By Sarah Darby
Noor Ebrahim is one of the founders of the District Six Museum, and is currently the museum’s education officer. Ebrahim and his family were forced to move to an area called Athlone in 1974. Before he left, he took photos of the area. In 1992, he was asked to show his photographs in an exhibition. Several other exhibitions followed, and he eventually opened the District Six Museum in 1994. Ebrahim has met world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Queen Beatrice of the Netherlands, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Obama and more since founding the museum. However, he primarily values his role as an educator at the museum.
What is your personal history?
I’m one of the founders of the museum, and I always tell people that this is a very important museum especially for our children. Our children don’t know anything with what happened, so we have have to tell the story. It’s a very important part of our history. If you look at America’s history of segregation, the same thing happened here. Here we call it apartheid, and, of course, apartheid means separation. That’s what the government did to a place called District Six, but also in all of South Africa.
Millions and millions of people were removed from their homes because of the color of their skin. I’m now 71 years old. I lived through it, and, believe me, apartheid was really really bad. I always say it was crazy, what they did to people. Now, people always ask the question, ‘Why did they target District Six?’ I think one of the reasons why is District Six was a very cosmopolitan area. All kinds of people lived there. We had a lot of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Indians, Hindus, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Africans. One big happy family. That was a problem. The apartheid government, they called themselves the National Party Government at the time, they didn’t like that because we proved to them that it’s possible and it can work.
I’ll never forget, I was about 32 years old on February 11, 1966, on the way to work that morning. When we came into work in the city center, we saw the headlines in the city newspaper,‘District Six declared a white only area.’ This came unexpectedly. People were sad, angry and worried. ‘What’s going to happen to us? Where are we going to? We’re maybe going to be separated from our friends, our neighbors, and even our families?’
But, things kind of cooled down. In 1970, the government sent in the first bulldozer. Then, they started demolishing all our homes. It took them 11 years to do that. Gradually, street by street. Many people died of broken hearts. My father was in his early 60s when he had to leave his home in 1974. I still remember how my father cried. He didn’t want to go because District Six was his home. It was home to 70,000 people. The whole idea of the government was to separate people. Families were also split up.
During apartheid years, we were called colored people by the government. But, in District Six, we never used these terms. People lived there. Why must you say somebody’s white, somebody’s black. We are all human beings. We’re all God’s creations. This is what the government did.
Then they created townships. Colored, Indian and black townships. All our Christians and Muslims had to go to a place called Hanover Park, Mitchells Plain, Manenberg. There’s about 14 different places. Indians and Hindus were sent to an Indian township called Rylands and Cravenby. All the African people were sent to they call them the black townships, Lunga, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.
My friend, we lived in the same street called Caledon Street, was so-called colored. He was married, legally married, to an African woman. They had three children. When they were removed in 1972, they couldn’t live together anymore because she was black and he was colored. The mother had to go to Lunga, which is the first black township in Western Cape. She had to go there with her three children because the children were very dark skinned, so they were also classified as black. The father was sent to Mitchells Plain, and he couldn’t see his own wife. If he wants to see his wife, he had to go to the police station and get himself a permit to go into the black township to see his own wife. He was allowed to see her every three months for two hours only. He didn’t see his children grow up. I tell you, it was crazy what they did to us.
They declared it a white area, but whites never moved in. There were many white South Africans who were against apartheid, so we don’t blame them. It was the government. They are the people that did this to us. What’s going to happen now to District Six is people who used to live here, like myself, we’re also coming back. They’re building houses again. In fact, about 139 families moved back already, but it’s going very slow.
My name is also on the waiting list, and I’m waiting patiently. I really want to come back because this will always be my home. I tell you, this was an absolutely amazing place. First of all, we never looked at the color of your skin. Color, religion, didn’t bother us at all.
I’ve got such a lot of beautiful memories. I think the most beautiful memory for me of District Six, especially for me, you know I’m a Muslim, and I was very proud to be a Muslim. My Jewish friends were proud to be Jews. And so were my Christian, my Indian, my Hindu friends. We were all very proud of our religion. Now, December 25, that is Christmas day, we all celebrated Christmas. Christmas wasn’t for Christians only. I was a Muslim, and I celebrated Christmas. There wasn’t anything wrong. I celebrated the African holiday and Hindu holidays. In District Six, we had two synagogues, and I’m very proud to say, I used to pray with the Jewish community. Nothing wrong. Nothing wrong at all.
We loved each other in District Six. And, of course, when my Christmas comes, they call it Eid. All my friends, Jewish, African, Christian, Hindu, you name it, they would put on, they call this a fez, and they would go with me to my mosque. I think that made District Six such a great place.
What’s important, is they made us stronger. We survived. We survived apartheid. People can’t understand when I say, whatever they did to us, I don’t hate them. I forgive what they did to us. We’re just glad it’s over, and we’re free of apartheid. We still have a very long way to go. It’s not the end yet. No country can change in 21 years, it’s going to take time. But, as I said, there’s lots of things we can do now that we couldn’t do before, and that’s great.
