Four Important Museums in Cape Town, South Africa


On a cold Sunday morning in Cape Town, South Africa, with some free time, I head to a museum. Except this isn’t where nice canvas and sculptures are displayed. This is a space where even the toughest person leaves with dewy eyes. District Six Museum has a short history of being a showplace but a very long history of misery.

As I approach, sitting on the front stoop is a young woman holding a baby and begging. Times are still tough for the unemployed in South Africa. After handing her some Rands, Noor Ebrahim, now the education officer at the Buitenkant Street museum, meets me at the door. Noor is going to show me around and tell me about the history of the museum. Noor should know, he lived in District Six, at it was officially known since 1867, the 1 ½ (one and a half) square kilometres where over 60,000 people of various colours of skin- white not included- were kicked out before the area was razed to the ground. The bottom line is that District Six was a mixture of many religions and occupations, much like communities around the world, except for the fact that even though they lived in harmony, friendship, naturally suffering and hardship too, it was an area imposed on non-whites.
For several years, there was uncertainly about its future but in February 1966, District Six was declared a white-only area. The blacks would have to leave. It wasn’t until 1975 that the demolition of houses and business buildings on a few streets commenced. By 1982 the former life of the community was over and the residents removed to an outlying area known as Cape flats.

Noor was heartbroken and often returned to the ruins of the street where his family had lived for four generations. He recalls that for weeks, on his way to and from work, he would pass what had been his house at 257 Caledon Street,- which had become just a heap of rubble.

As we stand on a plastic covered floor map of the 120 streets with their names, he’s able to point out the locations of his house. Since then Noor has written a book on his life capturing the hard times and warmth of the community and his family.

After working for Reader’s Digest for 30 years starting at 14 and the first coloured to have been employed by that company, he now spends most of his days at the museum on Buitenkant Street.

Other visitors came into the museum and I’m surprised thinking that this being Sunday and early, I’d probably be among a handful. However, the new arrivals include a quartet of professors from the University of Cape Town who seemed awkward at first then ply Noor with questions. “We are free now,” say Noor forgivingly. “I often asked myself, why did they do this to us. Was it just because of the colour of our skin? If you want to hate, you can’t hate South Africa. Nobody could stop the government during that period,” says the 58 year old man.

Every person needed identification cards. W meant white, K was for the coloured ,A for Asians and I for Indians. Blacks had a pass book which had to be carried at all times. Noor was in the coloured category since his grandfather was of Indian origin and his grandmother was white.

After the short intro, Noor points to a wall of photographs which include his family and former house. These images were snapped with his old Voigtlander camera while he still lived on Caledon Street.

The old but architecturally charming former Methodist Church, which has become the museum, is now filled with artifacts given by the ex-residents of District Six. A hand made wall hanging, metres long , shows Nelson Mandela. Another area has most of the original street name signs now mounted on an iron structure. As Noor watched the bulldozers pull up, he was able to salvage some of these signs. When the museum opened in 1992, these ‘souvenirs’ were displayed. The exhibit was to be held for only two weeks in the Buitenkant Street venue. It was never slated to be a permanent museum but a reminder that apartheid existed and to commemorate the destruction of District Six. However, not only old residents but many Capetonians’ white population insisted that the exhibit continue on an on-going basis. As I walk around the old church, there are recreations of a beauty salon painted in brilliant pink, featuring posters of Hollywood movie stars with ‘big hair’, the style of the day- certainly Butterfield 8 mode. Also, a relic hair dryer and the various other accoutrements like bobby pins and combs. It’s hard to disregard signs dictating the mandate of ‘whites only. A bench for Europeans-only is decidedly prominent.

Noor is the perfect guide, without guile, knowledgeable and having lived through the chaos of the time, surprisingly sensitive and warm – the perfect paradox for the chilly temperature outside and an essential stop to learn about this multi- layered and troubled history of apartheid.


On the other side of Cape Town, in a more upscale neighborhood are two rather fascinating buildings. Both are modern and flank the domed Old Synagogue. The first synagogue purchased in 1849, was on St. John’s Street. In time it was too small to accommodate the growing immigrant community which had fled the European pogroms, particularly those in Lithuania.

