For hundreds of years, the different races rubbed along in Cape Town relatively happily side by side. Founded in 1652, the city was laid out on a grid plan. In 1867, it was divided into 12 Municipal Districts. District Six was one of the most vibrant and colourful in the inner city. It was renowned for mixing up merchants and artisans, freed slaves and labourers, musicians and artists, immigrants and Africans, white, black, Jewish and Cape Malay. It also had some of the city's best nightlife and music.
As the city centre grew sleek and prosperous it wasn't long before the city burghers wanted to remove this loud, proud multi-cultural 'eyesore' from their backyard.
In 1901, seizing on the pretext of an outbreak of plague came the first forced resettlements of black Africans away from Cape Town city centre. The wealthy moved away to garden suburbs and the area slid downhill into poverty. It still retained its life and its strong multi-cultural heritage however. Then came apartheid and the infamous Group Areas Act of 1950 which forbade people of different races to live in the same areas.
In 1966, District Six was declared a white area. The bulldozers moved in and the people were forcibly moved out, dumped, with what they could rescue of their possessions to start their lives again on the Cape Flats. Over 60,000 people were evicted and their houses flattened. Only a few buildings such as churches survived. District Six became a dustbowl.
The Buitenkamp Methodist Mission Church was a wine shop until the Methodists took it over in 1883. Now it has another new lease of life as the District Six Museum, founded in 1994 as a community focus for former district residents. With their help, it has grown up into a powerfully moving museum that tells the story of the district, of the evictions and of the community's hopes for rebuilding the district.
The central hall has a vast hand-painted map of the district signed by many of the former residents who have visited. Many of the street signs were rescued and hang on the walls. Other displays recreate homes and shops while sound booths give personal accounts of life in the District and there are plenty of wonderful photos. An excellent shop has copies of books and CDS inspired by the area. It is possible to do a guided tour if you phone in advance.
In February 2010, the church hall (built 1860) of the now vanished Congregational Church in Buitenkant Street reopened its doors as the Fugard Theatre. South African playwright Athol Fugard has always written about the most challenging aspects of his country and the theatre is designed to act as a centerpiece for a new city cultural zone to breath life back into District Six.
Part of District Six is now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but much of the land was simply abandoned and a Trust was set up to help people fight their land claims. Some people have managed to reclaim their land and some houses have been rebuilt, and there are hopes that the rest of the 800 claims will reach settlement sometime relatively soon.
Museum Address: 25a Buitenkant Street,
Cape Town, 8000
Tel: +27 (0)21 466 7200
Opening hours: Mon 9am-2pm, Tues-Sat
9am-4pm (last admission 30 mins earlier); Sundays by appointment.
Theatre address: cnr Harrington St and Caledon St, District 6
Tel: +27 (0)21 461 4554