Homecoming for District Six elders

In a windswept but joyous ceremony, former president Nelson Mandela on Wednesday handed over symbolic keys to the first two homeowners to resettle in Cape Town’s District Six.

Ebrahim Murat (87) and Dan Ndzabela (82) will be the first of an estimated 4 000 homeowners to resettle in the area over the next 36 months.

District Six was declared white under the Group Areas Act on February 11, 1967, and by 1982, 60 000 people had been relocated to settlements on the Cape Flats, their former homes flattened by bulldozers.

More than a thousand people, including a slew of largely African National Congress dignitaries, gathered at Chapel Street in District Six on Wednesday for what was billed as the “homecoming of the elders”.

Murat and Ndzabela cut red ribbons across the front doors of their still-unfinished townhouses, before receiving their symbolic glass keys from Mandela.

“I’m very happy indeed to be here and to be able to give you keys so that you can now settle in peace and permanently in your homes, without any threat that you will be removed from your houses as happened many years ago,” said Mandela.

He was also presented with a glass key. Wednesday was also the anniversary of his release from imprisonment in 1990.

As the wind whipped up grit from the building site, Mandela, the two beneficiaries, Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo, Western Cape Finance MEC Ebrahim Rassool and the chairman of the District Six Beneficiary Trust Anwah Nagia, signed twin scrolls of honour.

“I’m happy now ... It means to me a victory,” said Ndzabela, who was forcibly moved to Nyanga in 1959, even before the Group Areas declaration.

“Number one, I’m back home.
Secondly, I’ll see Table Mountain and I’ll see over the sea to Robben Island. That’s where our heroes were jailed. Table Mountain is important to me because it brings the tourists to visit our place, and they learn how we live in South Africa: as a rainbow nation we live together”.

Earlier, as they waited for the ceremony to start, some of the women in the audience danced and sang, including the song “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you”.

“I feel beautiful: can’t you hear me singing all the time?” said an exuberant Mareldia Johnson (60) another of the former District Six residents who will be moving back.

“Can’t you see how happy we are? District Six was always this happy. When the people were together they used to sing and dance. They used to stand on the street corners and sing.”

Asked if she thought a revamped District Six would be different, she said: “The houses will be more beautiful, because there were a lot of people living in one house in the old days, but the spirit is going to still be there. That will never go away, never”.

Earlier on Wednesday, in his reply to the debate on his state of the nation address, President Thabo Mbeki told the National Assembly that much had been achieved in South Africa’s first decade of democracy.

“In this context, we rejoice with those of our people who today will be returning to their beloved District Six,” he said. With an apparent eye on the coming elections, the ANC took full advantage of the “homecoming”, plastering central Cape Town in the days ahead of the event with posters proclaiming the return was “consolidating our victory”.

A few people in the crowd waved miniature ANC flags, and the bouquet of flowers presented to Mandela was tied with a ribbon in ANC colours.

Western Cape premier Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s spokesperson Riaan Aucamp said on Wednesday evening that as far he could ascertain the premier’s office had received no invitation to the event.

According to the Trust, 2 600 people had lodged District Six restitution claims with the Land Claims Commission by cutoff date. Of those, 1 250 opted to return to District Six rather than accept financial compensation. The remainder of the 4 000 families will be made up of people who missed the claims deadline but can prove to the Trust that they have links to District Six.

The proclamation declaring District Six “white” was signed by then-minister of community development PW Botha.

The forced removals, which began in 1968 and took more than a decade to complete, cost the apartheid government R55-million. But the stigma attached to the removals, and vociferous opposition from ex-residents, held back private investment in the cleared land, even though it was so close to the city centre. - Sapa

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