The larger Old Synagogue on Government Avenue was then built. I decide to speak with a woman in the gift shop where they sell only South African merchandise with profits going to the maintenance of the complex. Pearl’s suggestion, which I take, is to see the attached Cape Town Holocaust Museum first. It is the only holocaust museum in Africa. Newly opened, this small but compact building has a mother lode of memorabilia and artifacts. The Jewish community in Cape Town numbered as many as 120,000. Today, it is about 40,000. Jews left during the difficult apartheid times for more politically suitable countries like Israel, Canada, Australia and the US.

Half way up the staircase, there’s a huge hand made quilt with Judaic symbols. Like most holocaust museums there are mind shattering photos, memorabilia, histories and voice narratives. However, this is a small museum and therefore more intimate creating a spine chilling experience.

As I watch school children on a tour, I see many black students. It occurs to me that there is a similarity in the history of blacks and Jews. The Jewish horrors of World War 11 perhaps parallel apartheid in this country.

At the end of the hall, just before leaving on a wall, in large print, is a quote by Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, who opened this museum in December 2000. It reads. “We learnt about the Holocaust so that we can become more human, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being of infinite worth. So precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place.”


Across the courtyard, behind the outdoor security booth, is the hi-tech Jerusalem stone building, South African Jewish Museum. The entrance from the Old synagogue is a glass and steel bridge which leads to the top floor of the two story building. It’s here that the tale of South African Jewry is documented. The museum. had a concept based on three facts- Reality, Memory and Dreams- life in South Africa, roots in Eastern Europe and a vision of the future. Naturally, there are Jewish ceremonial objects. But it’s the tales of the arrivals in this ‘Dark Continent’ where by 1880 there were approximately 4,000 Jews. Among the exhibits is a typically South African success story which amuses. Max Rose became the ‘Ostrich King’ at a time when the feather industry in Europe was booming. He sold the animals plumage internationally and became a wealthy man.

Rose was among many Jews who achieved not only great wealth but status as well. Others include Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who created the diamond industry and Sir George Albu, a pioneer of both diamond and gold mining..

A true reproduction of a Lithuanian village, a ‘shetl’, has been erected from old photos. It shows the life of the villagers, a tailor shop, the Shabbat table-a wonderfully documented record.

In a video presentation, the first President of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela writes “in my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice” (February 1998).


The ferry, a super fast catamaran, departs from the pier the red Clock Tower on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town and takes about 50 minutes to reach Robben Island. Although you can see Table Mountain, only 11 km away, it could be another planet. Today, it’s so wavy that most of my fellow travellers look greenish by the time we arrive.

On terra firma, the nausea ends but the sadness of the place begins. Under an archway, so very eerily reminiscent of the German concentration camps, is a jail where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years, much of it at hard labour. Robben Island in the middle of Table Bay, has a history of being home to the most maligned people. Before being a prison, it was a leper colony. However, now it’s a museum and conservation area and declared a World Heritage Site in 1999.

It’s a cold austere place and the chilly air makes me wonder what it would be like in the cold winter when the thermometer goes down as low as 5 Celsius. This hell hole has successfully becoming a signal of freedom and personal liberation. It was opened to the public in December 2000 and I’m not surprised to see that the ferry is filled. After some time, as Eugene, a former inmate and now a guide, leads our group through the various rooms and public spaces, do I realize that this museum tells of the victory over apartheid. We stop at Mandela’s cell -#5.

They all measure 2 ½ metres by 2 ½ metres. When it was occupied there was only a small cot and a bucket. Now spruced up with a new coat of grey paint, the bathroom facilities for hundreds of prisoners consisted of 4 basins, 4 toilets and two sinks. When the prisoners went off to work in the quarry, they were shackled. And the fact that quantity of food was distributed by colour, was very disturbing.. Whites received more than the Asians and blacks received the least – all this preserved in writing on a large board. After viewing the lime quarry where dust and glare damaged the prisoners’ eyes, we drive around the island which is surprisingly very pleasant with a church and housing for the staff and their families. The penguin community gives us all the laugh we need as they march, stiff winged and so very formal, along the water’s edge.

The author flew with South African Airways from New York and stayed at the Cape Grace Hotel.
District Six Museum
25A Buitenkant Street,, Cape Town
Tel 21 461 8745
South African Jewish Museum
88 Hatfield Street
Tel 465 1546 Fax 465 0284
Cape Town Holocaust Centre
88 Hatfield Street, Gardens
27 21 465 1546 Fax 27 21 465 0284