Joe Schaffers’ Honorary Doctorate

An Honorary Doctorate for an Educator and his Community: Joe Schaffers and District Six, Cape Town


In 2022 (twice delayed due to Covid), the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, will award Joe Schaffers, Senior Education Officer of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa (Honorary Doctorate).  In what follows I provide some background and context for what is a very special award to a truly remarkable educator and human being.   It’s a long read but Joe’s story is well worth 30 minutes of your time!  If you know the history of District Six, and are here just to read about Joe, then skip to the paragraph starting, “For 25 years now…”.



At the start of any academic year, I always advise my undergraduate students to consider enrolling on courses that seem daunting, as they might just change their lives.  From 1995-1998 I was a Geography undergraduate at Queen Mary, University of London.  I loved almost every course on the entire degree programme, but when I enrolled on Geography and Social Justice in my final year (despite the fact that the course description made me wonder if I had the intellectual capacity for it), my life most certainly changed.  The course was taught by David M. Smith, a giant of human geography (who retired in 2001 having produced a glorious body of scholarship over four decades).  His lectures at Queen Mary were so powerful, so captivating, that I recall almost running to the adjacent library after each one in order to borrow books and photocopy journal articles he encouraged us to read.  When I delivered the 13th David M. Smith Lecture in November 2016, I spoke about what that course and accompanying book (of the same name) were about, and what they did for me and so many others who were lucky enough to have the chance to learn from him.  However, it was David’s lectures and writings on the tragedies of apartheid South Africa that I found especially stirring.  David had spent some time at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in the 1970s to research the implications of the hideous manipulation of geography that the system of apartheid inflicted upon South Africans, and in his lectures he spoke with poignant eloquence about what he had learned during that time, not only from his own research but from that of others.  In particular, he drew our attention to a book about what apartheid did to Cape Town, Outcast Cape Town (1981), written by another geographer, John Western, and also to a 1988 article about what apartheid did to the Cape Town neighbourhood of District Six, written by one of John Western’s doctoral students, Deborah Hart.  I was so moved by what I read in both those texts that I just had to visit Cape Town and see the place for myself, to learn even more.  I saved up for years and eventually bought a ticket to go and see the city in April 2004.  I’ll return to the relevance of that first visit in due course, but first, some background on apartheid, Cape Town, and District Six.


When Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013, Musa Okwonga wrote a magnificent piece to warn the world about revisionists who would “try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance.” Imperial arrogance in the settler-colonial city of Cape Town is everywhere, literally written into the street names, monuments, buildings, and especially, the unbelievable inequality across the city (it is consistently high up the list of the most unequal cities on the planet).  A city built by slaves, on land stolen from the indigenous San and Khoe people, from 1658 slaves, political exiles and convicts were brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company, uprooted from locations along the Dutch trade routes such as Malaysia, Indonesia, South Asia, Madagascar and many parts of East Africa.  There is ample historical evidence that slavery was the economic backbone of the Cape Colony for over 170 years until emancipation in 1834 (slaves were in fact the primary mortgageable assets in the Colony), and there is even a plaque marking the former site of a tree under which approximately 100,000 human beings were bought and sold.  Colonial force, plunder, torture, domination, and violent dislocation did not end when slavery was abolished – the British, having invaded the Cape Colony twice in quick succession (1795 and 1806), stamped their own imprint on the Cape from 1806-1910, directly contributing to the rise of Boer and Afrikaner nationalism via the imposition of British customs and practices where they were not wanted.  This led many Boers to venture into South Africa’s interior (the “Great Trek”, as it is now known) to live in complete independence from British rule.  Surging Afrikaner nationalism in the first decades of the 20th century was not only fuelled by dubious readings of scriptures, hardening white supremacy, and irrational fears of racial contamination and contagion, but also by the British invention of horrific concentration camps for Boer women and children during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the British destruction of Boer livelihoods under a “scorched earth” policy (involving the ruin of crops and slaughtering of livestock, and the torching of homesteads and farms).  Afrikaner nationalism would not have gained much traction without the intense humiliation inflicted upon the Boers by the British.  Apartheid emerged from this wider context of European colonisers fighting each other for ownership and control of the land, and ultimately of the country’s spectacular agricultural and mineral resources.  Following the birth of the Republic in 1910, anti-British sentiment steadily morphed into something more sinister: a white supremacist and segregationist Afrikaner nationalism.  Economic and social progress, in the eyes of the nationalists, required access to the cheap labour of colonised peoples, but under no circumstances could non-white labourers live amongst white people.  The rise to power of the National Party in 1948, riding the crest of a wave of Afrikaner nationalism in a ‘general’ election in which only white people could vote, was indeed the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. This arrogance was rooted in vicious beliefs of cultural superiority over the supposedly uncivilised people of a ‘dark continent’, inspired by the Nazi ideology of the manifest destiny of the ‘master race’, and also in greed vis-à-vis the exchange values of the continent’s land.


