District Six stands as a monument to tragedy

The barren piece of land on the outskirts of Cape Town stands as a painful reminder of a shameful period in our history, writes Ryland Fisher.


Much has been written about District Six, especially over the past 50 years since it was declared a white group area. And much will be still be written, especially in the coming week of the 50th commemoration on Thursday, February 11.

There will be those who reminisce about what things were like in the district; some will remember the vibrancy, some will argue it was a slum.

But irrespective of what District Six was, it remains a blight on Cape Town. The barren piece of land on the outskirts of the city stands as a painful reminder of a shameful period in our history.

There is a part of me that feels it should remain barren, because it is almost a living monument to a time when people thought that they could control others’ lives simply because they looked and sounded different from them. They used bulldozers to force people out of homes where they lived reasonably comfortably and relocated them dozens of kilometres away.

But the best response to those who wanted to create a piece of white heaven close to the city centre – and which they called Zonnebloem as a kind of “up yours” to the residents who were removed – would be to make sure that people return to the area in their thousands and restore some of that vibrancy of years gone by.

Of course, things will never be the same in District Six.

I didn’t grow up in District Six, but like everyone on the Cape Flats, I have family and friends who lived there. I remember as a child going to District Six at New Year from Solent Court in Hanover Park with Boeta Leimie, one of the few people I knew who had a car.

I remember the car getting stuck as we went up one of the hills and all of us having to get out to push.

Fortunately, there were about eight of us in a car meant to seat five, which made pushing a bit easier, but it was still uphill. I also remember the thrill of seeing the klopse (minstrels) walking down Hanover Street, especially the “atchas” who were a group dressed as Native Americans and led by a devil dressed in red and armed with a huge fork.

The devil and some of the other members of this troupe, some with mini axes (not real ones, I think) used to chase us down the street and we ran into people’s houses to escape. We were terrified and excited at the same time.

Thousands of people used to line the streets, waiting to see their favourite minstrel troupe, in much the same way they do nowadays in Adderley Street.

Later, as a teenager, I remember going to one of the few clubs in town that allowed blacks and later sleeping at a friend’s house in the Bloemhof Flats, until one day he told us that they were also being forced to move to make way for whites.

It is difficult to keep memories of a place like District Six alive. It has been 50 years since the area was declared white and more than 40 years since the bulk of evictions took place. Most of the people who applied for some kind of restitution for losing their homes in District Six are now old; some are dead.

If and when they return – and at the rate things have been moving it looks like never – they will move into an area that is completely different to what they left behind. They will have to build a new community, just like they had to do in Hanover Park, Mitchells Plain, Manenberg and all the other places to where they were relocated.

Many will probably be disappointed when they realise it is not the same.

My father-in-law is almost 80 and has dutifully attended all the land claims meetings in Mitchells Plain over many years, after he put in his claim.

Yet after every meeting he returns despondent, after hearing yet another story from officials.

It is because of people like him, who desperately want to return to District Six, that the government needs to fast-track its processes. It is disgusting, to put it mildly, it is taking so long to sort this out, even though I understand the complexities. I remember attending an event outside the Moravian Mission Church in District Six in November 2000 when then-president Thabo Mbeki handed over keys to the first residents who would move back.

More than 15 years later, nothing much has changed in District Six and very few people have moved back. This 50th anniversary presents the authorities – at local, provincial and national level – with an opportunity to make amends and get people back into District Six.

We cannot afford to have more people die without realising their dream of returning.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 6 February 2016)