Tuesday, 19 January 2016

District 6

Like many people my age, I marched against apartheid. I boycotted Barclays and  I wore my Free Mandela T-shirt.  I was delighted when 2 students in my tutor group, back in about 1980, spent a lunchtime loading a supermarket trolley with South African tinned goods, and dumped it by the checkout, shouting " Boycott South African goods", as they ran out. This occurred after we had been discussing apartheid in a tutor group session.

Steve Biko .....art work within the Langa township

So.....how did I not know about District 6 ?

My recent trip to South Africa has been an incredible experience. I'm sure I will be blogging about cricket, flora and fauna, animals and spectacular scenery in the next few weeks. However, today, I want to record some thoughts and images related to the political background to what I have now, personally witnessed. It has been a humbling experience.

"District 6" was the 6th Municipal district of Cape Town, established in 1867. It was a racially mixed suburb of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. It was a vibrant and close knit community where tolerance and freedom were central. 

Photo from the District 6 Museum, showing the area before it was bulldozed flat.

This became more and more undesirable to the apartheid government, so there was a plan to demolish all the buildings in the area and declare it a whites only district.

This is what District 6 looks like now......flattened, but empty....the planned white suburb never happened.

Between 1966 and 1982, the entire area was bull dozed. More than 60,000 people were forcibly removed, to areas like the Langa and Nyanga townships.

A scene from Langa, one of the Cape Town townships. The irony of the billboard was particularly haunting.

Incredibly enough, once the place was cleared......no one was prepared to move in. What was a vibrant and thriving community remains a patch of derelict wasteland today. The feeling now is that it should remain as such, as a reminder of the forcible removal of all those people. There is now a museum which is documenting what happened and is a place for those people whose homes were destroyed and lives wrecked, to record their thoughts about what happened.

District 6 now.

One of the most haunting museum exhibits I have ever seen is the " namecloth".

It started as a narrow strip of calico, that ex residents of District 6 were invited to write on, recording something of their District 6 memories. Pens were provided, and hundreds of people started writing their thoughts on the sheet. Some women then had the idea of embroidering over the writing, and the namecloth began. It now measures over a kilometre long, and contains thousands of inscriptions.

Since 1999 women inmates from Pollsmoor Prison have been involved, along with other sewing groups, ensuring that the inscriptions are recorded permanently.

"I remember District 6 with fondness.. "

" My very best years was in District 6 "

" A completed piece to my own personal jigsaw of life"

"I would like to come back"
I am still asking myself why I didn't know about all of this ?

Learning about District 6, visiting Langa, and talking to people about the changes, and the slow rate of those changes, since Democracy, has been a very moving and powerful experience. 

The beauty of this country, the animals, the birds, the plants, the scenery....the cricket.....have all been seen with us recognising the dreadful history of what people in this country have been through......and it is not over yet. 

A Langa resident, today.......explaining how she burns the fur from sheeps heads, the cheapest meat she can buy.


  1. I'm humbled to realise that I didn't know anything about this either. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.Looking forward to more posts xx

    1. It was a humbling experience. I went through all sorts of "Oh God, am I just another rich tourist looking at poverty ?" thoughts.... But one of our guides, who took us to Langa was very clear, he wanted tourists to see it all, and maybe understand some of what had happened.....and he wanted tourists to spend money in the township.....which, we did, not quite dealing with the guilt of what a colonial heritage does to a country.

  2. What a moving and thought-provoking post, Janice. Though I did know there were many forcible removals under apartheid, I too don't remember hearing specifically about District 6. What a cruel and wanton destruction of a living community. The namecloth is an unforgettable memorial to it.

    1. Thanks P. The museum was fascinating, and haunting. I loved the namecloth, and spent a considerable time reading some of the inscriptions. I love the idea of embroidering over the written comments.

  3. The namecloth is such a poignant testament to so many people being treated without any respect, and that yellow notice at the beginning of the post makes me feel ashamed.

    1. It does doesnt it.... I had an aunt and uncle who were part of the white regime in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s.....and it complicates my feelings. I remember loving them because they were family......but I think, now, if I had understood more, I would not have liked them very much.

  4. It brings it home to you in away that no article you could read about it does.

    Leo visited South Africa and Rhodesia in the 60s and 70s ...and speaking Flemish was able to understand and be understood in Afrikaans ....a number of the people he met deplored the influence of the Dutch Reform Church on policy formation. Not all Afrikaaners were as vile as their government.

    He also managed to get himself thrown off a Blacks Only bus...

    And I wonder if we will be seeing name cloths for the areas of London being cleared for 'development'. Looks as if we might be marching against apartheid in England....based on wealth instead of colour...

    1. I really thought I know about it all..... I've taught about it, and attended all those marches/rallies etc....and I realise I know hardly anyhting.

  5. I learn more from bloggers' personal experience when travelling than I ever do from newspapers and books. A great post Janice.

  6. What an amazing document that 'name cloth is'; thank you so much for sharing all this on your blog. There are certainly things that have been done by people in charge in so many countries (including my own) that make us cringe when we read about them.

    1. Yes, we are so damned priviledged....and sometimes it is good to be reminded of it.

  7. I am ashamed to admit that while I thought I knew much about apartheid, I did not know about District 6. I feel so very humbled by the namecloth and all it holds of those who remember the district well and a tribute to those who lived and worked in the district, enlightened with their writing, their words, the hands that sewed them. Thank you for this amazing, touching, eye-opening post.

  8. Thats how I felt Penny, humbled and amazed at the power of that simple bolt of calico.