Mapping personal histories and mobilizing memory to reclaim a place in history and recover lost land

The District Six Museum in South Africa spearheaded a land claim in which people ultimately recovered both the property and dignity they had lost under apartheid. It continues to be a space where people can collect, dissemi­nate and exchange memories of the neighborhood. It is also actively involved in promoting civic dialogue about humane cities in South Africa.

In 1966, as a result of the Group Areas Act, the racially integrated neighborhood of District Six in Cape Town was razed to the ground to make way for a new “whites only” development, but construction never took place. The only buildings left were houses of worship.

As part of a campaign to defend the land and community integrity, a group of former residents built an exhibition with a map of the old area as the central installation. They covered the floor of a Methodist church with a detailed map of their destroyed neighborhood, and invited their neighbors to place their homes, streets, stores and com­munity spaces on it.

This memory-mapping project became the foundation for land reclamation claims. The museum organized and hosted one of the Land Courts, where people could establish formal claims to land they or their families owned. Former residents sat in chairs directly on the map of their old neighborhood, as the court granted them, in the words of one, “our land back, our homes back, our dignity back.” Since then, the museum has developed exhibi­tions on the histories of smaller neighboring communities destroyed under the Group Areas Act, including Kirst­enboch and Two Rivers, to publicize and support their unresolved land claims.

The District Six Museum seeks to provide a sustained process of personal healing and reconciliation, as well as to promote a lasting democratic and human rights culture in the neighborhood. Its programs keep the memory of forced removals alive and pass it on to new generations. The public memory of the past in turn strengthens efforts to prevent segregation, displacement and other abuses of democracy in the future.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Oppressive regimes have often forced people from their homes, dislocated whole communities and confiscated land and property. Colonial powers as well as new societies have encroached on native land. Returning this property to its former owners can be a challenge and requires that property boundaries be positively identified and delimited. The District Six Museum in South Africa meets this challenge in an innovative way.

In coming years, former residents of District Six will begin returning to the neighborhood to reclaim their land and rebuild. The International Coalition of Historical Sites of Conscience, of which District Six Museum is a member, can suggest creative ways to use history and the sites where that history was lived to address present day human rights issues and challenges.