District Six: And then there was nothing

Fifty years ago, on the 11th of February 1966 to be exact, bulldozers moved in to destroy District Six, one of Cape Town’s oldest and most diverse neighbourhoods, after it was declared a whites-only area under South Africa’s Group Areas Act of 1950.

District 6 Cape Town Forced Removals

Located in the heart of Cape Town, District Six (so named as it was the sixth municipal district of the city) was home to a vibrant mixed community of mainly working class people who were artisans, labourers, freed slave descendants, merchants and immigrants of all races and religions.

District Six
A street in District Six (Credit: District Six Museum.)

The neighbourhood has been celebrated by many artists over the years: from authors Richard Rive, Alex la Guma and Bessie Head and painters Gerard Sekoto, Tyrone Appollis, Kenny Baker and Sandra McGregor; to photographers Jackie Heyns, Wilfred Paulse and George Hallett and musicians Abdullah Ibrahim, Mervyn Africa, Trevor Jones and Robert Sithole.

District Six Cape Town forced removals

This wonderful eclectic way of life was destroyed when the apartheid government ruled that the inner city should be occupied by whites only. By 1982, more than 60 000 non-whites (mainly “coloured” people) were forcibly moved to barren outlying areas known as the Cape Flats, and their houses were destroyed.

It is something I cannot even start to comprehend – imagine losing your home and your entire community like that. My husband still remembers visits to District Six in the late sixties/early seventies as a small boy with his mother, to see an old aunt, who was one of the few people who still lived in the neighbourhood…

The only buildings that were spared from destruction were a few mosques, churches and schools, and some buildings on the periphery of District Six, including the De Waal Drive flats and a row of cottages in Justice Walk (formerly known as Constitution Street).

District Six Cape Town forced removals
Galielol Raghmaan Jamaa Masjid (mosque) in District Six, Cape Town.
District Six Cape Town forced removals
St Marks Anglican Church in District Six, Cape Town.

I find the new street name “Justice Walk” rather ironic – these houses were saved, but sold to white people. I would feel very uncomfortable to be white and living in one of those houses today.

HousesinJusticeWalk
The houses in Justice Walk (formerly known as Constitution Street) in District Six, Cape Town.

Visiting the District Six area recently was a deeply moving experience. The entire space felt so desolate! Behind me was the beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain and in front of me incredible views of the city, harbour, ocean, Robben Island and the blue mountains in the far distance. But here I was, standing on a piece of land overgrown with grass and weeds, and pieces of building rubble still visible as proof of the injustice that was done so many years ago, and is continuing today.

District Six Cape Town forced removals
District Six in Cape Town is prime property with great views.

After all these years, District Six is still a very contentious issue. The only development that took place after the destruction was the building of the Cape Technikon (today part of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology), and lately a few new apartment buildings. The heart of District Six is still a piece of derelict land which is gradually shrinking as new developments on the periphery are starting to swallow up land.

District Six Cape Town forced removals
A mural on one of the De Waal Drive apartment buildings, on the border of District Six in Cape Town.

Despite the Restitution of Land Rights Act being passed in 1994 to help former District Six residents and their descendants move back to this area, not much has been achieved yet. While it is a complicated legal process (much of which I don’t understand), I am also convinced that there is a lack of political will. With its central position and incredible views, District Six is prime real estate and a small fortune is to be made!

District 6 Cape Town Forced Removals
A plaque in District Six, Cape Town.

If you would like to learn more about the history of District Six, the people and their memories, I highly recommend a visit to the District Six Museum in Buitenkant Street, Cape Town. It is run by brilliant volunteers such as former District Six resident Joe Schaffers. In this short video clip below, he gives an excellent account of the vibrant life in District Six and the subsequent forced removals.

(Spare weekly photo challenge)

12 thoughts on “District Six: And then there was nothing

  • September 11, 2017 at 11:08 pm
    Permalink

    This is, as usual, a well written and informative piece. I learnt much from it. Let us hope that, in time, we learn to live peacefully next to others who do not look like us.
    Edward Fagan recently posted…Health, The Best Bodily StateMy Profile

    Reply
    • September 14, 2017 at 5:36 pm
      Permalink

      Visiting District Six is very moving and really makes one reflect on the cruelty humans can have towards each other. It is my wish too that everyone would just embrace each others differences and live together peacefully!

      Reply
  • August 14, 2017 at 2:59 pm
    Permalink

    Thank You for a great article. My parents took the selfless step to “ship” their children overseas because of these despicable policies. They did not want us to experience the torment and humiliation that they had to endure. Their dignity was forever scarred. I have moved on from my anger. I still feel the pain of my family and neighbours – many of whom have since passed.

    Reply
    • August 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks for your kind feedback. I am so sorry for the pain and humiliation your parents had to endure. It is so awful and it saddens me that, until this very day, descendants of the District Six families have not yet had the opportunity to move back. And, as you wrote, many of the original residents have already passed away without being able to reclaim what was rightfully theirs…

      Reply
  • June 10, 2017 at 8:54 pm
    Permalink

    Even living now in Brazil and having photographed D6 in the 60s and 70s, the forced removal and destruction pains me much till today. Thanks for the well written article.

    Reply
    • June 11, 2017 at 4:10 pm
      Permalink

      It is a very dark and painful part of our history… something that should never be forgotten. Thanks for your comment. (I would love to see your full collection of District 6 photos.)

      Reply
  • February 18, 2017 at 8:28 pm
    Permalink

    I visited District Six and the museum there a few years ago. Its a place that resonates, everyone should go there we can all learn something from it.
    Jo recently posted…PIZZA PILGRIMS, DEAN ST, LONDONMy Profile

    Reply
    • February 19, 2017 at 10:27 pm
      Permalink

      So glad you had the opportunity to visit! A very moving experience.

      Reply
  • May 30, 2016 at 9:46 am
    Permalink

    I love the District Six Museum. Very well done displays- really gives you the feel of the neighborhood the way it was.

    Reply
    • May 30, 2016 at 12:07 pm
      Permalink

      I’m glad you had the opportunity to visit the museum. It’s a very informative and sobering experience…

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: