Why the District Six Museum should be on your Cape Town Itinerary

I’ll admit it, before I started research for our week in Cape Town, I didn’t know very much about the history of apartheid in South Africa. I knew we had to visit Robben Island where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held before apartheid was brought to an end. But I didn’t know about District Six and what happened to the people of this neighborhood in the middle of the city of Cape Town. In this post, I’ll tell you what you need to know about the history of District Six, tips for visiting the District Six Museum, as well as some other things you can do to learn more about apartheid during your trip.

District Six Museum

What happened in District Six?

After WWII, as apartheid was beginning, District Six was a lively neighborhood, and while most of its residents were designated as colored or black (two of the 4 distinct racial groups that people of South Africa were classified into during apartheid), there were others from all different backgrounds. Though it was a poorer crowded neighborhood, it was vibrant and full of culture. In 1966, District Six was declared a whites-only area—though whites made up only one percent of the population. The government gave a few official reasons: the necessity of separating different races and that District Six was a slum and not fit to be lived in. However most of the residents believed the real reason was because of District Six’s desirable location – its proximity to downtown Cape Town and to the harbor.

Over the next two decades, tens of thousands of people were relocated from District Six to townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. Almost all of the buildings were bulldozed, leaving a mostly empty space. The government had ambitious plans for building on the land that didn’t materialize, and most of the area was left undeveloped through the end of apartheid in 1994. Since the fall of apartheid, the government has established a process for former residents to reclaim their land and return to District Six, though only a small percentage have been able to do so.

The District Six Museum

The District Six Museum was established to remember what happened in District Six during apartheid, as well as the history of the area before the residents were forced out. The museum is located in a building that was once the Methodist Church – the only buildings that weren’t destroyed were places of worship. On the outside of the building is a plaque reminding passersby to remember all of the people, in District Six and elsewhere in the country, that were forced to leave their homes because of their race.

To enter the museum, you must pay the entrance fee of 45 ZAR (or about $3 USD). The museum is designed so that you can go through it on your own, but you can also choose to do a guided tour with a former District Six resident for 60 ZAR, which includes your entrance and the tour.

Original street signs from District Six

The main part of the museum is an open vibrant space, that looks like it was once the sanctuary of the church, with the walls on both the ground floor and the balcony above full of displays depicting everyday life in the district. The stories of former District Six residents are brought to life through photos, quotes and even artifacts, such as the former street signs hanging from the ceiling. There are also rooms created to look like the living rooms and bedrooms of former residents and even a hairdresser’s salon.

In addition to the large main room, there is a small coffee shop towards the back of the building. Even if you’re not ready for a cup of coffee, it’s worth it to take a peek back there to see the Writers’ Floor in the Memorial Hall, a mosaic floor that was a collaboration of artists and writers.

The Writers’ Floor

Our visit to the District Six Museum took about 1 hour.

How to plan the District Six Museum into your day

In addition to visiting the District Six Museum, we wanted to learn more about the history of apartheid in general, so we planned our morning accordingly:

We started off with a walking tour, put on by Cape Town Free Walking Tours. They have 3 different free tours; we selected the “Apartheid to Freedom Tour” which started in the city center at Motherland Coffee Company. The 1.5 hour tour took us by many significant places in the history of apartheid, including the High Court Civil Annex, where people once had to go to be classified by their race and the segregated “whites only” and “non-whites only” benches are still outside. We also passed by District Six and the building where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from Robben Island. Our tour guide was excellent and the tour finished only a 5-10 minute walk from the District Six Museum.

The “Apartheid to Freedom Tour” begins every day at 11:00 and 2:00, beginning at Motherland Coffee Company in the city center. You don’t need to sign up beforehand, you can just show up and look for the green umbrella. Remember that while it’s called a free walking tour, the tour guides are working for tips so be sure to have some cash on hand.

From the tour, we headed back to the District Six Museum, as we had only passed by it on the tour. Following our visit to the museum, we were ready to get something to eat. Right around the corner from the museum was Truth Coffee, a coffee shop with a “steam punk” interior that had been recommended by a friend. We got pastries and coffees – I had the Silky Rez, a delicious cold coffee drink and the apple tart.

Another popular option near the District Six Museum is Charly’s Bakery. Unfortunately it’s closed on Mondays which is when we were there so we didn’t get to try it but our tour guide said that Charly’s has the best chocolate cake in Cape Town. Plus Charly’s has been featured on the documentary/reality series “Charly’s Cake Angels.”

Advice on visiting District Six

While the District Six Museum’s website says that visitors can walk through the vacant site of District Six on their own, our walking tour guide advised us against walking around in District Six. He recommended not going past the District Six Museum on Buitenkant Street and Charly’s Bakery on Canterbury Street. Use your own discretion if you want to visit and consider booking a guided visit with a former resident offered by the museum.

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