Homeward trek for the District Six exiles

A thick white cloud unfurls from the peak of Table Mountain as a swirling stream of blood runs into the gutter by the Zeenatul mosque. Worshippers throng outside the green-domed mosque, where sheep are being slaughtered for the Muslim festival of Eid, as they have done for decades.

When apartheid’s bulldozers came to level District Six, the places of worship were the only buildings spared. But on the battered hillside where a multiracial community was supposed to be reborn, there is little sign of a renaissance.

The district, once a jumble of cobbled alleys and home to a mix of people - Asian, mixed-race Coloureds, Africans and whites - in the heart of Cape Town, was destroyed in one of apartheid’s most infamous injustices.

It was hoped that its re-creation, begun amid much fanfare in 2003, would be a symbol for the healing of the nation under majority rule. But after nine townhouses, part of a complex for the elderly, were completed last March, rebuilding has been held up by a shortage of money.

Across South Africa, the restitution of land to people forcibly removed under apartheid has rarely been accompanied by the financial backing required to rebuild these shattered communities.

‘The whole restitution process has been narrowly focused on land, but what people lost was more than land,’ said Ruth Hall, a researcher on land reform at the University of the Western Cape.

‘Often the value of the land was less than the value of the house on it. Many people see restitution as their right to a new life in a new South Africa. It is bound up with their expectations for service infrastructure and access to schooling, rebuilding a community.’

Late last year the clouds parted for District Six, when a bank agreed to lend financial muscle to the rebuilding. A scheme to sell bonds secured against the value of the new homes is now expected to resurrect the project.

Now the brick skeletons of a further 15 townhouses have begun going up behind the pristine white buildings erected for the first people to return. Most of the hillside, however, remains an empty patch of land, still strewn with rubble where the houses were destroyed.

The ambition was to recreate the community spirit of a district famed for its style and energy, a place where cricket and football were played in courtyards, and ‘priests, prostitutes and lawyers’ rubbed shoulders, in the words of one former resident.

Some fear that atmosphere can never be restored. ‘I don’t think they can revive the old community,’ said Ebrahim Murat, 88, one of the first to return. ‘It will be very hard. The boys in those days had respect for each other and for the old people - if you were carrying something, they would always want to help you with it. It’s not like that any more.’

When District Six was cleared, non-white people were removed to distant settlements in the windy Cape Flats, which became breeding grounds for criminal gangs.

‘For the first time, criminality became something quite ugly,’ said former resident Valmont Layne, now director of the District Six museum in Cape Town. ‘People became scared to walk after dark. You would find yourself living in the middle of an area with no shops, no transport.

‘As kids, we used to have running battles with white kids on the other side of the highway. It foreshadows what could have happened if we hadn’t had a peaceful transition.’

Cape Town, known as the mother city, was one of the earliest European settlements in Africa, established as a stopping place for Dutch sailors on their way to the East Indies.

District Six was created as a settlement for freed slaves of Malay, Indian and African descent, but it also became a home for settlers from the Caribbean and Eastern European Jews.

The neighbourhood is regarded as one of the wellsprings of South Africa’s cultural mix, as well as a functioning example of a multicultural society where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side. Under apartheid that was the opposite of what was wanted. In 1966 PW Botha, then Housing Minister and later President, declared the neighbourhood a slum and ordered that its residents be relocated.

A gleaming technical college, originally for whites only but now largely attended by mixed-race students, was built on the site, but the government failed to lure big companies to the area after protests from the ousted residents.

‘There were many pockets of these multicultural communities. District Six was just the biggest and oldest and most famous,’ said Layne, whose family left when he was 11.

‘People say you can’t rebuild it - but we can work with what was good about it. How can we heal the city and the country if we don’t use examples of what was good from our own past?’

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