Dispatches: What used to be there

Shifting landscapes: The abandoned Zimbabwean consulate in District Six. (David Harrison, M&G)

Shifting landscapes: The abandoned Zimbabwean consulate in District Six. (David Harrison, M&G)

"They took everything," says Angie. It is the third time the 63-year-old single mother of two tells me this. We are walking up Service Street to a beige council-owned block with the mural of a woman bearing a TV on her head.
Angie has lived there for 19 years. She wants to show me the view.

As we walk I ask Angie about the abandoned Zimbabwean consulate at the corner of Kuyper Street and Service Road.

They took everything, she repeats. The spiral staircase, wooden floorboards, carpets, geyser, electrical cabling and toilets.

She saw them do it, men in bakkies. For a while a man in black security uniform patrolled the Edwardian cottage. He is gone now, as is the corrugated iron that secured the holes created by the missing windows.

Angie – she has greying blonde hair and a tremor in one arm – unlocks the security gate and opens her flat door. It is dim inside, quiet. Her scullery is painted highlighter-pen green and flooded with winter light.

Its cramped view overlooks a vast absence: District Six. "It was the heart of the Malay community," says Angie. As we walk back down Service Road, passing trainee land surveyors from the nearby university of technology – "kaput" it is nicknamed – Angie says there is talk of being relocated to an edge township, Blue Downs. It happened once before, she reminds me, then waves goodbye.

"Coming from the city to a township is not easy," says Sumaya. She is seated on an enclosed stoep at 23 Kuyper Street listening to 567 CapeTalk. The view through the slatted window overlooks her husband Moussa's garden of myrtle, lavender, roses and jalapeño chillies. "We had hard days when we moved out."

Sumaya met Moussa at a "hop" in District Six. In the 1970s the married couple was relocated to Diep River, later Lavender Hill. Eventually they settled in Retreat. Now in their mid-70s, they moved back to District Six – or Zonnebloem, as it was rechristened – 18 years ago.

"I'm from both sides of the equator, if you know what I mean," says Sumaya with a grin, who has decorated the stoep area with vintage photos of Wale and Hanover streets. One of eight daughters, her decision to convert to Islam when she married Moussa, who was born on Wale Street, meant embracing a coloured identity.

Six of her sisters preferred their father's classification: white. She recalls the gasps when she visited an estranged sister on her deathbed. "Sometimes I cry about it at night."

Moussa nods, returns to sweeping the pavement. I walk back up to the corner of Service and Kuyper where four young men sit in a huddle near the pedestrian bridge.  

At night they sleep in the abandoned consulate. It still has a roof.

Dispatches is a series that provides a glimpse into who we are and how we live in South Africa

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