whites only bench

Not Even The Pretense of Separate But Equal

You can’t visit South Africa without delving into its recent past. Well, I guess you could but that would be missing a fairly integral part of what makes the country what it is today.

We had explained apartheid to our children but it didn’t really hit home until our guide from Green Apple Tours told us his story.

The guide, Mohammed, was of Cape Malay ancestry with an Indian father and a light-skinned mother who was considered Cape Coloured.  Mohammed was 6 years old when the government decided to make the neighbourhood where they lived (District 6) an area for whites only.

apartheid signs

Although the family was relocated to the Cape Flats area, they were divided according to their skin colour. His father was put in an Indian township and the mother and children were put into a separate township for Coloureds, both in Cape Flats. For Mohammed’s father to come see his family, the father had to apply for special permission to visit the coloured township. The family lived divided for years until the early 1980’s when the Apartheid regime fell apart. You can only imagine how hard maintaining any semblance of a family life must have been during that period.

We also took our children to see the District 6 Museum which explains the stories of many people similarly caught up in events beyond their control.  Although District 6 started off as a mixed area, in 1966 it was declared a whites-only area.  More than 60,000 people were forcibly evacuated to the Cape Flats townships.  The houses in District 6 were razed by bulldozers to prepare the area for white middle class homes.

street names for district 6
exhibit of street signs from former district 6

This map shows the streets of District 6 and the names and addresses of the inhabitants prior to forced relocation.

neighbourhood plan of district 6

I am struck by the effort it takes to separate people by colour. A lot of time and energy went into planning and maintaining division.

description of coloured persons

There were separate facilities for everything similar to the American Deep South during the times of segregation. Unlike the Deep South though, there wasn’t even the pretense of having things be separate but equal.

whites only bench

This little house is a reconstruction of a South African author’s township house from memory. Her family of five (parents, 2 siblings) lived in this shack. They had only primitive cooking facilities.

district 6 kitchen

My daughter wanted to know how 5 people could sleep on 2 beds. This shack is smaller than her bedroom at home.  Of course, there was no indoor plumbing.

district 6 home

What I found chilling though is that this reconstructed shack in a museum is the reality for many people who live in the townships still. Even though we were advised from visiting any townships with young children, you can see the townships chock full of bleak little shacks from the road.

The District 6 Museum captures the pain and chaos of lives disrupted and memories lost very effectively. It is definitely a worthwhile stop in Cape Town if you would like to understand some of what happened during the Apartheid years.  There is a commemorative sheet on which former residents have written messages (seen below). The wounds clearly run deep.

district 6 memorial cloth


The District 6 Museum is open Monday through Saturday.  It is located near the City Hall on Buitenkant Street.  You can buy tickets online through the website.

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I am an American expat based in London with my travel-loving family. I write at Just Go Places Blog about luxury, cultural and family travel.

5 thoughts on “Not Even The Pretense of Separate But Equal”

    1. I didn’t actually remember that much from growing up. The USA pretty much just treated South Africa as a pariah and there wasn’t much news. I never even thought I’d ever even get to visit South Africa – it was just such a black out.

  1. I lived that soul-destroying life you’re describing. I was lucky to be able to leave all that behind when I left SA in 1975 at the age of 19. I wrote a memoir about growing up under apartheid culminating in a forbidden, illegal romance that essentially forced me into exile. That was almost 40 years ago. My book is called An Immoral Proposal available on Amazon.com

    1. Wow! I will definitely look up your book. We discussed this issue with our kids – my husband is English, I’m Indian and our kids are mixed. We made them think about what the world would be like if we couldn’t all live together or if their mummy and daddy couldn’t be together – they wouldn’t even have been born.

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