Museum director steps down

Outgoing District Six Museum director, Bonita Bennett.

Bonita Bennett is saying goodbye to the District Six Museum after 11 years as its director.

Before she took on the main role, Ms Bennet, 58, was head of research and archives for five years, a position that allowed her to work closely with former District Six residents and claimants.

She says she joined the District Six Museum because she was drawn to people’s stories.

“The museum gave a narrative around forced removals and how people made sense of their lives,” she said.

Ms Bennett, who lives in Oranjezicht, has a teaching degree and Master’s degree in sociolinguistics.

Her work was not only confined to the museum space in Buitenkant Street, as she was also part of library projects in communities like Crossroads, Hanover Park and Manenberg.

These projects involved teaching the youth about apartheid’s forced removals, as well as about oral history and how to document their community in order to create community stories.

She started the Seven Steps members club, which was made up of former residents of District Six who were responsible for sharing their oral history and contributing towards the archives and who supported the exhibitions by being active participants.

She also ran educational programmes at the museum for visitors and as a former teacher, still continued doing research, and writing.

As director of the museum, Ms Bennett played a big role in trying to get Zonnebloem recognised as District Six during her tenure. Last June she tried to gather public support to rename Zonnebloem to District Six.

In December, Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa gazetted the renaming of Zonnebloem to District Six, giving residents 60 days to object to the proposed name change.

Ms Bennett said her position as director was not without challenges and communicating with various organs of government was not always the easiest job.

She also wanted to have the District Six site graded as a national heritage site during her tenure but said it was a long and complicated procedure.

Ms Bennet’s family had a close connection to District Six. Her parents, William and Helen Bennet, lived in Bruce Street, District Six, before moving to Woodstock.

Her mother Helen is 82 and lives in the CBD and her late father was a musician who played the upright bass for the Willi Starlight Band and Bloemhof Crusaders Band.

“Like so many families, especially the ones that were moved from District Six, you still remained connected to the area, so even my family from Bonteheuwel still came to St Philips Church in Chapel Street after the removals,” she said.

Ms Bennett still wants to keep a strong relationship with the museum.

She would like to form a Friends of the District Six Museum, which can provide support and fund-raising for it.

She wants to take a short break and try to find part-time work specialising in research, writing and teaching. She would also like to complete her PhD in History and Heritage.

Long-time colleague and head of education at the museum, Mandy Sanger, said Ms Bennett’s work ethic and leadership would be missed.

“It is difficult for the staff to accept that she is leaving, because she has been brilliant in that position, she helps us through many difficult times in the museum’s history,” she said.