By Sarah Darby
Chrischené Julius is the the manager of the Collections, Research and Documentation Department at the District Six Museum and has worked in the museum for 12 years. She was born in the last decade of apartheid in 1981. She remembers not being allowed to go to particular places during apartheid. Today, she feels that discrimination continues in people’s dialect. Julius said she, as well as the young generation, grew up under the rules of segregation. The District Six Museum’s equational programs help educate the younger generation and show them that segregation and racial discrimination is abnormal Julius said.
What is the significance of the District Six Museum?
The museum is the first community-based museum in South Africa, so we started off with a very different orientation than the state museum in apartheid. We had different purposes. It’s about telling people’s stories and their experiences of the Group Areas Act and forced removals in apartheid. We are very much people oriented. I think our significance is that we want to tell stories about ordinary people, about people who really experienced the trauma of apartheid.
Why is District Six important in reflecting on apartheid?
District Six is special because it was a very diverse community. It was a space for immigrants coming to this city and to the country where they were escaping persecution and religious persecution. We have very diverse people who settled here. We have a slave community that was in District Six.
At the time when forced removal happened, District Six was a cosmopolitan place. It had been affected by colonization, by segregation and by apartheid. For us, it represents what South Africa could have been if apartheid succeeded, or if the Group Areas succeeded.
When we talked about the diverse and cosmopolitan community, we’re talking about a sort of nostalgia. In the community, everything was happy. We’re talking about the community that was daily filled, as most communities are, with conflicts, different opinions and different traditions and learning to coexist in that city.
The forced removal from District Six took a long time. It took about 20 years. About 60,000 people were removed. You actually had a moment where the removals couldn’t keep up with the pace at which the new townships were being built.
Townships like Grassy Park, Lavender Hill, Gugulethu, all these were still being built as the first wave of removal took place. For 15 years or so, you could still actually spend most of your life and childhood in District Six. You could actually live in the 70s and the 80s as a teenager and young adult because that area hadn’t been built yet.
The Cape Flats are seen as a space today where we have sort of instance of gangsterism and social problems with the poverty and with its education system. It’s not meeting the needs of people living there. It becomes a space that really becomes a symbol as to what the Group Areas Act actually achieved.
How is apartheid still influencing society?
I think people still hold on to a lot of what apartheid taught them. If you’re just looking through the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, which called for the removal of the statue in the University of Cape Town, people were shackling themselves to the apartheid-year monument in order to protect it as well. I think there are a lot of people who are still racists. That’s it in another day. The apartheid racism is not something that only white people show towards black people. It’s something that’s part of our culture I think.
For example, there are a lot of debates around Zuma’s presidency. People will talk about the fact that he is being accused of corruption. The responses from people becomes, ‘You know, he is a black man. He is corrupt. Therefore, all black people are corrupt.’ That is very much a part of the debate that he is trying to keep his grip on. You want people to have a debate about what ethical leader should lead the country.
There is a lot of hate speech going around. Part of the discussion we have with young people is, ‘Yes, you can’t run away from the discussions today, but you all need to have a discussion about privilege.’ That doesn’t mean that you’re discriminated by somebody in the discussion.
How do young people think about apartheid?
I think it’s always interesting when you start talking about racial classification and how it was actually a system. Apartheid came in 1948 and imposed the system. If you are growing up in a particular township and going to particular schools, it’s almost a given that this is where you come from, this is your racial or your cultural group.
I think what has been really important of the museum educational programs is that young people come from different communities, and they really start talking about who they are in the city and understanding that there is something that is still learned and imposed. They start to question that, and their relationships with each other start changing.
Younger people don’t feel a lot more ownership of certain spaces. I think museum is an important space that they do own. They are coming to the museum, and for them, as an institution, it’s like a public library. They use it, they have programs there and they continue to use it after they come through these educational programs.
I think the impact is really about consciousness raising and getting them to understand who they are in the city. It seems simple, but it’s actually complex because you’ve been told that you can only go to Cape Town once a month. Or you’re going to Cape Town when you can, when you need to get something very particular. We’re trying to say, ‘Well, before, there were a lot of black communities that were living and working in Cape Town.’ We’re trying to rebalance everything.