Residents celebrate colourful heritage

Ex-District Six resident and political prisoner on Robben Island, Lionel Davis, with Tina Smith, exhibitions manager at District Six.

“It is difficult to celebrate in a time when people are feeling threatened. It is a difficult time for the people of South Africa with all the murders, violence and protests, and people feeling excluded. But these things overshadow the positives in our communities, and Heritage Day is not about forgetting these things, but how to celebrate the good things.”

These were the words of Bonita Bennett, the operations manager of the District Six Museum, as former residents of District Six came together for a Heritage Day walk on Saturday September 23.

People who once lived in District Six came dressed up in colourful clothing and painted their faces in line with the theme, masquerade inspired by ex-District Six resident and ex-Robben Island prisoner Lionel Davis’s latest art series.

The series was influenced by his strong connection to slave ancestry, the Klopse Carnival and African mask-making traditions.

Preparatory workshops with the elders of District Six resulted in the creation of masks, large puppets and handcrafted banners which would be carried along the route.

Ms Bennett spoke at the start of the walk at the Lydia Centre for Memory in District Six, previously the St Phillip Church, where Mr Davis first fostered his arts career with the Community Arts Project, which was based there for a number of years.

Loosely quoting German poet Bertolt Brecht to put the Heritage Day celebration in context, Ms Bennett said: “Will there be singing in the rain? Yes, there will be.”

Standing in front of a mural of District Six at the Lydia Centre, Mr Davis, now 81, said: “I am standing in a space that means so much to me. It was here at the Community Arts Project that I received my most important arts education.

“I felt I have a job to teach people about District Six, and behind me is a mural depicting that.

“There is a time to cry but there is also a time to celebrate. When we were removed from District Six, they took away our home, our reason to laugh.

“Today we celebrate our people, our community and our homes. Thank you, District Six for including me.”

Along the walk, people stopped at spaces in District Six which Mr Davis depicted in pencil drawings before the community was demolished.

Landmarks included the Muir Street Mosque, The St Mark’s Church and streets which were significant to Mr Davis.

As the march progressed, the group sang and danced to the music provided by Anwah Gambeno’s Traditional Cape Singers, The Sunshine Singers from Woodstock and the St Cecelia’s Christmas Band, which represented some of the main musical strands of District Six music – malay choirs, minstrels and Christmas.

Mr Davis said the event was more than what he had expected. “People are getting old and their memories are bad, but this is an event to remember. It is important for us to celebrate and never lose who we are. Heritage Day is important to celebrate.”

Mr Davis was born in McKenzie Street but moved to Canterbury Street at a young age. “At 25, I was arrested and sentenced for going against the then apartheid government and ended up on Robben Island, where I spent seven years – from 1964 until 1971.”

He said that as a child he loved drawing and art was a subject at school. “We were influenced by comic books and the films we watched at the bioscope. In the street, we picked up chalk and bricks and drew things on walls and pavements and in our school books.” After being released from prison, he had been very traumatised and needed healing, so he turned to art for comfort. “I was in a bad mental state, and I knew creativity will help me. I came across the Community Arts Project when I was 41 years old and started focusing on art again, and I took every opportunity to do so.”

At the age of 54, Mr Davis obtained his Fine Art degree at UCT, and also worked for the Robben Island Museum for 10 years.”

He said while his time on Robben Island had been painful and brutal, what stood out for him was the togetherness of the prisoners.

“We shared our food and education. We fought and worked together. There was a lot of political tension and some of the guards were brutal, but with the help of our people we got through.”

Mr Davis said with the help of those who had fought for political prisoners and put pressure on the apartheid government the conditions on Robben Island improved.

“We never had hot water, or fresh water to drink, but with a change in the 60s, we were allowed to play sport, and that brought a cohesiveness.

“In civil society, we were so divided, even among our own people because of the barriers that were created by the apartheid regime, but a divided people cannot create change. On Robben Island, we stood together, and that’s how we survived and for the first time, I learnt to live with South Africans regardless of race, colour or creed. I don’t regret going to jail, because it brought us the biggest blessing, it chucked us together and made us live together, and that’s what Heritage Day should bring for South Africans – togetherness.”

See more pictures on page 12