Despite its problems with poverty, District Six was the kind of place where you could raise your kids and where there was a strong sense of community. This is where Joe Schaffers was born and raised and it is where the apartheid government chose to enact its cruel policy of forced removals. As a Senior Educator at the District Six Museum, Joe has worked hard to keep alive the memories of those that were dispossessed. On the 3rd of July 2020, his work will be recognised by being awarded an Honourary Doctorate at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh.
The 80 year old Joe was nominated by the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Tom Slater and Prof. Julie Cupples, both fierce opponents of gentrification (which is a modern form of forced removals). They have been bringing their students to him for several years and consider him to be a gifted and captivating teacher who not only teaches but also aims to make the world a better place. He teaches the students about racial discrimination, forced removals and human rights violations, and also humanises the story of those who end up living in poverty. He encourages them to learn from the mistakes of the past and they leave feeling motivated to be and do good.
Joe’s reason for doing what he does started in the Bloemhof block of flats, where everyone knew each other and where the sense of community was even stronger. It was in this block of Flats that Joe was raised, where he met his wife (who also lived there) and where they settled down after getting married. In 1967 however, the apartheid government came knocking and decided to destroy the Bloemhof community, along with the rest of District Six. Declaring District Six as a ‘whites-only’ area, they bulldozed the block of flats and forcibly relocated its occupants to different areas across the Cape Flats.
Joe and his wife were relocated to the newly established Hanover Park, an area designated for Coloureds. In District Six, the shops, work, schools and places of worship were within walking distance but this was not the case in Hanover Park. It was a cold, desolate place with no shops, schools and places of worship. Getting to work meant that mothers and fathers had to get up several hours earlier and arrive home several hours later, leaving them little time to spend time with their children. To make matters worse, more money had to be spent on getting to work, which meant that these forcibly removed communities became poorer. In this kind of environment, social ills such as poverty and crime started to escalate and places like Hanover Park became increasingly dangerous. Nobody knew each other and the resulting lack of community meant that everyone distrusted each other. Traumatised, humiliated and angered by the theft and destruction of their homes, the Coloured communities became more unstable and gang culture became violent and destructive. Joe felt that he needed to do something about this.
Although he had a good job with a large fishing consortium, he felt that the only way he could help was to quit his job and begin working for the City of Cape Town. He eventually became a Principal Inspector in 1980 and during his time at the city, he helped counsel his traumatised community and used his position to lobby the government to improve the conditions in the townships. His work led to improvements in the quality of life and safety of hundreds of thousands of dispossessed people. This was a remarkable achievement at a time when the apartheid government were determined to brutalise communities of colour. Joe also had to deal with his own trauma which is perhaps why he became a volunteer at the District Six Museum after retiring in 1998.
Working at the museum as an ‘Education Officer’, he impressed everyone with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and geography of District Six. Becoming a popular expert on the area, Joe was given a permanent position in 2000 and to this very day, he continues to educate visitors on the diverse, beautiful and ultimately tragic history of the area.
One of the things that Joe does is take visitors, which include academics and students, around the area and giving them a background lesson on the area. He also likes to take his visitors to the location where he grew up. Having been demolished, his childhood home was replaced by another block of flats known as ‘Skyways’, no doubt built to accommodate ‘whites-only’ tenants. The space on which his specific flat stood is now occupied by the Skyways row of garages. Despite his own personal trauma, Joe holds no sense of hatred towards anybody.
Joe’s primary reason for volunteering at the museum was to keep alive the memories of the residence of District Six .and continue advocating for those that were dispossessed, impoverished and traumatised by the Group Areas Act. He could have easily become a bitter and hateful person but instead, he confesses that he does not understand why everyone looks at each differently. District Six was a diverse place where different racial groups lived together as a community. There was no sense of someone being of a different race, cultural group or religion. He is the kind of person that still hopes for a day when everyone starts to treat each other equally, sharing what they have, just like they did in District Six. He believes that apartheid was about power and greed, and he will do what he can to stop us from repeating the same mistakes.
Apart from his involvement in the museum, the father of four (and grandfather of many) is also actively involved in the Cape Town arts scene, primarily in the area of Jazz. An accomplished jazz singer, he often performs with visiting artists in the Museum. He is also involved in sports, using both the arts and sports as a means of empowering the youth of Cape Town.
When Joe was informed of the Honorary Doctorate, his immediate response was, ‘I can only accept it on behalf of the people of District Six, my people’. As a man who has lived his whole life serving others, this response was typical of who is as a person. Yes, Dr Joe Schaffers could have chosen a path full of bitterness and hate but he chose to the love he has for the people and place of his childhood. And perhaps, someday, we can all live like Joe, not seeing each other as different, but as a community, like it was in District Six.