This past week our class visited the District Six Museum, while in Cape Town. We also got the opportunity to see a musical called District Six Kanala. These experiences along with other sights that we visited throughout our time here in South Africa opened my eyes to the things that were happening to such large numbers of people before and during apartheid and how these people were affected. This museum and play focused specifically on forced removals and the Group Areas Act, which declared District Six a whites-only area on February 11, 1966. Over 60,000 inhabitants of this district were forcibly removed under the law. The District Six Museum mentioned that the area was often considered a health hazard, crime-ridden, and overcrowded. It was said that these conditions of neglect often led to illegal gambling, sex working, and shebeening.
Despite these conditions the residents of District Six felt a profound sense of belonging. While this was demonstrated at the museum, the point was made even clearer through the musical. The play is narrated by a young girl as she tells the story about her grandmother’s life and memories of District Six. I could see all of the fond memories that the grandmother shared with her granddaughter and how strong her friendships were in the community, as well as how difficult it was for the whole community when the District was declared a whites-only area. In the museum, a quote stood out to me that summarized how many seemed to feel about their time in District Six:
“You know it’s only in the District that I feel safe. District Six is like an island in a sea of Apartheid. The whole of District Six is one big Apartheid, so we can’t see it. We only see it when the white man comes and forces it on us, when he makes us see it – when the police come, and the council people and so on – or when we leave the District…. Then we again see apartheid. I know the District is dirty and poor and a slum, as the newspapers always remind us, but it’s our own and we have never put up notices which say ‘Slegs Blankes’ or ‘Whites Only’. They put up the notices. When the white man comes into the District with his notices he is a stranger and when we come out of the District he makes us realise we are strangers. It’s funny but that’s the way I see it” (Rive).
The majority of the people were relocated to the Cape Flats or Mitchell’s Plain. The new townships had poor roads, lighting, and community services. However, the people brought the spirit of District Six with them and continued their customs and traditions. This theme of “Home is Where the Heart Is” prevailed in my eyes throughout this trip; not only in learning about District Six, but in other places we visited as well. Through each township visit, whether it was Langa or Imizamo Yethu, I could see that even though the people had so little, they all made the best of their situations and had bright spirits and smiles that inspired each of us. They had music, art, traditions, and love that filled their households that truly made them home, just as the people of District Six likely did when they were forced to move out of their homes.
Unfortunately, some of the physical and psychological effects of the forced removals were lasting. One of the major physical aspects that was affected by the separations brought on by the apartheid era was health. During apartheid, the health needs of the majority of South Africans were ignored and services for the black populations were extremely under-funded. In the early years, black South African life expectancy was 36-37 years, while it ranged from 65-72 for white South Africans. The group areas act made it impossible for black patients to seek care in white areas, which had far better healthcare facilities (Horwitz, 1). The conditions were very poor for non-whites during apartheid, I recall reading in the apartheid museum about the hospitals and people said that trips to the clinic were avoided as much as possible and an example was given that if someone broke a bone he would be more worried about the visit to the hospital or clinic than about the condition of the broken bone. In 1969 Cosmas Desmond discussed the reality of forced removals and health in his book The Discarded People:
“I have seen the bewilderment of simple rural people when they are told that they must leave their homes where they have lived for generations and go to a strange place. I have heard their cries of helplessness and resignation and their pleas for help. I have seen the sufferings of whole families living in a tent or a tiny tin hut. Of children sick with typhoid, or their bodies emaciated with malnutrition and even dying of plain starvation. The enormity of relocation only hits the traveler when driving through the bantustans. Relocation sites are designed to be out of sight from all national roads… In South Africa removals are part of the way of life of the black majority. Dispossession and exclusion lie at the heart of apartheid” (qtd in Dodson, 31).
This quote really shows how difficult it was for the people to move away from their homes, but also goes into why it was so difficult. They were being moved into unhealthy living conditions, away from their friends, and being forced away from all that is familiar to them.
Reflecting on our group’s research topic of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, these forced removals clearly played a role in diminishing the availability of treatment options for those suffering in townships by pushing them to these outside areas and making it difficult for them to receive proper care largely because doctors and nurses in their areas were not adequately trained or there were too few of them. During this period of time, expenditure for health care was much greater for whites than other races and urban and rural health care had clear differences (Price, 1). The health care system was used as a system to continue to divide the people of South Africa.
Although the apartheid system and the health care system were used together to continue to divide the people, the inhabitants of South Africa had strong spirits that continued to persist through the hardships. This was seen in the past, today, and will likely be seen in the years to come, as the government has work to do in order to unite the nation.