It’s hard for me to hear the word ‘fringe’ without referencing District Six Museum’s current experience with the concept of the Fringe Innovation District being proposed for this precinct.
This area where the Museum is located is at the nexus between the old District Six which was destroyed under apartheid, and the inner city. Oral and documentary accounts reveal a vibrant and organic connection between the residents of the old District and the inner city. Municipal planning boundaries do not define the narrative and experiential boundaries of people’s lives, and most people regarded the city bowl as an extension of their backyards, the same way that Table Mountain is used as a referential point.
After forced removals, ties were severed. Practical reasons of roads and transport or the lack thereof, restricted peoples’ access to the city; emotional scars kept others away and over time the city experienced an exodus of black people for whom this area formed a crucial part of their lives. Coming to town became a matter of earning a living, leaving township homes at the crack of dawn to navigate difficult transport systems, and returning late in the evening. Social and cultural lives were altered and diminished.
Following a protracted struggle against apartheid, April 1994 heralds a new dawn for this country. The Land Restitution Act of 1995 creates a framework for thinking about restitution, and the dispersed District Six community becomes the only one which can return to the actual land from which they were removed because it has remained vacant. The Museum becomes a part of negotiating the return of the diaspora, becoming a facilitating space for the amplification of the voices of many who feel that they are not being heard. The vacant District Six becomes a contested space: prime land in the city with views of Table Mountaln and Table Bay that in real estate terms is not affordable to ‘ordinary’ folk. At the same time that the possibility of return inspires the nation, a silent resentment sets in from many who feel that the government is giving away national assets to people who never owned the land. This nexus becomes a sought over space of cultural interpretation, and the discomfort that our city has with the notion of poor people owning space which they might not be able to maintain becomes a sore point. Returnees begin to experience a sense that many people want their stories, want to interpret their stories outside the real and painful experiences of their lives, and the Museum in some ways begins to feel this too. An archive of trauma is pounced upon to be mined for the quaint and nostalgic value that they can offer, devoid of trauma. In other words, memory without the pain.
I’ve taken a long route to create context that this is important to frame my experience at the fringe. A PPP entity devises the concept of a design and innovation hub and proposes the idea of a Fringe area to house this concept. This comes after the Museum has made the argument to national government that this should be declared a National Heritage Site, located geographically on this intersect but really at the core of the city’s memory and history; core not peripheral; central, not fringe.
Our experience is that the Fringe discussions were not able to hear this well enough, have not been able to hear that the construct of a Fringe to people whose lives have been defined by marginalisation and exclusion, is not an empowering one at all. Some recent tourist maps have even designated this area as being The Fringe, making it seem official and certain. However, there is so much uncertainty, so much discontent beneath the surface and some people have even described the creation of the Fringe as a re-displacement of people. To some people it feels like an act of silencing and touches on the core of the Museum’s methodology and valuing of people as being at the centre of its mission, and having contributed towards the creation of confident voices, we do stand to lose some of this impetus if we are not able to protect this fragile space.