Museum director aims to re-frame District Six narrative

The recently appointed director of District Six Museum, Siddeeq Railoun.

The recently appointed director of the District Six Museum, Siddeeq Railoun said the museum was an energising space.

“I’m here at 6am in the morning to take it all in. This place feels like home.

“This place has a heart, and it beats from generation to generation. The spirit started with the first displacement in 1958, and while people are here in the museum, the voice you hear is that spirit.”

Siddeeq took over from Bonita Bennett, who stepped down last year after 11 years as the museum’s director.

He lives in Surrey Estate and was born in Woodstock – “Balmoral Road”, he recalls, in the part which is now called University Estate. He was born at the then Peninsula Maternity Hospital, now the District Six Community Healthcare Centre.

Born to a mom who had light skin and classic European features, Siddeeq joked that when he was born, the midwife told his mother: “Look, your baby has a tan”.

During the forced removals under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, Siddeeq and his family were moved to Bonteheuwel.

He said District Six and other forced removals was not just the dispossession of land, but rather the occupation of land by the then white supremacists – and people are still struggling to get their land back. “There is a different narrative that was used to tell our history, and that was a colonialist narrative.”

He said in Bonteheuwel, like other areas of the Cape Flats, people from all over Cape Town with different backgrounds and ways of life were put into one area, and how they all survived was also a narrative untold.

“The whole of the Cape Flats is a refugee area, and nothing has changed, so the space becomes peoples’ way of life – it becomes a community.

“It wasn’t just the occupation of land, with this it became the occupation of culture, tradition, language, spirit and religion. This is how I see the Cape Flats.”

Siddeeq said his family, because they had “economic muscle”, had become one of the first families to move from Bonteheuwel to nearby Vanguard Estate.

His mom, being a community worker, was politically aware, and they were all politically conscious.

He said his mom used to do workshops for people in communities about cooking nutritious foods, and as a teen, he had walked to Langa with his mom, and he remembers being terrified.

“My mom was assumed to be white, so she could walk into communities and was never bothered, but I was scared.

“Growing up, at a pre-school I attended, I remembered the teacher telling us ’If you don’t behave, the milkman will eat you up’.

“The milk man was like the Bogeyman, and it was my fear of mine of having the black man on the bike eat me up. This shows that the disparaging remarks made about black people made us fear them – but that’s not a narrative that came from our community – it was a colonial narrative and our people bought into that. This was not found in District Six. There were all types of people living in District six.”

He said while he was scared of going to Langa with all the “milkmen”, his mom coaxed him out of that fear.

Siddeeq went to high school at Spes Bona, and formed part of the Student Representative Council (SRC), which was active in the struggle against apartheid. The principal at the time was against pupils participating, he said, and they were repressed.

However, a new principal later took over and encouraged pupils to fight against apartheid, so a young Siddeeq found himself attending anti-apartheid meetings and marches, the notorious one being the Trojan Horse Massacre in 1985 when three demonstrators were shot dead by security forces in Athlone.

After school, he worked as a boiler maker in Salt River, until he was encouraged to participate in drama, “because there, we could find healing”. “It was more than acting, it was a self-caring spiritual journey.”

With acting as a part-time hobby, Siddeeq attended Hewat Teacher Training College. There, he also served on the SRC, which took a stand against apartheid.

Siddeeq was a reconnaissance, and said his house was a hot house. “The security police raided our home all the time. We would hide in the roof or under the floorboards.”

Siddeeq then became a teacher, and was part of the first group that formed a union, which would later become South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU). He was also part of the then National Education Crisis Committee, which urged students and teachers to challenge the system of education and to use knowledge and skills to empower students to fight apartheid. After a stint at the Centre for Cognitive Development, an organisation which teaches educators how to teach children, he received an opportunity to go to America.

After three years, he returned to South Africa, because “this is home, and I needed to come home.”

Thereafter, he started a business as a consultant, trainer and advisor in the area of multiculturalism, transformation and anti-racism in the public and private sector.

Almost retired, he applied for the post as director of the museum because his peers told him he was right for the job.

“I didn’t think I knew enough about District Six, but I knew enough about the colonialist narrative.

“District Six is not a political story, it is a story about humanity. However, the narrative does not do justice to the trauma and displacement of the people.”

Siddeeq said the District Six Museum was going through difficulty, not only financially, but with forming relationships with organisations who can help it reach its full potential, adding that the museum is not funded by the government, but by the community.

“My role here is not only to get funding for the space, but also to do the narrative justice with the voice it deserves.”

He said the museum should be the centre of activity within Cape Town. “I want to elevate its role in the re-imagining of the Western Cape and Cape Town. It should be part of service delivery policies, reparation policies, and land occupation policies. We should be part of conversations.”

There also needs to be reconciliation – a peace dialogue, along with reparation and repatriation. This is part of the struggle of the people.

Siddeeq said one of his aims was to use the old Fugard Theatre, which forms part of the District Six Homecoming Centre, to put it on the map as a “struggle theatre”, a theatre where people can tell their stories about their struggles.

“The world is struggling everywhere – gender-based violence is a struggle, the LGBTIQ community faces struggles, and I want to create a space for people to tell their stories of struggling here.

“The narrative of District Six isn’t in isolation to the rest of the world.”

He said one of his aims was to put the museum on the international map. “We want to virtualise the museum and eventually we aim to make it an academic course – much like a case study. We need to ask critical questions about struggles around the world. When you start asking those questions, that’s when the narrative changes.

“We also want to invite people to debate – we want to re-frame the experience and the narrative.

“The museum captures what happened, so now we want to go out and record stories about how people made it work – that is the story of triumph.”

People can help the museum by visiting its Buitekant Street space; volunteering skills and partnering with the museum to host events, supporting it’s fundraising programmes, including the Love Letter and online events.

Follow the museum on Facebook and Instagram, and visit the online store to purchase products.