District Six: when truth speaks, is power listening?

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Tanya Charles

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

It’s a warm summer day. We’re standing in the District Six museum; a memorial to a Cape Town neighbourhood remarkable for its culturally rich, multiracial, working-class community. It’s a memorial, because starting in the 1960s, the apartheid state – covetous of the prime land, and intent on enforcing its policy of racial segregation – forcibly and often violently expelled District Six’s inhabitants, one by one. Ruth, our tour guide, grew up in District Six. She has spent the past 15 minutes telling us what life was like here. She directs our gaze to the floor, where we see a large-scale, hand-drawn map of the area; the local grocery shop was over there; just across the way, there was the tiny house where Kewpie opened her famous hairdressers.

I’m in Cape Town as part of a group of inequality activists from around the world, the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity. We’ve come to learn about the way race and economic injustice are so intertwined in South Africa. The District Six museum is a poignant reminder of how the apartheid regime disrupted the lives of black and coloured people, causing intergenerational trauma and economic instability that is still felt today. The fact that most of the museum’s tour guides are former residents or their descendants makes being in this space feel visceral, immediate and unsettling, as they tell and re-tell stories about this place, its destruction and how it affected their lives. As Ruth continues to speak, recounting the impact of these evictions in a trembling, solemn voice, I can’t help but think, what now?

This question was a thread running through every lecture and discussion we had in our time in Cape Town. Many people who spoke to us were activists drawing on their own painful stories of violence and abuse in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, and how they used these struggles as building blocks for change. Academic Sarah Malotane Henkeman spoke to us about her study Disrupting Denial: Analysing Narratives of Invisible and Visible Violence and Trauma, which captured the narratives of South Africans of all walks of life as they shared their stories of violence. She described the process as “truth-telling from the standpoint of descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people... to heal ourselves and to contribute in small measure to personal and structural healing”.

Dr Henkeman’s words helped me understand something I’d forgotten: that oppressed and marginalised people tell stories and share their pain as part of self-healing. To feel less isolated. To be heard.

The sight of Ruth, standing in the District Six museum as she spoke to us of who and what she had lost, stayed with me. There we were, in a beautiful space full of the artefacts and photographs of a once-vibrant community, listening to a woman in her sixties tell us how, over the course of three decades, the apartheid regime had taken it all away. I felt proud of what the museum represents: a testament to resilience; to a community determined to remain alive through the images, audio recordings, drawings and fabrics curated almost entirely by former residents. Here some healing does happen, I thought. Here we have history remade from the vantage point of the oppressed.

But while Ruth’s storytelling moved me deeply, I also remember becoming uncomfortable at being part of her audience. We were in the midst of a group of tourists: the majority white, some of them listening, but many more focused on taking pictures in what seemed like voyeurism for its own sake. What was the meaning of those camera flashes and clicks, the images snapped as Ruth broke down in tears, recounting for perhaps the hundredth time how her mother had died of a broken heart just one day after being violently evicted from District Six? What was the point in reliving her pain to an audience whose positions on racial justice were unknown? What will they do with these pictures – and her story?

Marginalised groups have long fought to make their invisible pain visible. We do so through protest action, through narrative, in films, in plays, in conversations, in peace talks, and in truth and reconciliation commissions. So why are the same systems of oppression still largely in place? How many more stories and films and images and memorials will we need? How many more #BlackLivesMatter hashtags, and knees bent in sports stadiums, and tearful museum tours as tourists take photos? How many more deaths?

When all is shared and done, what then? At the end of her study, Dr Henkeman concedes that while narrative-telling is profoundly important, we simply don’t know how much it helps dismantle the structures of violence in all their manifestations. As important as it is, it’s only one dimension of the process of demanding accountability.

I remember, a few years ago, when activists for many different causes begun to use that resonant phrase “speaking truth to power”. It was a call to speak, even in the face of dominant forces trying to silence us. Force them to hear! Force them to see! Disrupt! I feel very strongly that our work on inequality needs to embody the philosophy of speaking truth to power because by its very nature, inequality is about a powerful few who remain intent on preserving a system that benefits them so richly, and who are seldom asked to account for the destruction it causes around them.

But it is also important that we move beyond simply telling or showing the powerful our pain. We must speak truth to power such that they not only hear us, but listen. We must accompany our stories with a call to action: that the elites who uphold or benefit from systems of injustice and oppression must be made accountable to the marginalised. We must ensure that the heart-breaking stories told in museums do not remain captive there, and that everyone who enters these sacred spaces to hear them are challenged to help shift the status quo that they are so deeply embedded in.

This is the only way Ruth’s words do not echo into nothingness; the only way her tears will not be shed in vain.


Tanya Charles is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets at @mstanyacharles

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.