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The Stories We Tell and the Right to Remember

© District Six Museum

Bonita Bennett on how the museum can be a place of healing and hope, of restitution, celebration, and the re-energising of resilience

About the author: Bonita Bennett is Director of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Bonita’s background is as an educator and anti-apartheid and human rights activist. After teaching at schools in impoverished areas of Cape Town, Bonita gained an MPhil from the University of Cape Town and has a particular research interest in narrative and memory. Bonita spoke at Museum Ideas 2017 in London.

‘It is the storyteller who makes us who we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.’ (1)

Storytelling has frequently been hailed as the panacea for trauma. Processes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa have done much to reinforce the association between storytelling and healing, but often it has not sufficiently taken into account that telling their stories has sometimes had the opposite effect on people as they are required to dig into the deep recesses of their minds, into memories which have been intentionally or subconsciously buried because they are so painful. In addition, there are a number of other components to healing that include economic redress, and storytelling cannot stand apart from the other things that need to happen.

Notwithstanding its limitations, the District Six Museum has been able to tap into the regenerative and community-building aspects of storytelling which has been at its core since it started as a movement in the late 1980s and launched formally as a museum in 1994. Before there was a Museum, there were stories. Stories that fulfilled many functions: they comforted, they asserted the right to remember as well as the right to claim restitution, they educated, they contributed to healing, even disturbed and contested some narratives.

“Storytelling continues to be an important pathway for asserting the right to remember and to reclaim what was lost”

Traditionally, museums are known for their collection of tangible objects and their exhibitions. A museum inspired by absence and loss of homes – such as the District Six Museum is – has made for many interesting experiences of exploring new ground, pulling together strands from the past and forging a pathway towards the future. A commitment to always upholding a people-centric approach has kept us grounded, and kept us focused on asserting that people who have very little by way of material possessions (based on a history of dispossession and exclusion under Apartheid (2) in South Africa) have much to contribute to our understanding of how to build a better humanity. Storytelling continues to be an important pathway for asserting the right to remember and to reclaim what was lost.

District Six is in Cape Town, South Africa, at the southern tip of Africa. It is from here that the largest urban displacement in the Cape took place under Apartheid. Cape Town being a port city and District Six being very close to the port, it became known as a welcoming place to those arriving from all over. It was home to early immigrants coming from Western Europe, to Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms, home to locals working in the harbour, to the freed enslaved people of the Cape who came from Indonesia, Java, Mozambique, indentured labourers from India. Having been a diverse area which by all accounts thrived on the different orientations of its residents – linguistic, religious, cultural – it became one of the targets of the Apartheid government, which needed people to believe that difference was not desirable and could not co-exist. When racial classification laws assigned racialised identities to people in the 1950s and also assigned racially defined areas of residence for each group so classified, District Six was declared a ‘whites only’ area and those not fitting into that category were forcibly removed.

© District Six Museum

Homes and most of the material traces of the community were destroyed including the street grid. Save for a few buildings blotted on the empty landscape, there was no tangible evidence of the community that once lived and flourished there. The land for the most part remained bare and barren and served as a mocking reminder to former residents of the senseless destruction of their homes. The Apartheid government proceeded to build a ‘whites only’ university on a large part of the land and this building has in a concrete way stood as a tangible symbol of pain and exclusion. Echoing the physical erasure, the written history was silent about the quality of life experienced by residents of that community and the subsequent horror of having a coherent community destroyed right before their eyes.

With written records glossing over the removals, new generations were born into racialised communities, tacitly learning and accepting their families had lived in no other place. The District Six Museum became that space for the telling of stories of life that pre-dated the Apartheid experience of racialised living, and that told of diverse and coherent communities such as District Six. In the early days there were stories that inspired the birth of the Museum and supported the case for a return to the land in the new South Africa (3). Current stories retain the continuity with this, but are focused much more strongly on foregrounding meaning for current generations, and on building a robust and engaged citizenry.

“The Museum takes seriously the self-imposed injunction to be a place of healing and hope, of restitution, celebration, and the re-energising of the resilience”

The following are some of the current storytelling initiatives (although much of the storytelling in the Museum still happens organically and is not all programmatised):

• ‘Tell your story to a born free’ (4) is an intergenerational dialogue programme where the elders of District Six are encouraged to take on the role of educator, and to cast light on the past through the telling of their personal stories to a young researcher. This programme has proved to be inspiring for both young and old, and much is learnt by the youth engaged in this way both about the content of people’s lives but also about active listening, engaging sensitively with traumatic memory, and a valuing of the past and its impact on the present.

• ‘Memory Design Labs’ is a collective descriptor used to describe a series of initiatives resulting in public art installations or public memorials at different times. It involves members of the community working with artists, immersing themselves in a series of engagements which include storytelling, site engagements and archival explorations.

• A project called ‘Huis Kombuis’ (5) consists of a number of storytelling workshops focused on the importance of food, cooking and dishes linked to certain community rituals and traditions. It has resulted in a number of tangible products such as recipe cards, a book of stories and recipes, as well as practical textile products.

‘Memory heals, it regenerates. It is an affirming god, a transcendent guide in the ritual of continuity. But when spurned, when repressed, memory mutates into a trickster imp and seduces the wayfarer to the precipice and beyond.’ (6)

The District Six Museum takes seriously the self-imposed injunction to be a place of healing and hope, of restitution, celebration, and the re-energising of the resilience that formed the backbone of the community. We are ever mindful of the dangers resulting from the loss of continuity through memory alluded to in the above quotation. We are all too aware of the dangers to our social coherence which could result from the spurning and repression of memory. As a nation, we have much to lose if we do not nurture our collective memory which is given life through the telling of stories.

Bonita Bennett
Director, District Six Museum

Published September 2017

1. Chinua Achebe, quoted by Biyi Bandele, in the introduction to Things Fall Apart (2001)
2. Apartheid’ was the name given to the system of government in South Africa, which was based on the Nationalist Party’s ideology of racial classification and segregation when it came to power in 1948.
3. South Africans speak of the ‘new South Africa’ when referring to the post-Apartheid period, which was heralded by the country’s first democratic elections on 27 April, 1994.
4. The ‘born-free’ generation in South Africa are those who were born either after 1994, or on the cusp of the transition, and who have no lived experience of legal Apartheid.
5. Loosely translated from Afrikaans as ‘home kitchen’
6. Biyi Bandili in the Introduction to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (2001)


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