The architect of apartheid, Hendrik F. Verwoerd, and his successors, saw racial separation as the answer to the conflicting material interests and cultures arising from a very diverse population, and as the means for preserving white privilege and, ultimately, arresting the steady decline of the percentage of the white population of South Africa.  The fear of black Africans taking over the whole country was captured in an appalling phrase/doctrine of that time, “die swart gevaar” (the black danger).  Apartheid means ‘separation’ in Afrikaans, and the apartheid system was comprised of three levels of racial separation – national, personal, and residential.  The legislation for the national level, the ‘Homelands’ policy targeted at black Africans, predated the apartheid era.  The Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 allocated 13 percent of the total surface area of South Africa for roughly 75 percent of the total population of the country.  The idea was the complete expulsion of black Africans from the Republic, into self-governing independent states, “Homelands” (or “Bantustans”, as they were officially called).  These areas subsequently functioned as peripheral dependencies, from which millions of people were drawn into cities as migrant workers in order to exploit their cheap labour whilst ensuring their political and ultimately human rights remained externalized, tied to their respective Homelands.  The areas allocated as Homelands were identified on the basis of tribal, ethnic and linguistic groupings (roughly defined by white ethnographers), and unsurprisingly these were lacking in mineral resources, agriculturally poor, and without major transportation routes or adequate infrastructure.  The bases for prosperous independent nation-states never existed.  Apartheid rulers justified such massive social engineering and disenfranchisement by trivializing the importance of geography in people’s lives: “If I were to wake up one morning and find myself to be a Black man, the only major difference would be geographical,” uttered Prime Minister John Vorster in 1973.  The personal level of apartheid, ‘petty apartheid’ as it became known, was enforced by the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which meant that trains and buses, public beaches, swimming pools and libraries were racially segregated, with the best facilities reserved (of course) for whites.  Cinemas, restaurants and hotels in white areas were out of bounds to non-whites.  Ambulances, bridges, parking spaces, benches, graveyards, maternity wards, parks, pedestrian crossings, public toilets, and taxis were also racially segregated.


The residential level of racial separation was arguably the most devastating in terms of what it did to communities. This was the Group Areas Act (1950), which segregated South African space according to racial classification.  This was facilitated by another piece of legislation that same year, the Population Registration Act, which organised all South Africans into four rigid racial categories: Whites, Asians, Coloureds, and Black Africans, in that strict hierarchy.  This had dramatic effects on an individual’s life chances, depending into which category an individual was assigned.  As there could never be any scientific basis at all for the classification of a population with extremely diverse origins and phenotypical features, doubt was a regular occurrence.  One’s entire life could be determined by whatever a state employee thought was the correct classification vis-à-vis preposterous official constructions of racial appearance.  For example, this was the official definition of a ‘White’ person in South Africa from 1948-1991:


Any person who in appearance, obviously is, or who is generally accepted as a white person, other than a person who although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person.


Under the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, it was illegal for someone classified a white person to marry a person of another race.  Another brutal piece of legislation was the Immorality Act of 1950, where it became a crime for a white person and a person of another racial category to have sexual intercourse. But the Group Areas Act was effectively a strategy of the ethnic cleansing of urban space.  Cities were carved up into Group Areas – residential neighbourhoods that were for the sole occupation of one specific racial category.  Therefore, if you were classified as Coloured, Asian, or Black African, and lived in an area that became classified as a ‘White Group Area’, you became a ‘disqualified’ person and were forced to leave, as you had become an illegal occupant of your home. Those homes, and often entire neighbourhoods, were then either redeveloped or razed to the ground in order to prepare the Group Area for White occupation. This happened on a huge scale across South Africa; in Cape Town, it was done in order to turn valuable land to more remunerative uses and to realise the apartheid dream of turning the central city, the Atlantic seaboard and the Southern Suburbs into an ‘orderly’ white city, serviced by cheap non-white labour that would, under no circumstances, be allowed to live and play in that white city.  In 1948 Cape Town was one of the very least racially segregated cities in sub-Saharan Africa, but all that changed in dramatic and appalling fashion under the Group Areas Act.


