“People who come here say how alive this place is. They say they actually feel the vibration of the rich history that fills these walls. I have given 19 years of my life to set up a museum that tells the story of the Forgotten People of Simon’s Town”.[1]

Formed in 1998, the Heritage Museum in Simon’s Town is a treasure trove of local history that fills the whole of the ground floor of the former Amlay family home, in St George’s Street, Simon’s Town. While there is a distinctive Cape Malay feel to the museum, with its “bruidskamer”, katieb display and Khalifa exhibition, the museum encompasses all the people who were forcibly removed from Simon’s Town. Displays of photographs of Simon’s Town before the Apartheid Forced Removals, which show mothers chatting over stoep walls, children playing and fishermen plying their trade give the visitor an insight into the colourful community that was forcibly removed from the town. Juxtaposed with these photographs are a sinister letter from the Apartheid Government to the Amlay family about the impending removal, a ‘White’s Only’ railway station sign, an array of wedding dresses made by seamstresses from the old community and a copy of the Koran that had been translated into Afrikaans by Imam Baker in 1961.

Run by Mrs Zainab (Patty) Davidson nee Amlay, and her husband, Sedick Davidson, this charming museum with its beautifully laid out garden, old wooden floors and beautifully carved staircase banister, is steeped in the history of a distant past – another world, where for centuries a community of people lived, loved, fought, struggled, were born and died in this little seaside village until they were forcibly removed from their homes by the Apartheid Government in the 1960s.

Mrs Davidson, whose emotional return to her family home in 1995 was portrayed in a number of newspaper reports at the time, says the main purpose of the museum is to let the younger people know about the rich cultural heritage of their ancestors that so many of them know nothing about. In a world where materialism has formed so large a part of people’s psyches, she wanted to show the younger generation how the communities of old lived, where money didn’t define people.

Mr Sedick and Mrs Zainab Davidson on their wedding day in Simon’s Town

For Mrs Davidson herself, Villa Zain is more than a museum, it was her childhood home. Her father, Dawood Amlay was a local businessman and town councillor in Simon’s Town. In 1935, when the family bought the house, he changed its name from Villa Marina to Villa Zain, after his little girl. For her, the spirits of her family still linger and she feels sure that her father ‘knows’ that she is back – and that he is pleased. The forced removals, she says, was especially painful for the older people.

Mrs Davidson says a number of the older people just died of broken hearts, her mother-in-law being one of them. She died just one week after being moved out of her home in Devon Street, Simon’s Town. Mrs Davidson expresses a certain gratitude that her father died before he was moved out, even though she concedes that the pressure of being told to move out of his beautiful family home, no doubt precipitated the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him.

It is ironic that her family were the last to move out of Simon’s Town, in 1975 and she was the first ex-resident to move back in 1995.  The circumstances that led to her return to the family home was an Act of Providence.  Having just sold their house in Athlone and at the same time, acting on behalf of her family in the Land Claims; she received a call from the Public Works Department saying that they were about to rent Villa Zain out as vagrants had moved in and were ruining the building. The timing was fortuitous and it was decided by the extended family that Zainab and her husband Dickie should occupy the house while the land claim was being processed.

Describing the state of the house when they moved back, she says the house was completely ruined. “There were snakes, geckoes, lizards and fleas.  The old fireplaces had been ripped out and the walls were covered with excretement and grime. At the time my sisters and I just cried”. Looking at the museum today, it is difficult to imagine the destruction that she describes, as she and her husband have beautifully restored the old house at their own expense. 

After starting out the museum in just two rooms of the house, word got around and soon people started knocking on her door with photographs, wedding gowns and artefacts from their former lives in Simon’s Town.  She says people became passionate about the museum and as their enthusiasm grew, so did the museum.

Today the Heritage Museum is visited by foreigners and locals alike. They have a website page and receive enquiries from all over the world. There are regular visits from local schools and it is these visits that seem to delight Mrs Davidson most.

Speaking about the country today, that is so rife with gangsterism, she says: People were moved away from their communities, extended families were split up and, because they lived so far from their workplace and schools, fathers couldn’t sustain the families on their own anymore. Where before, many women took in washing for the sailors, from their homes; they now had to go out to work.   Suddenly there was no-one to look after the children and they were left to their own devices. Gangsterism is one of the sicknesses that resulted from Forced Removals”.

Mrs Davidson tells me that many people, especially people from other countries, who visit the museum, are shocked when they hear what has happened here.  She fondly relays the story of a little 8 year old British boy who came to visit the museum, and having heard the story of the Forced Removals, came up to her afterwards and said “I would just like to apologise to you for what my people have done”. She says her heart just melted at the sensitivity of this little boy. “I just hugged him”.

Asked about her hopes for the future of South Africa, she says her greatest hope is “to see proper integration and that people can just be people without being judged by their culture or their creed”.

I asked Mrs Davidson what Simon’s Town is like today, compared with the Simon’s Town she grew up in: There is no comparison. Today it is a seaside village for the rich. Our people – our community is not here anymore – so you can’t compare.

I would love for people to move back, but I don’t know if that will ever happen again because the costs are exorbitant

She says she feels both happy and sad to be back living in Villa Zain.  I feel both happy and sad because I am back to my roots, but well I’ve got nobody around me.

I am back to my roots, but I am isolated.  It is not the same.  It could never be the same.

End Notes

[1] Interview with Mrs Zainab (Patty) Davidson 30.09.09

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