replaced the normal happy-go-lucky holiday atmosphere. Hassan, too, is quiet now, as he takes the microphone. He speaks of his own anger that was: the anger of a man classified as coloured and excluded, alienated for the utterly illogical reason of the tint of his skin. And of course, once you start exploring this corridor of thought, it takes you through doors that simply lead to more questions; questions as to why we segregate and separate ourselves from anyone; why, for the sake of ego, we have to think of ourselves as higher than anyone, or for that matter, lower than anyone. Throughout this journey, I have been reading Wayne Dyer’s book, The Power of Intention. He makes the point that if we once stop thinking of ourselves as our bodies and refer to the energy of intention (for me, the Tao), then, we can let go of all segregation of ourselves from other men and women, acknowledging that we are all one, all the same joined in the Source of the Energy. Hassan doesn't use these terms though. As we make our way out to Cape Flats and the townships, he speaks simply and softly of how he felt on hearing Nelson Mandela's speech when first freed from captivity. How, after twenty-seven years of detention on Robben Island, Mandela was able to talk immediately of forgiveness and reconciliation. As Hassan had listened to him, he had thought to himself, “If that man can talk of forgiveness after twenty-seven years of incarceration at the hands of evil, I too, can forgive the much smaller ills done to me.” As the coach rumbles through Cape Town, I find myself wondering what might have happened in South Africa if Nelson Mandela had been not a forgiving man of reconciliation, but a vindictive man of retribution. I am done now, lost in thought.