Last week my daughter and I were at the opening night of David Kramer’s new play, Langarm, at the Fugard Theatre in District Six and she bumped into a couple she met at the art gallery where she had worked.
The woman said that they were going to see Pieter-Dirk Uys’s show but she was worried because the last time she went to see Uys, it was in Namibia and the show was in Afrikaans, so she did not understand a word. However, she argued, it was highly unlikely that he would do the same in Cape Town and at a Jewish-owned theatre.
But the Fugard is not Jewish-owned. It is owned by the District Six Museum, who has their Homecoming Centre next door. The Museum owns the whole of what used to be known as the Sacks Futeran building.
Last Saturday, my wife and I attended the 24th birthday celebrations of the District Six Museum at the Homecoming Centre, featuring a group of young ballroom dancers, most of them from places such as Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats. I realised then that, while David Kramer’s play might be called Langarm, what these youngsters were doing was the real langarm that we grew up with on the Cape Flats.
I have always had a lot of respect for Kramer but felt, after watching his play, that he might have missed the mark this time. Yes, the play is entertaining and deserves to be seen by many, but maybe the focus was too much on the story of a couple – one black and one white – who decided to dance together despite apartheid.
Yes, we lived under apartheid, but we did not always allow apartheid to dictate how we lived. Sometimes, we just lived, without even thinking about apartheid or politics.
This was the case of many of the langarm dancers of the time. The annual langarm dance in the local civic centre was an opportunity for us to forget about the Struggle and just enjoy ourselves.
But I also realised that the District Six Museum probably has the same kind of relationship with the Fugard that the young ballroom dancers would have with Kramer’s play. They are doing amazing work but it gets overshadowed by something that is more luminous. This is why some people think that the Fugard is the landlord and the museum is the tenant.
But while the Fugard has the higher profile, the work done by the District Museum has helped to focus on an important part of our history in South Africa.
The forced removals of entire communities under apartheid was despicable and the District Six Museum helps to keep that dirty part of our history under the spotlight.
While the birthday party was last Saturday, the museum’s birthday was on Monday, December 10, the same day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948, ironically the year apartheid was introduced in South Africa.
Bonita Bennet, the director of the museum, posted on Facebook this week a quote by former trustee of the museum, Ciraj Rassool from the book, Recalling Community: “The District Six Museum opened its doors in the old church of the Central Methodist Mission at 25A Buitenkant Street on 10 December 1994.
“The exhibition with which it opened as a museum was called ‘Streets: Retracing District Six’. Described as an ‘archaeology of memory’, the museum was a culmination of years of planning, dreaming and imagining on the part of the District Six Museum Foundation.”
The Foundation was one of a range of organisations, institutions and cultural projects which had emerged between the 1970s and 1990s to preserve the memory of District Six, the area of inner-city Cape Town at the foot of the mountain, which had seen the forced removal of 60 000 people from the heart of the city.
“’Streets’ was due to be open for only a couple of weeks. However, since that day in December 1994 when ex-District Sixer and then Minister of Justice Dullah Omar opened the exhibition, the District Six Museum was not able to close its doors.”
Next year the District Six Museum celebrates a quarter of a century. I hope that it will finally get the respect it deserves for the important work it does.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 December 2018)