Group Areas in Cape Town by 1979.    Source: Nechama Brodie (2015) The Cape Town Book (Random House).


The mixed-race population of Cape Town has outnumbered every other ethnoracial category in the city for centuries. The ‘Coloured’ label used under apartheid has stuck, and has long been appropriated by people of mixed-race in South Africa: one of the more unsettling things to hear for a first-time visitor to South Africa from the UK is a term of racial abuse in the UK being used to describe an entire population and its culture. Coloured people in South Africa are the outcome of the mixing of white colonisers, their slaves (from the locations mentioned earlier), and the indigenous San and Khoi people.  Today, the degree of mixing among Coloured Capetonians is even more diverse.  There is also a myth that Afrikaans is purely and only a variant of Dutch, when it is in fact a creole language that emerged from the mixing that produced Coloured people (it includes not only elements of indigenous languages but also Arabic influences brought by slaves and political exiles and religious leaders).  Regarding the apartheid instruments of the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts, John Western explained the farce of it all:


Given the city’s three and a half centuries of intercontinental trade and slavery – of the mingling of peoples – the majority of Capetonians have been neither Whites nor Blacks but ‘mixed race’ persons designated ‘Cape Coloureds.’  Imagine trying strictly to impose a legal system of watertight, mutually exclusive ‘racial’ categories upon a million or more persons whose appearance and culture makes them impossible to classify in such a way. How can it be done?  Roughly, is one answer. Rough in the sense of approximation and rough in the sense of bruising.


The bruising was terrible, and as we shall see later, it has not faded away.  Very few predominately Coloured residential areas in the central city survived the Group Areas Act (only Bo Kaap and Woodstock were largely spared from expulsions of Coloured people and subsequent demolitions).  Beginning in the 1960s, nearly all Capetonians of mixed race were uprooted from their homes and neighbourhoods and then scattered and dumped into barrack-like structures in ‘Coloured townships’, built quickly and cheaply on the Cape Flats, a vast, sandy, windswept plain between the Cape Peninsula and the Hottentot-Holland mountains.  These areas, of course, were segregated from the Black African townships (see map above).  The distances people were expelled varied, but it was not uncommon for people to find themselves living over 30km away from where they had previously lived, surrounded by people whom they did not know due to the systematic policy of scattering the evicted: breaking up communities and their associations in order to preclude organised resistance.  Arguably the most (in)famous case of forced removals and demolition under the Group Areas Act was District Six, to which I now turn.


In her elegant book Rootshock, the great scholar of displacement Mindy Fullilove wrote that, “We cannot understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there.”  This seems especially important with respect to what happened to District Six.  For over a hundred years this was a working class, predominantly ‘Coloured’, and – by innumerable accounts – extremely vibrant part of central Cape Town that contributed in a very substantial way to Capetonian and South African culture, inspiring music, literature, art, sport, cuisine, and even a dialect of Afrikaans all its own. In the 19th century, as Cape Town’s urbanisation expanded away from the Castle, port and central colonial buildings, District Six was until 1867 known as Kanaladorp, deriving from the Malay word ‘kanala’, meaning ‘to help one another’ (a disputed version of this etymology comes from the fact that the area was east of a canal). It only became District Six after the Municipal Act of 1867 which divided the city into six legislative districts (Districts One to Five did not retain their names).  With the coming of railways and tramways, wealthier residents migrated out of the centre of the city into new suburbs, so those who remained in District Six were mostly poor, who also needed to be near the centre to find employment.  At the start of the twentieth century, District Six was a high density, mostly lower class neighbourhood with a population drawn from all over the world, reflecting Cape Town’s importance as a port city.  By far the largest component was formed by people of mixed-race (as described above), but the District also was home to immigrants from Britain, thousands of Jews from what are now Latvia and Lithuania, several more thousand indigenous peoples from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and considerable numbers of Indians, Chinese and Australians.


District Six from the west (the highlighted area on the right) in 1960.  Source: District Six Museum.


District Six from the north in 1960. The highlighted area here is the Bloemhof Flats, to be discussed shortly.  Source: District Six Museum.


District Six from the south in the fateful year of 1966.  Source: District Six Museum.


