The only structures that remain in District Six are its churches, mosques and schools. Most of the land is barren and unoccupied. Where there are new buildings, they are either those of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology or new housing developments.
In 1966 the prime land next to Cape Town’s city centre was declared a whites-only area and over the course of a decade people were moved out and dumped on the Cape Flats.
It has been described as Cape Town’s lingering scar of apartheid forced removals. For 25 years, after a new democracy put an end to South Africa’s segregation laws, only a handful of the original residents have managed to return. But that is changing. A multibillion rand land reclamation project has been approved, which could see almost a thousand land claimants and their families returning to the area and living in densified housing apartments.
Many of these claimants are in the twilight of their years, with nostalgic, rose-coloured memories of their previous home still etched in their minds. But the memory of District Six is often more powerful than the actual experience of tens of thousands of people who called it home.
“People must move away from the idea of a romanticised District Six, because most of it looked like a slum. We don’t want to remember that,” says Shahied Ajam, chairperson of the District Six working committee.
“Given the state of the land, it is going to be difficult to bring back that tangible memory of District Six. However, we can bring back some good memories in terms of the diversity we are going to reintroduce.”
Ajam is spearheading the area’s redevelopment plans that will ensure people are compensated for the loss of their homes and that the new community becomes part of Cape Town’s central city development.
“This place was primarily known for its diversity and, secondly, its commerce. That is why we want to reintroduce the main street of Hanover Street, so that it could be recognised as the commercial and retail hub that it once was. We want to remember the joy, the laughter and the different cultures. And that’s what we want to bring back,” he says.
Ajam is aware of the emotional attachment of former residents to long-gone streets and buildings.
He himself points out where he grew up, using the nearby St Mark’s Church and the Muir Street mosques as beacons to find his bearings.
“The rubble of the demolished homes still covers some of the original street grid. On top of that was more rubble that was brought in later. But with development, many of those roads won’t be exactly the same. So we need to create a new District Six with a strong memory of the old District Six and we’ll do that with heritage sites as places of memory,” he says.
Ajam says business and development will be the focal point of a new District Six.
“Structurally, we want District Six to be an upmarket place. We don’t need more spaza shops here. We need more boutique shops, specialised shops.
“We want to make it very attractive for tourism because that essentially is what District Six will be about —tourism. Because business is here, I don’t have to rely on somebody else’s business. We want to turn this into a money-spinning economy. People must survive.”
But Ajam is acutely aware of the threats of development to the mostly working-class residents who will return to the area by as soon as 2023. District Six is part of the corridor of rapid gentrification, as well as commercial and high-rise residential buildings growing out of the City Bowl. He too fears gentrification and commercial expansion could mean the area would be too expensive for returning residents to pay high rates and taxes, or that some may accept lucrative offers from outsiders to buy their properties. That’s why he says there needs to be political will from the municipality to protect those who are returning.
“There has to be active and progressive public participation in everything that is going to be done. The residents have to buy-in. Together they will make a decision. We have three years to develop this place structurally,” Ajam says.
“We also have to help the claimants coming from the Cape Flats to come back. For more than 50 years they have been traumatised,”
While returning residents may not be able to trace their steps along old cobblestone roads or identify the buildings they once knew, there may be a chance of tracing some of the remnants. Ajam says artefacts are buried under the rubble and that he wants to see archaeologists combing through the area once the sod is turned on the development of a new chapter in District Six’s memory.
I want back the way it felt
I remember a District Six that was beautiful despite its ugliness
I could have taken the bus, but I preferred walking from my home to school. To me, it was about the experiences you had along the way. I would walk from our house in William Street, then turn into Tennant. From there it was into Hanover Street and then on to the Muir Street Muslim School.
When you are a child you don’t make an effort to remember what the buildings looked like, they were just there. You would never imagine they would never be there.
But I do remember many of the buildings were dilapidated. Many of them needed paint. Many of these buildings had broken windows.
I don’t want to go back to that District Six and how it looked. I want to go back to a District Six for the way it felt. I remember people singing in the street, whistling, and smiles. The friendliness of the people was such a beautiful culture. That is what I want back. To walk to my cousin’s house. To not have to phone ahead first. Just to knock on the door and then walk inside. — Mariam Solomons, 74, as told to Lester Kiewit