JUDITH FEBRUARY: Places of memory and a post-COVID reckoning


“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” - Joan Didion: The White Album

On 11 February 2016 David Kramer’s new musical District Six - Kanala had its opening night at the Fugard Theatre. It was on 11 February 1966 that District Six was declared a “whites only” area as over 60,000 people in the district were left to watch their homes being bulldozed.

The “coloured” families who moved out of the centre of town would be relocated courtesy of the apartheid government to what became known as the Cape Flats; places such as Lavender Hill and Bonteheuwel.

That single act changed Cape Town’s spatial landscape forever. It also changed the fundamental fabric of our city and today District Six remains a powerful symbol of apartheid displacement, with St Mark’s church standing in the midst of a barren space. It stands as a reminder of the failure of post-apartheid South Africa to deal meaningfully with the past and to restore that which has been broken.

Cities are about the people in them and the stories they have to tell. No one tells the stories of Cape Town or South Africa better than Kramer, who produced District 6 - Kanala specifically to mark that 50th anniversary of the forced removals. Together with his late musical partner, Taliep Petersen, Kramer has become synonymous with telling our stories sensitively and with a humour that is uniquely Cape Town and uniquely South African.

Petersen died tragically, his story inter meshed with that of the District and forced removals. The pair’s collaboration began in 1986 when the ground-breaking District 6: The Musical first played at the Baxter Theatre. That musical went on to become a huge success and as petty apartheid starting falling, audiences of all races flocked to listen, enjoy and learn.

We all owe an enormous debt to Kramer and Petersen for creating ways to deal with our collective brokenness through their art. Marking 50 years of forced removals in the Fugard Theatre then was deeply symbolic - the heart of the city was – and still is - seeking a new rhythm.

That was four years ago and its memory makes this past weekend’s plea from the District Six museum in Cape Town difficult to hear. The museum, run by an independent trust and almost entirely funded by philanthropy, put out an urgent plea to all who would listen. The museum is in dire straits because of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. If donations are not received urgently, it may have to close its doors.

The citizens of Cape Town, those who hold elected office and those who have the philanthropic means to donate to keep this museum open, should fight for its survival. Allowing it to close its doors would be akin to a second forced removal for the people whose stories the museum tells and, importantly, those whose stories remain untold.

Its website describes it as follows:

The District Six Museum Foundation was established in 1989 and launched as a museum in 1994 to keep alive the memories of District Six and displaced people everywhere. It came into being as a vehicle for advocating social justice, as a space for reflection and contemplation and as an institution for challenging the distortions and half-truths which propped up the history of Cape Town and South Africa. As an independent space where the forgotten understandings of the past are resuscitated, where different interpretations of that past are facilitated through its collections, exhibitions and education programmes, the Museum is committed to telling the stories of forced removals and assisting in the reconstitution of the community of District Six and Cape Town by drawing on a heritage of non-racialism, non-sexism, anti-class discrimination and the encouragement of debate.

If ever our City needed such an independent space, it would be in a post-pandemic world, reckoning with race, place and inequality. The economic and social wreckage left by the coronavirus pandemic is global.

In a country as unequal as ours, the fall-out is and will continue to be devastating. We see it daily in the number of displaced people roaming the streets, hungry and hollow-eyed and in the shuttered stores, hotels and restaurants. As days and months go by, this will only increase.

And so as with everything, there will need to be a post-COVID reckoning about that which has been irretrievably lost. How layered that reckoning will be depends on how much South Africans are prepared to introspect in our attempts to understand both the economy and society in deeper ways. We cannot recover all that is lost, but we can try to salvage what matters.

In such a deeply divided and scarred society, what matters to us?

Livelihoods matter. Dignity matters. And surely that which brings us together and helps us to understand each other more, should matter now more than ever?

Yet despite the importance of the arts to meaningful living, understanding the past and the present, South Africa continues to neglect these forms of being and ways of seeing. How do we reconstitute theatre, music and storytelling? Sport is another means of rendering our stories, but more obviously able to pick itself up in a post-COVID world.

Where is our commitment to telling the stories of place and displacement, of home and exile, if this crucial part of our city’s fabric is allowed to close? What does it say about all spheres of government and its commitment to the things that truly matter if we cannot save this museum? One cannot help feeling a tinge of anger at the travesty this is when so much is lost to corruption, waste and simply a failure to prioritise what is important.

The museum says donations would be our ‘love letter’ to District Six, our city and our country. It says when District Sixers were handed their eviction notices, in true District Six fashion they renamed these notices ‘Love Letters’. This was a cynical comment on the indifference of the apartheid state, which failed to see the deep ties that bound a community together.

It is time therefore time to reconstitute these ‘love letters’ to our city.

It was Milan Kundera who said:

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Cities have the distinct ability to be agents of real social change. They are places in which to live, love, work, thrive and survive. Great cities are able to accommodate diverse forms of expression by those who live in them through art, music, sport, food, literature and graffiti, to name a few. They have a comfortable relationship with those who dissent and with a past that might be haunting. They are inherently at peace with themselves and resilient in the face of attack and attempts to divide. They stand for something.

In Cape Town, with its fraught history, we need to hold the memory against forgetting and value the spaces which allow us to do so for the present and for generations to come.

Poet Karen Press perhaps puts it more eloquently in Under Construction, one of a series of poems on the urban landscape, and the kinds of questions we should ask about citizens, community and creativity in cities.

Under Construction

test: would Vladimir and Estragon be willing to wait here?
test: would a ball kicked along the road roll backwards?
test: would a bunch of flowers stay alive all the way home?
test: would Charles Baudelaire walk these pavements?
test: how long would a goldfish survive?
test: would Frida Kahlo find enough colours?
test: would the carrots grow straight?
test: would Nawal el Saadawi be able to relax?
test: would a cellist be heard?
test: would Elvis be happy here? Would Fela?

One might now also ask; would we feel truly human in a city without a museum speaking of its not too distant past and working with its memory to ‘rebuild a city which belongs to all of us?'.

‘A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest…’

To learn more about donating to the District Six museum, click here.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february