District Six to get its name back

District Six, or Zonnebloem as it is officially known, is one step closer to being District Six again. The paperwork for the name change for the area near Cape Town’s city centre, made famous by forced evictions during the apartheid era, is now with the Geographical Names Council.

The neighbourhood, on the northern slopes of Devil’s Peak leading into the City Bowl, has a long history of forced removals and abuse. With land in short supply in the city, successive regimes have sought to remove non-white residents. This started in 1901, when black Africans were removed, leaving behind mostly coloured people.

In 1966 the apartheid government declared District Six a “whites-only” area. Thousands of homes, businesses and streets were demolished. That part never happened. But the violent upheaval also came with a name change, from District Six to Zonnebloem — “sunflower” in Dutch. The location was once part of a colonial slaveholding with the same name. At that time the unserviced slum of shacks and rudimentary buildings was known as Kanaladorp. In 1867 it grew into what was known as District Six, when it became the sixth municipal district in Cape Town.

READ MORE: District Six claimants take on land reform minister in restitution fight

On maps and road signs and in address books and official documents the area is still referred to as Zonnebloem. Little development had taken place since the area was demolished and declared a whites-only enclave. Besides a handful of private homes, offices and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the area still resembles an open wound of earth and overgrown bushes.

Bonita Bennett, the director of the District Six Museum, says: “Many people who’ve lived there — our families — they’ve never used the word ‘Zonnebloem’. It’s District Six. And that reflects what the attitudes and experiences of most Capetonians have been. Not referring to it as Zonnebloem was part of the resistance.”

The museum is leading the charge to have the area officially recognised as District Six by the Geographical Names Council. Campaigners have put in the paperwork and made representations to the council.

Bennett says: “Our application went in a year ago. The forms, the maps, the motivation. We’ve made a face-to-face presentation in February. And now we’re demonstrating that there’s been a public process.

“We’ve sent letters to businesses, organisations, in the area, anyone we could find. Because we also wanted to show it’s not just District Six: it’s a broader community around this campaign. There are businesses and organisations ready to support this. I don’t know if anyone is against this. They may have gone silent and will come out at some point.”

READ MORE: District Six fails to rise from the ashes of apartheid

But more than two decades have passed since the former residents of District Six were promised they would be able to return to the place they once called home.

Last month former land reform minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was ordered to appear before the land court, sitting at the Cape Town high court, and explain how the government plans to redevelop District Six. She also had to give reasons for delays in construction. Her argument was that there was just not enough money in government to develop the area effectively and in a short time.

Campaigners to have the District Six name confirmed say that making the name official won’t necessarily speed up restitution, but it will bring back some dignity to the land and the people.

Bennett says: “We talk about reclaiming instead of renaming. It’s always been a part of our call for reclamation, restitution and reparations for that area.

“We want people to come back to District Six; we don’t want them to come back to Zonnebloem. So it was always imagined that the restitution of people, their return, the proclamation of a national heritage site, and the reclaiming of the name District Six should be working in tandem.”

The move for renaming is not the first intervention of its kind. In 2013 artist Haroon Gunn-Salie undertook midnight guerrilla art theatre and removed street signs that read Zonnebloem, replacing them with ones reading District Six.

READ MORE: Artist tells what we have done

He says the art pieces stayed up for some time, with authorities seemingly unsure about how to respond.

“There was clear inaction. Six years later many of the street signs that I changed from Zonnebloem to District Six still remain,” he said. The city was stuck with an interpretative problem, that if they were to remove these artworks and road signs that I had changed, then it would have been the same re-removing the legacy of people and enforcing a secondary symbolic forced removal once again.”

Bennett says there is no time frame in which the naming council will make its decision. When it happens, it will be one more step towards restoring the dignity of people ripped away from their homes.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

Stella set to retain her perks

Communication minister will keep Cabinet perks during her two months of special leave

Not a sweet deal, Mister

Mister Sweet workers say they will not risk their health, and the lives of others, to continue producing and packaging confectionaries

Covid-19 grounds Nigeria’s medical tourists

The country’s elites, including the president, travelled abroad for treatment but now they must use the country’s neglected health system

Nehawu launches urgent court bid over protective gear for health...

The health workers’ union says the government has rebuffed its attempts to meet about mitigating risks to workers

Press Releases

Rahima Moosa Hospital nursing college introduces no-touch facial recognition access system

The new system allows the hospital to enrol people’s faces immediately, using artificial intelligence, and integrates easily with existing access control infrastructure, including card readers and biometrics

Everyone’s talking about it. Even Kentucky

Earlier this year South African fried chicken fast-food chain, Chicken Licken®, launched a campaign for their wallet-friendly EasyBucks® meals, based on the idea of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world