Return to District Six

The once-powerful PW Botha wasn’t in Cape Town on Wednesday when former president Nelson Mandela handed over new house keys to octogenarian former residents of District Six. It was 38 years to the day since Botha, then minister of coloured affairs and community development, declared the neighbourhood a white area.

Such was the infamy of this malevolent act that much of District Six has remained undeveloped: a green scar on the slopes of Table Mountain — a heartbreaking reminder of the racial fanaticism that forcibly removed more than 60 000 people from a pulsating quarter close to the city centre, with magnificent views over the docks and bay.

Die Groot Krokodil now lives in comfortable seaside retirement, unpunished and unbowed. But Botha is also an octogenarian, and at least he has lived long enough to witness all apartheid’s grandiose works of white supremacy crumble to naught. Over the next three years, for example, the District Six Beneficiary Trust plans to build about 4 000 new houses for those who had their homes bulldozed.

The obliteration of District Six was particularly poignant because it was an unruly multiracial, working class neighbourhood of teeming streets, Victorian buildings, tenements, tailor shops, spice bazaars, churches, mosques and nine synagogues.

Four years after it had been declared a white area, with removals already taking place, I remember coming across a sign in the window of a closed-up shop, called, I think, Professor Colombi’s Dispensary. Perhaps the owner had already been relocated to the soulless wastes of cheap housing estates on the Cape Flats. The window was dusty and cracked, the sign smudged: “We have pills for all your troubles; stomach troubles; ulcer troubles; ear troubles; eye troubles; wife troubles.”

There are no pills for the pain of forced removal. It is unutterably sad to stand on a patch of waste ground with a man in his mid-thirties, five years old when the bulldozers came, who says: “This is where our house stood. My parents never talk about it. It’s just too painful.” David Newby, for 11 years the minister at the nearby Methodist church in Buitenkant Street, founded for descendants of slaves and serving District Six, recalls that such was the attachment to the place they had grown up that some elderly residents actually crept back into derelict buildings in order to die there.

Noor Ebrahim, now 60, took his racing pigeons to Athlone when his family was moved there in 1975. After three months he let them out to see if they would return. That evening, he recalls in his memoir, Noor’s Story, there was no sign of his pigeons. After a sleepless night he drove to Caledon Street, District Six, where, “I saw a sight which shook me to my core: my pigeons, all 50 of them, were congregated on the empty plot where our home had stood.”

This week’s handover of keys was truly an act of memory against forgetting. Apartheid authorities renamed the area Zonnebloem (sunflower). As if cursed, the ground remained empty till finally the city council built a convention hall, the cynically named “Good Hope Centre”. Then two other official buildings were erected: the Cape Technikon and a police barracks. Only about a third of the land remains for rebuilding homes.

The process of agreeing a policy for restitution has been fraught. There have been disagreements, factions, repeated delays. President Thabo Mbeki formally handed over the land in 2000; some houses were promised for 2001. This week’s ceremony was largely symbolic because the first terraced homes in Chapel Street are still incomplete.

Managing competing interests after so long has been complex. Some now feel settled out on the Cape Flats, or have moved on; many dream of nothing but a return. For others it’s too late; they died while the wrangling dragged on. An inclusive formula for restitution has been worked out: some opted for land, others for monetary compensation.

Central to the preservation of memory and the battle for return has been the District Six Museum, housed in Newby’s former Methodist church. Ironically, the building was originally owned by a slave trader.

Today the museum is powerfully moving in its simplicity: household mementoes, black-and-white photos of dancing troupes or sports clubs, a huge map on the floor where inhabitants trickled back and wrote down their names on the spot where they had lived. A city official, tasked with dumping all street signs into Table Bay, kept them at his home instead; when the museum began as a temporary exhibition he brought out his haul. Now the rusted street signs hang as a haunting remin- der of a community that was erased.

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