/ 14 June 2019

District Six to get its name back

A place of one’s own: The construction site for phase three of District Six’s redevelopment. About 60 000 people were forcibly removed from 1968 onwards and most buildings were razed.
A place of one’s own: The construction site for phase three of District Six’s redevelopment. About 60?000 people were forcibly removed from 1968 onwards and most buildings were razed. (David Harrison)

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.