For most of its existence, District Six was perceived, portrayed and stigmatized by people who did not live there as a degenerate slum, a place only of vice and crime, an embarrassment to the ‘Mother City’ of South Africa.  This was mostly due to the condition of many of the buildings and the severe disinvestment in people’s lives – absentee landlordism was rife, overcrowding was severe, and many people did live in entrenched poverty in dismal conditions.  Blame for an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1901 (brought in by rats on European ships arriving at the port) was erroneously attributed by municipal authorities to Xhosa residents, who were consequently expelled to Ndabeni (and later Langa township in 1923), a precursor to what happened under apartheid.  It is beyond dispute that District Six had severe degradation and disease, and also gangs, crime, addiction, and prostitution. Yet there were two sides to multi-ethnic, multi-faith District Six.  It was an extraordinarily vibrant place.  Deborah Hart put this beautifully when she described it as


a paradox of warmth and variety, dirt and rubble, gaiety and sadness; of respectability and rascality; of poverty and decent comfort; of tenements shamefully neglected and homes well-cared-for and well-loved. …..District Six hummed with the enterprise of its residents, boasting a bewildering assortment of stores that served the population far beyond its immediate boundaries. Mingled with the more commonplace small general stores, tailors, butchers, fruiterers, and fishmongers, were the spice and curry shops and dimly lit herbalists’ stores, reflecting the diverse cultures of their owners and patrons. Informal trading flourished as hawkers set up their barrows at nearly every street corner, bartering animatedly with great exhibitionism and adding to the chaos of what was said to be a ‘river of people, cars, barrows, buses, horse-drawn carts; a bustling, laughing, shouting, chatting river of people’.


In short, there is abundant evidence that District Six was a truly remarkable community.  There is no way I could ever do justice to it – how could I? – but something of the soul of the place has been captured in this film, the beautiful photographs of those who knew it (particularly the Jan Greshoff collection), the project that resulted in the District Six Huis Kombuis, and also in the many memories of those who called it home.  Perhaps most interestingly, there are no examples in the historical record of wide-scale racial, religious, or cultural antagonisms between residents; indeed, one thing that flows through all the memories of former District Sixers is respect for each other as people regardless of skin colour, creed, or culture.


The slum stigma attached to District Six was very convenient for white supremacists who knew that its thriving community spirit was a threat to their Nazi-inspired beliefs in racial purity, and who knew the potential economic value of the land (literally right next to the Central Business District) if it could be grabbed for white occupation.  The stigma was amplified and activated by the apartheid regime, which on 11th February 1966 declared District Six a White Group Area.  As we know from a large international literature on ‘slum clearance’, it is much easier for authorities to justify obliterating a place if they can convince everyone that it is a threat to wider public health and safety, and that people will somehow be better off if they are relocated into new housing elsewhere.  More than 60,000 District Sixers faced the horrors of forced eviction and displacement, which began in 1967 and lasted until 1984.  Attempts at resistance occurred and were wide-ranging, brilliantly detailed by Crain Soudien in a chapter in this book, but they had to the face the bureaucratic, legal and military might of the white nationalist government.  Prime Minister P. W. Botha bleated in 1980, “District Six is a blot which the government has cleaned up and will continue to clear up.”  The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined communism and its aims in such a manner that anyone who opposed government policy risked being labelled as a communist, banned from speaking or gathering in public, and subject to a lengthy jail sentence if they ignored the ban.  District Six was almost entirely razed to the ground, and only places of worship were spared.


The demolition of District Six.    Source: UCT Libraries’ Special Collections archives.



Although Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night is the most celebrated work of fiction set in District Six, more poignant for our purposes is Buckingham Palace: District Six, by one of the great South African scholars of colour, the late Richard Rive (1931-1989), who was born and raised there.  An account of the fascinating characters living in a row of houses in the heart of the District before, during, and after the demolitions, Rive narrates the aftermath of community destruction as follows:


Everyone in the District died a little when it was pulled down. Many died spiritually and emotionally. Some like my mother also died physically…. Many were forced to move to small matchbox houses in large matchbox townships which with brutal and tactless irony were given names by the authorizes such as Hanover Park and Lavender Hill to remind us of the past they had taken away from us. There was one essential difference between the old places and the new ones. District Six had a soul. Its centre held together till it was torn apart. Stained and tarnished as it was, it had a soul that held together. The new matchbox conglomerates on the desolate Cape Flats had no soul. The houses were soulless units piled together to form a disparate community that lacked cohesion.

