At the District Six Museum, Joe discussed his Apartheid experiences. It’s the closest I’ve come to hearing anyone’s first-hand account of what Apartheid really meant for them. For Joe, it meant that he would be relocated to an area several kilometers away from the place he once called home. It meant that when he returned decades later, home still wouldn’t feel like home.
Joe, born in Cape Town’s District Six, described it as a vibrant community during his childhood, a diverse area in which all creeds, cultures and religions were equally respected. Although his own family was Christian, they would observe moments of silence during Muslim prayer times, as the adhaan, resonating from the local mosques, called Muslims to prayer.
Then, when the National Party was voted into office in 1948 on the platform of apartheid, a series of acts severely limited the freedom of those in this formerly cosmopolitan community. The 1966 Group Areas Act declared District Six a whites-only community. It ushered in a period during which more than 60,000 coloreds and blacks were forced to relocate to areas like the Cape Flats, on the far outskirts of the city.
Racial segregation meant that there were separate benches for blacks and whites. It meant that if a Xhosa man lay in the middle of the street, unconscious, he’d lie there until an ambulance specifically designated for blacks came to his rescue.
In the area Joe relocated to, there weren’t many facilities. Parents continued to work near their former residences, and this meant long commutes to and from work. They arrived only in the late hours of the evening, toting bags of groceries. And well, “idle hands are the Devil’s tools.” So children, unwatched and unattended, became involved in drugs, crime, gangs.
Joe says people were brainwashed. Brainwashed into believing they were different because of their skin color.
I watched as a man, perhaps in his 70s, with long graying hair and a cane in hand, squinted as he peered at the museum’s floor. He seemed to be looking for something. At first, I assumed he must have dropped his pen, a piece of paper, a coin. But a large map of the old District Six is plastered on the floor of the museum, and he remained hunched over it, tracing the streets with the end of his wooden cane. He seemed to be searching, inching his way to intersections. I wondered if he’d once called District Six home. I imagined the kind of life he might once have led in District Six. Had he once lived on Aspeling Street? Or Van de Leur Street? Did he have brothers or sisters? I don’t know. I didn’t ask.
Joe tells me that he’s moved back to District Six since he was forcibly removed. I ask him what it was like, coming home after so many years. He tells me that District Six doesn’t exactly feel like home anymore, that it takes thirty to forty years to foster a sense of community, and that he doesn’t have that much time left. 60,000 people were removed when their homes were burned down, and only about 5,000 have made their way back. Many are reluctant to return because their children have never called District Six home. The people, the houses, the churches and the hangouts that Joe once associated with District Six have all since disappeared. For Joe, home isn’t home.