Where history has led her: in conversation with Bonita Bennett, Director of District Six Museum
Bonita Bennett has a particular way of speaking. Herwords, strung together to make sentences are, in a matter of milliseconds, carefully chosen. Her sentences, weaved into ideas, are spiced with introspection. And her ideas reveal a depth that continuously opens the way greater analysis. Most importantly, you get the sense that no matter how mundane the topic at hand is, you are being educated you on its subtleties and
nuances. To learn that Bonita, now the director of the world renowned District Six Museum in Cape Town, was a teacher for more than 10 years is hardly surprising. “I’m passionate about learning but also about other people’s discovery,” she says. “Teaching during apartheid, I always used to ask myself ‘what have I enabled?’” Imparting knowledge in a stimulating and interesting way is the work of both teachers and museums. At the helm of one of this dynamic museum, Bonita oversees the processes which ensure the histories that give meaning to the South African identity are captured and told in a manner that empowers the community. To date, the District Six Museum has received a number of accolades including the provincial government of the Western Cape’s “Museum of the Year” award 2010/11. Its global recognition increased when US First Lady Michelle Obama visited the museum in June 2011.
After working for an educational programme targeting street children and at the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR), Bonita longed to explore other avenues of learning. “In the 1980s I was very influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire and the Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed,” she recalls. “So I regard informal learning as just as, if not more important, than formal learning.” After resigning from SAIRR her move to the Verification of Land Claims located at the University of the Western Cape initially seemed an unusual fit. However, largely because many community members could not verify claims using concrete dates, the process morphed into a fascinating process for Bonita is it was largely one of story‐telling. This was the inspiration behind her decision to look at the topic of displacement for her post‐graduate thesis.
Ensuring that voices, particularly those of the marginalised, are heard and celebrated is a trait that has been nurtured from Bonita’s days as a young activist. Her family grew up in Bonteheuwel on the infamous Cape Flats (after they moved from District Six) and although the young Bonita didn’t feel a connection with the area and eventually moved to Mitchell’s Plain, it was the clear the history, vibrancy and significance of District Six was to stay with her for most of her life. “My father used to play in a band in District Six,” she says. “Although he has since passed away, I have met many of his fellow band members at the museum.” In Mitchell’s Plain Bonita gravitated towards the youth movement. Although her family was politically conscious, overtly they stayed away from political action and as the first family member to head for university, they would have preferred Bonita do the same. “I had friends that were getting arrested and my family worried about the state of emergency.” But reading Franz Fanon and becoming politically active at the tail end of the Black consciousness movement, Bonita, classified as coloured, identified strongly with being black and believed in standing up for the cause. Her politics were based on non‐racialism and she became heavily involved with community and civic groups, and was influenced by liberation theology espoused by her inter‐church group. Being part of these groups, listening, understanding different perspectives and hearing stories of community members taught Bonita the benefit and necessity of oral tradition, the virtual DNA of museums in contemporary society. Her postgraduate in sociolinguistics, focusing on dialects and languages, seasoned her passion for personal and community narratives.
Bonita’s move to occupy a directorship at District Six was not calculated. Volunteering at a preschool in the same building as the District Six Museum, she was, unexpectedly, offered a part time job by the sound archive department to listen to a number of pre‐recorded oral histories. She divided her time between the museum and the Centre for Extra Mural Studies at the University of Cape Town until she was offered the position of Collections Manager, focusing on research and documentation. In 2007 she was appointed Acting Director. Being black and female sent a powerful statement that reverberated through the museum sector. Although she still needed to develop her financial management skills, Bonita welcomed the professional challenge of the position. Perhaps it was the teacher in her that instinctively felt comfortable with this opportunity to learn something new. Or maybe it was simply genetic. “I come from a family of strong women,” she says. “I learned about discipline and caring from my mother.”
Now finding herself in charge of the strategic direction of a museum with an international image, Bonita needed to ensure the museum’s voice and objectives were clear, both internally and to the public at large. “Because racialism is rearing its ugly head the District Six museum is about building a city of people, not races,” she notes. “At the heart of building such a cultural heritage precinct is ensuring there is a reconnection to the community.” Members (ex‐residents of District Six) are part of what is known as the Seven Steps Club. The name is an honour to the 7 steps in District Six, a famous gathering spot in the old District Six and a strong symbol of Cape heritage. The last Thursday of every month is “members morning” where stimulating discussions on different topics are the norm. The 7‐steps club also assists in implementing the educational programmes being run by the museum. Decisions relating to the themes, angles and ways in which knowledge is presented (for example through certain exhibitions) lie with Bonita and the curatorial committee. With knowledge and history being layered, the aim is to use diverse strategies to peel away at the layers in order to continuously reveal new dimensions of identity, both individual and collective.
Managing a staff of twenty Bonita tends to be very consultative in decision‐making processes. She has an intrinsic desire to see her staff members develop and often encourages them to pursue training courses or higher education. Working on life histories naturally tends to make her intuitive to the needs of her colleagues, as well as members of the museum. “The staff is great and we really enjoy each other. But sometimes I get too involved and find myself mothering them. Then I realise that I have to step back.” Bonita is gingerly walking the tightrope between professional commitment and personal well‐being. During the early days of being a director, getting involved in counselling and healing with ex‐residents, overseeing product development and developing new policies, meant that Bonita worked long hours with little distinction between weekdays and weekends. In addition, in a bid to move away from a hierarchical working environment each manager, including Bonita takes turns to sit at the reception and receive visitors. “As the director it is important for me to understand that position and what better way to do that than to actually sit there,” she says, adding that the job was far more difficult than anticipated since she often found herself unable to juggle her love of conversing with visitors with receiving money and returning the correct change.
Now this wife and mother of three has taken to deliberately leaving her laptop at the office on certain days of the week. “I try to live a healthy lifestyle now,” she says. “We live opposite a park where I enjoy going for walks; I love gardening and more recently we have been leaving town for occasional weekends.” What used to be seen as intermittent treats are now considered rights to be fiercely treasured. In taking greater care of herself and stepping back from the busyness of the moment, Bonita is coming to appreciate the interconnectedness of different aspects of herself and her life.
Although the relatively recent acquisition of a second building has its logistical challenges, and funding‐raising is an area where contentment is short‐lived, Bonita loves her job. In between various involvements including with the Tourism Enterprise Project locally and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, writing articles and speaking at international conferences, she navigates the fierce currents of financial sustainability in the sector. Not wanting to reduce South Africa’s struggle for freedom to a shallow, feel‐good experience simply packaged for tourists, Bonita has resisted aggressively marketing the museum to the tourist sector only. “We do get a lot of tourists that come off the streets or through a tour company but we also depend a lot on volunteerism and philanthropy,” she says. The museum also receives funding from the National Lotteries Board, the National Heritage Council, and the Department of Arts and Culture. The South Africa story is infinite and there will always be a narrative needing to be unearthed.
However, Bonita is uncertain if, in five years time, the museum will be the best vehicle through which she can realise this passion. “Oral history has been a constant theme in my life” she says. So it may rear its head again sometime in the future but maybe in a different way