…They had taken our past away and left the rubble. They had demolished our spirits and left broken bricks. They had destroyed our community and left dust and memories.  And they had done all this for their own selfish and arrogant reasons. They had sought to regulate our present in order to control our future. And as I stood there I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. And I asked aloud, ‘What men have the moral or political right to take away a people’s past? How will they answer on that day when they have to account for this? For the past will not be forgotten.’ The south-easter [a strong wind regularly affecting Cape Town] swept the voices of accusation and recrimination into all the houses into which the people had been driven…. And the people on the bleak Flats whisper and remember what greed and intolerance have done to them. And they tell their children and their children’s children because it must never be forgotten.


Following the forced removals of over 60,000 people due to the colour of their skin, their quality of life, and their life chances, deteriorated dramatically. The deeply entrenched and serious social problems that affect the neighbourhoods of the Cape Flats today can be traced to the prolonged and massively damaging psychological distress caused by apartheid-era forced removals, to the geographical fragmentation of the identity and heritage of the communities that were then gentrified or bulldozed (District Six being the largest of many), and to several decades of abandonment and disinvestment in what became known as apartheid’s dumping ground.  Whilst a majority of township residents now make a life in the best way that they can in the context of profound neglect, disinvestment and stigmatization, captured most eloquently by the late Elaine R. Salo in her book Respectable Mothers, Tough Men and Good Daughters,  many of these areas (such as Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Hanover Park, Mitchell’s Plain, Elsie’s River, and Lavender Hill) are struggling with disaffected and abandoned youths who have few economic and social alternatives available to them other than membership of brutal criminal gangs.  In his book Gang Town, Don Pinnock elaborates the consequences of apartheid on working class Coloured families:


Torn from the areas they knew and scattered across the Cape Flats, the emotional brutality dealt out to them in the name of rational urban planning has been incalculable. The only defence the youths had was to build something coherent out of the one thing they had left – each other. Between windblown tenements on the dusty sand, gangs blossomed.


With a virtually unchecked influx of drugs and firearms, the outcome today is a constellation of some of the most segregated and violent urban areas in the world, with homicide rates equivalent to or surpassing those of war zones.  Apartheid’s bruising is long-lasting: the false promises made by politicians, the utterly abysmal housing conditions, the staggering unemployment, the underfunded school system, the persistent neglect, the intense stigmatization of race and place, the gendered brutality inflicted by gangs, the turf wars that are a direct consequence of apartheid’s divide and rule ideology (‘this is your area, that’s my area’), the distressing symptoms of epidemic-rate addiction to methamphetamine (known locally as ‘tik’), the corruption and thuggery of the police, the local prisons as a better and easier life for many young men who may otherwise die on the streets, the army occasionally called in to restore order…..  There are not enough words to capture the difficulties and the intense pain these pulverised communities are experiencing, over a quarter of a century into democracy and nearly 370 years since Europeans felt they had the right to take this windy, dramatic peninsula jutting into the South Atlantic, and capture people from trade routes to build a city for their owners.  There is now a piece of fabric art in the District Six Museum that collects memories and reflections of the displaced, with one saying:


Happy Days

District Six

Living was cheap

Life precious


Now in Hanover Park

Living’s expensive and

Life is cheap


What happened to District Six after it was bulldozed?  It was renamed Zonnebloem, ‘Sunflower’ (mercifully reverting back to District Six just last year), but with the exception of the construction of a large technical college that initially barred the admission of non-white students, the land has remained mostly vacant.  This is largely due to local, national, and international condemnation, and enormous resistance from campaigners in the 1980s working under a “Hands Off District Six” slogan, underpinned by a sense that District Six is and must remain ‘salted earth’.  Although there has been some new housing constructed at its edges, which continues today as part of a land restitution process with an already long and tortured history, the huge, haunting emptiness of District Six is jarringly at odds with the bustling core of Cape Town.  This brilliant piece of GIS research by staff and students at CPUT reveals the spatial extent of what was lost, as do these photos:


District Six today.  Sources: District Six Museum and my own collection




For 25 years now, the renowned, beautifully curated, simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking District Six Museum has attempted to recreate and preserve the many memories of the place, to celebrate its history and importance to Capetonian and South African culture, to mourn what was lost, and to lobby for a brighter future – especially for the surviving ex-residents who lost everything, and for their descendants. This brings me back to my first visit to Cape Town in April 2004.


The Museum was, of course, my first destination on that trip.  After spending a good two hours in the former Methodist church taking in all the oral histories, the poignant exhibits, and the tender, haunting live music being played by two musicians who were former residents, I asked the man seated at the front desk, an Education Officer, where I should walk to see what was left of District Six.  He said, “It’s a quiet day here.  I’ll show you.”  He got someone to cover the front desk for him, and we walked for about an hour through the ruins of District Six.  His name was Joe Schaffers, born in District Six in 1939.  During that walk I learned more about place, community, housing and home, land, memory, power, resistance, anti-racist struggles, and the power and value of human dignity and hope, than I had ever learned before in my entire life.  Here was a geographer of the streets, someone who seamlessly integrated an awesome knowledge of neighbourhood, city, country, region and globe, laced with a glorious mix of wit, wisdom, anger, and passion.  At one point I asked him a bit about his past, and he stopped walking and said, “You see that block of flats there? That’s what’s left of the Bloemhof Flats. We lived there and we got kicked out in 1968.” The Bloemhof Flats was a municipal housing complex in the District, a community within a community, and a place with its own civic energy via social organisations and sports and music associations.  Joe met his wife Audrey there, who was also born and bred in Bloemhof.  The block Joe and Audrey lived in after they got married was one of those in the complex that were bulldozed in the demolitions, replaced by a row of garages to serve the remaining buildings that were spruced up and gentrified by white residents, and the whole diminished complex was then renamed ‘Skyways’.


Block C (where Joe was born), The Bloemhof Flats, District Six, 1964.   Source: Joe Schaffers


Children at play in the Bloemhof Flats.   Source: Joe Schaffers.


Audrey Schaffers (with daughter of a family friend) on her parents’ Bloemhof Flats (Block G) balcony, 1965.  Source: Joe Schaffers


The destruction of Block C (Joe’s home), The Bloemhof Flats, 1968.   Source: Joe Schaffers.


Joe and Audrey were uprooted and dumped in Hanover Park, 15km away from District Six.  The entire Bloemhof community, as with the entire population of District Six, was scattered among different townships.  Here is a photograph of the home Joe and Audrey were forced to make for themselves in Hanover Park.  This township was cynically named after Hanover Street, the thriving commercial thoroughfare of the old District Six where Joe and Audrey did all their shopping.  Hanover Park was very, very different from everything they knew.



When this profound hour of my life ended, Joe bade me farewell and headed back to the Museum, whilst I walked further along Constitution Street, into the heart of the empty, forlorn, enormous tract of grassland in the heart of Cape Town where 60,000 souls once lived. I was a whirlwind of emotions. I had spent my PhD (1999-2003) researching displacement caused by gentrification in Toronto and New York City, and I thought I knew something about the experience of eviction, and the dirty politics and systems causing displacement.  But I hadn’t experienced anything like this before. It was like I had been mentally electrocuted. As I surveyed the ghostly scene, I remember saying out loud something along the lines of, “One day, I am going to bring my students here so they can experience this.  They need to experience this.”


I never forgot Joe and what I learned from him that day, and although we did not keep in touch, my dream to take students to Cape Town was kept alive by continuing to read about the city and the country.  I immersed myself in all kinds of literature, popular and academic, as well as the music of the city, becoming particularly fond of the jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), another District Sixer.  Whenever I listened to albums like Water from an Ancient Well and Manenberg: Is Where It’s Happening I was immediately transported back to that hour with Joe.  For some years, the busyness of academic life and other teaching commitments meant that I did not have the opportunity to propose a field course to Cape Town to my employer.  In 2008, I moved to the University of Edinburgh (from the University of Bristol) to teach human geography.  For a few years I ran the geography programme’s undergraduate field course to Amsterdam, which had its moments, but my heart wasn’t quite in it.  I knew where I really wanted to take students.  An opportunity came in late 2015, when my successor as Amsterdam course organiser had to step down due to commitments elsewhere.  When it became clear that I was going to be asked to run Amsterdam again, I pre-empted that awkward conversation by saying that, “I’ll run the field course if I can propose a new destination.”  It was time for some paperwork.


