All the sixes

The apartheid regime is difficult to get your head round.

No blacksIts legacies are everywhere, from the statue of Jan Smuts in Company Gardens, to the only second ever performance of Athol Fugard’s blinding ‘Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act’ (which left me open-mouthed), and of course with the highly visible Robben Island. However for me, one of the most sinister places is actually just round the corner from the very middle class neighbourhood of Vredehoek, where I’m staying. And that’s District Six.

At the turn of the century the area was a thriving melting pot of Malay, former slaves, craftsmen and immigrants all rubbing shoulders and making ends meet in whichever way they could.


It was after WWII, when white supremacy stepped up from being dominant behaviour to legislatively endorsed that the population was segregated into four racial groups (“native”, “white”, “coloured”, and “Asian”). The philosophy was that the more races mixed, the more they fought. But it was in the late 60s, just as apartheid really took hold, with non-whites being stripped of political representation and black people being provided with services far inferior to those of the minority whites, that District Six was deemed a vice-filled slum, fit only for clearance. The fact of course that the area was prime real estate close to the city centre and Table Mountain, had of course nothing to do with it… And so the bulldozers moved in.

Over the next 18 years 60,000 people had their homes pulled down, were forcibly removed and banished to the barely equipped Cape Flats outside of Cape Town. But even though were moved out, a swathe of international pressure meant that the government was unable to build on the land they had created and District Six become a wasteland with only places of worship and police stations left standing. Prime real estate that had once housed families and communities was left to rot like some kind of ugly sore on the city.


One of the few remaining buildings in District Six


Since the 1994 election, which saw in Mandela’s premiership, the ANC-led government has been looking to restore land claims to many of the previous citizens. But how do you go about restoring land to 60,000 dispossessed people? Well, apparently you start with the oldest first.

On 11 February 2004, exactly 38 years after the area was forcibly cleared, Nelson Mandela handed the keys to the first returning residents, Ebrahim Murat (87) and Dan Ndzabela (82). Families have been returning steadily to the area ever since.

The museum

Street Tower

Street Tower

The bulldozing of the area and the memories of apartheid are kept alive thanks to the unique District Six Museum. This feels more like an artwork than a museum, with the ground floor covered by a street map of the area, handwritten notes from former residents indicating where their homes had been and favourite family recipes reflecting how much of a community this really was. Other features include street signs from the old district, displays of the histories and lives of District Six families, and historical explanations of area and its destruction.


Map of District Six

The museum keeps the memory of what happened present, not just with its displays and exhibitions, but also with it’s community spirit. And it was thanks to the museum  that I joined a March on February 11 2012 to commemorate 60 years since the clearance first began to reflect on what this means to the community.


We were led into what is left of the area by two bulldozers and a marching band. Sixty years ago the bulldozers went in to clear the land of houses, now the aim is to rebuild them.


Bulldozers lead the procession

The ‘Hands on District Six’ action, run by the museum and volunteers, aims to ‘clear away the rubble of apartheid’. And so it was an emotional start as we headed out of the centre of Cape Town towards Table Mountain and towards what is now largely barren wasteland. The restituents all carried stones from their home town to lay as a memorials in the cairn at one of the street intersections of what was District Six.

The people

Valerie, was nine years old when she and her family were moved out of the area. “Some of us have white fathers, some of us have black fathers,” she said summing up the mix that had made up the area. Being coloured, she was inherently indignant. With ‘beady eyes and high cheekbones and curly hair’, she dismissed the blacks who came from the North. However once she knew I was British, “our living standards improved under the red, white and blue”, she said. When I asked Valerie why she was on the march she said, well, as she was on the list for a house, she had to “show willing”.



Susan Lewis, however was thrilled to be on the march. It was part of her annual ritual. She had been one of the first to be moved out, and each year she returned with her best friend to commemorate how they had both lost their homes,  but had since had them restored. For her it was a joyous and community-filled event. Something that brought her together will people and places that meant so much to her. Her words stuck with me.“We are so blessed.”

‘Robbed for second time?’

Our quiet and emotional procession up towards the mountain soon changed though into a noisy, angry confrontation. About 15 minutes in to this both sombre yet celebratory occasion, our path was blocked by people holding placards. ‘District Six Property Owners robbed for the 2nd time’ they said. It was the District Six Advocacy Committee, led by Tonya who feel that this time it is now their rights which are not being observed. They claim the government is now moving them out of their homes, exploitatively paying them under market value for land that their parents and grand parents bought. “My parents died for this land!” shouted one protestor as a scuffle brokn out, banners were torn down and people were pushed over. A stand off with a bulldozer bought the march to a halt and police were called.

Stopping the bulldozers

Stopping the bulldozers

 ‘In the days of apartheid we had no rights. And now they are doing the same to us’. Gregory Arendze, District Six Advocacy Committe

When I asked Tonya what she wanted she told said to ‘Have our say’.  The committee’s point of view is that the Restitution Act does not protect current landowners, and that the Tripartite Agreement between the City of Cape Town, District Six Redevelopment Committee and the Commission for Restitution has not taken into account the 42 people who currently own 5 hectors of the land that has been identified for rebuilding.

However in the end the police, despite their fierce reputation (or maybe because of it) calmed things down and we went on our way, with some of the elders going on to lay their stones and the rest of us heading back to the museum for some well-earned squash and donuts. The protestors were still there but by then, they too probably needed their own refreshments.


The laying of stones

The District Six Museum is a must see for anyone visiting Cape Town. For any of us who have not lived through it, it can only give a tiny inkling into what apartheid must have been like.

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