Would you like to move back?
My name is on the waiting list. I don’t know if I’m going to make it. But, if I don’t, I can pass it onto my children and also my grandchildren will benefit, so I’m happy with that.
What has been the legacy of apartheid?
There’s still lots of problems in this country. I just don’t know how much they can change it in 21 years. People are very impatient, but we’ve got major problems in this country. We’ve got a drug problem, and we’ve got a crime problem. But, the biggest problem today in this country is unemployment. People don’t work. Especially if you do drugs, you don’t work. You sit still, you do anything to get money to buy these drugs. The most important thing we must do now is create jobs. We’ve got lots of land in this country. They can build houses, they can build schools and they can also create jobs. That’s a top priority for the government, is to create jobs and then it will go much much better.
How did you come to found the museum?
In 1987, I put an article on District Six in the newspaper. That was, of course, still apartheid years. Then, in 1992, still apartheid years, I had a strange phone call from two of the members of the museum. They phoned me one evening in the beginning of 1992 and they said, ‘We’ve seen your article in the newspapers,’ and they said they wanted to come and talk with me. The next day they came to my home, and then they said ‘We believe you took a lot of photographs,’ and I showed them all my photographs. They couldn’t believe it. I was the only one who had photographs of District Six because I took a lot of photographs of the area. They said to me they want to start an exhibition. I brought all my photos in, then we had an exhibition in 1992 with all my photos on display. We had to close again because it was apartheid years, and we couldn’t stay open. After Mandela became president in 1994, they phoned me back and said, ‘We’re going to have another exhibition.’ I brought all my photographs, and that’s how I started my museum. It was supposed to be a two week exhibition only. In December, we’ve been open 21 years, but I’ve been with them 23 years now. I really enjoy it, and I love every minute of it.
What is your most distinct memory from the time?
The day they demolished my home, I watched them. In 1975, when I was kicked out, that was sad. But, I think my pigeon story is more emotional for me. When I was a little boy, I think 10 or 11, I was very fond of pigeons. Every day when I came from school, I used to go to my next door neighbor. Every day I used to sit in his pigeon loft. He had hundreds of racing pigeons, and every day I used to go and sit in his pigeon loft for hours.
One day he said to me, ‘Noor, you’re still young, very young, but if you turn 17 one day, I will give you 50 racing pigeons.’ I couldn’t wait for the time. I said, ‘Give it to me now.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, you’re still a child.’ Eventually, the day before I turned 17, I got a few things together, and we started building this loft. First we went to all of the Jewish stores, they were very kind people, and we collected wood, free of charge. Then on my birthday, we started building this pigeon loft, myself and my five friends. It took us almost a whole day.
Just before six, I went to my neighbor’s house. He came and saw my pigeon loft, and he gave me all these pigeons. I was so excited, I tell you. That night, I was sitting in that pigeon loft. At two in the morning, I was still there and mother was shouting at me in Afrikaans. ‘Come, you’re food’s getting cold!’ and I will say, ‘I’m not hungry mommy.’
I sat in that pigeon loft until three in the morning. I was real crazy about pigeons. Ten years later, when I was kicked out of the area, I moved to Athlone. I had to build my new loft in Athlone. I used all the same wood, of course. After three months, I said to my wife, ‘I think it’s about time. I’m going to let all my pigeons out, set them free and see if they will come to this new home in Athlone.’
One Sunday morning, during the summer at about seven in the morning, I let them all out and watched them, how they circled in the air. I went back and I said to my wife, ‘I’m going now to Mitchells Plain,’ because all my friends moved to Mitchells Plain. ‘I’m going to spend the day there but I don’t want to give them food now. When I come back, I will give them food.’ So, off I went to Mitchells Plain. When I returned home, just before seven, I went straight to my pigeon loft to feed them. As I climbed up the three step ladder, it was a bit strange. I was a bit worried. There was no sound, because normally you hear the sound that pigeons do, ‘coo coo.’
When I opened my pigeon loft door, not one pigeon came home. I said to my wife, ‘Where are my pigeons?’ She said, ‘No, Noor, they didn’t come home at all.’ That night I couldn’t sleep. I was turning and turning in bed. I just couldn’t sleep just wondering where are my pigeons? I think I slept about one, two hours you know.
On Monday morning, I used to work for the Reader’s Digest, and every morning on my way to work, District Six was in my mind, and I would drive down Caledon Street where my house used to be. That morning, Monday morning, when I stopped my car opposite where my house used to be, it was gone. My house was gone. I stopped my car, and when I got out of my car, guess what? All my pigeons were sitting on the empty lane. This was unbelievable. I tip toed behind them. Slowly, they looked at me to ask, ‘Where is our home?’ That day, I went down on my knees. I really cried.