My dear friend and colleague Jan Penrose concurred that Cape Town was the place to take our human geography students.  Jan has considerable knowledge of South Africa as her brother has lived and worked in Johannesburg for many years, and as a formidably gifted teacher with an awesomely expansive knowledge of political, historical and cultural geography (her book Constructions of Race, Place and Nation remains a highly relevant classic), I knew I had a fantastic ally.  Then I asked another dear friend and colleague, Julie Cupples, to be part of the project.  I knew Julie could bring to the course her brilliant scholarship and pedagogy in feminist, critical race, and decolonial theory (and praxis).  Although her empirical work is in Latin America, I felt (just as I did with Jan) that I could not do this course without her.  We sat down together with the paperwork and proposed a course where our human geography students would learn about coloniality and decoloniality, racism and anti-racist struggles, community organising, empowerment and hope in profound and novel ways.  As inequality is a theme that runs through the geography degree programme at Edinburgh, our goal was to fuse our knowledge of these issues with the knowledges of people in Cape Town so that students could learn about extreme inequalities from a range of theoretical perspectives and lived experiences.  We felt this was important as a majority of our students come from white privileged backgrounds, and if we could encourage them to start reflecting on their privileges, to start thinking about the sheer chance of where, when, and to whom they were born, then they might even be able to unlearn their privileges and then relearn their place in the world, in a context they would not forget, aided by all sorts of literatures (foregrounding the writings of intellectuals of colour in particular).  We were acutely aware that none of us were by any measure experts on Cape Town nor the geographies of South Africa, but we never pretended to be so.  In addition, it is by no means unproblematic to have three white professors take at least thirty mostly white and privileged students around Cape Town every year, but our intention was always to be very open about that, not only with our students (a helpful introduction to the politics and ethics of academic research), but especially with people who we worked with in the city.  With fantastic support from colleagues Sarah McAllister, Faten Adam and Rosie Russell, the course proposal was approved.


On the first day of our reconnaissance trip to plan the field course in April 2016, almost exactly twelve years after my first visit, I walked into the District Six Museum with Jan and Julie.  I was delighted to see that Joe was still working there, hardly looking a day older.  I said, “You probably won’t remember me,” and then reminded him of what he had done for me a dozen years before.  He replied, “I don’t forget hair that colour!” I explained why I was back, and what we were planning for our students, and we asked him if he would do for our students what he had done for me.  He replied enthusiastically, “Of course!”  After a lot more planning of a range of learning experiences for the students, the inaugural field course took place in September 2016.  It is difficult to describe how I felt when we took that first group of students into the Museum to meet Joe.  On the floor of the Museum there is a huge map of District Six where former residents have inscribed their memories where their homes once were.  It is bordered by a beautiful phrase from the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, “Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”  It has very deep meaning for the people of District Six, which I would never attempt to appropriate or change, but the phrase took on a personal meaning for me that day.



Every year since 2016, Joe has been exceptionally generous with his time and knowledge.  Time spent with him gives our students (and countless others who visit the Museum) first-hand experience of the enormous importance of place in all human life (the very essence of human geography), and offers them personal exposure to the importance of embedding geographic understandings in a sense of social justice. Joe allows our students to experience how the geographies that they study matter in the real world, and he seeks to empower them to act on what they learn to make the world a better place.  He teaches them about injustices of systematic racial discrimination, forced removals and human rights violations, and in doing so he directly challenges widespread stigmatizing views of people who are living in poverty.  He actively advocates a vision of diversity that sees great value in difference but also affirms that human similarities are much more significant than the things that distinguish us from one another. As he said to our students on that inaugural trip, “We all bleed the same colour, so we should never treat one group of people worse than another.”  This is typical of Joe at his best: in one sentence he elegantly discredited any belief in race as a biological category that justifies unequal treatment of human beings.  For four straight years, we have witnessed remarkable effects on our undergraduates.  Many of them are moved and hugely inspired. They leave the Museum full of knowledge, ideas and hope that they did not have before.  Some of them have said to us that they see the world in a new way.  On the field course last year, I took a moment to watch our students listening to Joe.  Every single one was completely captivated, much as I was when I first met him.  It is quite something, as a teacher, to watch such a master of the pedagogical craft in full flow.


Joe Schaffers teaching University of Edinburgh geography students, September 2019.  Behind him is ‘Skyways’, what used to be Joe’s home.


Joe educating our students in the District Six Museum, September 2016.


