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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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)