Honorary doctorate for former D6 museum guide

Dr Joe Schaffers and Professor Tom Slater at the University of Edinburgh.

A former District Six Museum tour guide, Joe Schaffers, 82, from Strandfontein, has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, in recognition of his efforts to educate the public about the community that was torn apart by apartheid.

He and his daughter, Joanne Schaffers, were flown to Scotland for the ceremony, on Monday July 4.

Dr Schaffers was nominated for the award by Professor Tom Slater, head of urban geography at the university.

“Initially when I got the call from Professor Slater, I thought perhaps he was making a joke, though when he called his university colleagues to the phone, they confirmed that this doctorate is real,” he said.

“I am just an ordinary person who loved doing my work, sharing the history of my community, and for me to receive this accolade is enormous.”

His acceptance speech had received a long and emotional standing ovation, he said.

Dr Schaffers was a City health inspector for 34 years before he joined the museum. He worked there for 23 years and would lead tours of the museum and the remnants of the old District Six neighbourhood, where he grew up.

But he left District Six in 1967 after he married his wife, Audrey. The couple have lived in Lansdowne, Hanover Park and Fairways and now call Strandfontein home.

“District Six was an area where people showed love and camaraderie for each other regardless of different religions, races or backgrounds,” he said.

Dr Schaffers said it was sad that many people, not only those from District Six, continued to suffer from the effects of apartheid’s forced removals.

Intrigued by inequalities in cities, Professor Slater visited Cape Town and the District Six Museum in 2004, which was when he met Dr Schaffers. He visited again in 2016, and for four consecutive years after that, with his students, who went on guided tours with Dr Schaffers.

“My students were moved emotionally by the experiences shared by Joe Schaffers, and they would come up to me and tell me that they see the world in a new light,” he said.

Professor Slater said he and colleagues, Jam Penrose and Julie Cupples, had been impressed by Dr Schaffers and had felt it was important to “acknowledge a lifetime of commitment that he dedicated as an educator and through his work as a health inspector”.

They had prepared a proposal to the university, which had been successful, and the honorary doctorate would have been awarded three years ago had it not been for Covid, said Professor Slater.

The acting director of the District Six Museum, Chrischené Julius, said the fact that the nomination had come from Professor Slater showed that Dr Schaffers had been able to draw empathy from a wide range of audiences for the story of District Six and the impact of forced removals.

“He has been pivotal to the success of the museum’s education programmes and he has touched so many lives, young and old, with his story,” she said.

Professor Slater is ending his 14-year relationship with the University of Edinburgh and will be joining Columbia University in New York. “I will look to continue my working relationship with Joe and the District Six Museum,” he said.

Dr Schaffer, who retired from the District Six Museum in 2020, said he was still available to help it, including running tours.

At the University of Edinburgh, from left, are Joanne Schaffers, Professor Tom Slater and Dr Joe Schaffers.