Our collaboration and friendship with Joe has allowed me to learn a lot more about his remarkable life.  Following eviction from District Six, Joe adapted to the limitations and hardships imposed by the involuntary changes to his life and place of residence by pursuing a distinguished career as a Health Inspector.  Even though he had a good job with a large fishing consortium in Cape Town, he felt that he needed to serve his displaced community.  He worked for 34 years in the townships, especially but not exclusively in Manenberg, rising to the position of Principal Inspector in 1980.  In this role he coordinated a team that addressed the abysmal conditions in these spaces of enforced racial segregation, and his work led to improvements in the quality of life and safety of hundreds of thousands of people.  This would be no small achievement at any time but it was especially remarkable during a time of national white supremacist rule, and its attendant system of brutal social engineering and resource deprivation for non-whites in all walks of life.  Joe realised the enormous psychological trauma of apartheid forced removals and he and his colleagues helped many families through this – whilst he and Audrey were still dealing with the trauma of forced eviction themselves.  They lived in Hanover Park for four years, before moving to Fairways (further south), then Claremont and now Wynberg (formerly white group areas where they could not have lived for much of their lives).  They have four children, two of whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know recently and who could not be prouder of their parents, and several grandchildren.  Upon retirement from his Principal Inspector role in 1998, Joe began volunteering for the Museum, becoming a permanent paid employee in 2000.  His primary reason for doing this work was to educate people about what happened to Cape Town and its people under apartheid, and to elicit attention and support for those who are still bearing the consequences of living under this system – the dismal material conditions I have described above.  His personal involvement in the sport and music fields has helped him and so many others who were affected by apartheid, and he is still involved in the development of Cape Town youth through various sport and music programmes.  An accomplished jazz singer, for decades he has worked tirelessly to promote and perform with the musical talents of people playing jazz in Cape Town. It is a fitting manifestation of the cohesiveness of his life that Joe often performs in the Museum itself, making music with visiting musicians who offer piano accompaniment of jazz standards.


Much like indigenous and oppressed peoples everywhere, Joe’s whole existence is about being with and coming from a place.  District Six is part of Joe – the spirit of the place circulates through him and shapes his worldview.  It emerges in all his stories, his knowledge, and in his deep love for his community and his people.  District Six, therefore, lives on.  After another memorable field course encounter with Joe in the District Six Museum in 2018, Julie said to me, “How about we nominate Joe for an Honorary Doctorate?”  So Jan, Julie and I did just that, and pitched it in light of the stunning contributions he has made to the education of our Geography students, and to acknowledge this tireless campaigner and believer in education as the pathway to a better world.  The violence and injustice that created the system of apartheid is, of course, not something unique to South Africa, nor something that has magically disappeared with its downfall.  We felt that such an award to Joe would be a powerful and far reaching display of support for all local, national and international organisations committed to struggles aligned with those to which Joe has devoted his entire life – both personal and professional.  But above all, we wanted to recognise his dedication and passion for the history of District Six and its people.  In May 2019, when the news came through that our nomination was successful, the delight was immense.  I thought of Joe in April 2004, the pain I could see in his eyes that day when we stood outside ‘Skyways’, the pain of 60,000 other District Sixers, the pain of millions of South Africans shunted around by imperial arrogance and disgraceful systems of social and spatial engineering.  When we called Joe to tell him the news, he was stunned and immediately replied that he could only accept it on behalf of the people of District Six – his people.  This Honorary Doctorate strikes me as particularly special.  Joe’s teaching is honest, passionate and truly beautiful not just in spite of the pain but perhaps because of it.  It still bothers Joe that so many people within and certainly beyond South Africa are in ignorance or denial about apartheid, not only where it came from and what it did, but its appalling, lasting consequences.  Imagine if the machinery were reversed, as Musa Okwonga invited us to do:


Just imagine if Cape Town were London. Imagine seeing two million white people living in shacks and mud huts along the M25 as you make your way into the city, where most of the biggest houses and biggest jobs are occupied by a small, affluent to wealthy group of black people. There are no words for the resentment that would still simmer there.


All is not well in stunningly beautiful Cape Town.  Regrettably, the passage of time, political and economic strife, spin and laziness mean that injustices like what happened in District Six can fade into history.  They need to be brought right back into the present, as stern warnings against where we are going as a species and against the politics of grotesque populism, colonial nostalgia, and ruinous indoctrination that enabled such removals under apartheid – politics that are proliferating globally as I write.  Knowledge of what happened in South Africa under apartheid is so important in order to understand the awful things happening in multiple international contexts, so we can guard against future injustices.  As my good friend Gareth Haysom reminded me recently, there are thousands of people in Cape Town (and way beyond) who do amazing work against the odds, against the forces of inequality, without recognition, without any expectation of praise. For them it is almost a calling, but also, in many ways, it is aligned to Samora Machel’s rallying call, “A Luta Continua.” And how the struggle continues!  David M. Smith began his first lecture on Geography and Social Justice by quoting August Losch, one of the great economists of locations and regions: “The real duty…is not to explain our sorry reality, but to improve it.”  It seems to me that Joe has spent his entire life doing both, and there are surely few people who could be more deserving of an Honorary Doctorate.  It is an honour to know Doctor Joe Schaffers and to call him my friend and inspiration.


Joe and I in the District Six Museum in 2017.


Tom Slater, March 2020.







Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.