District Six’s diversity should live everywhere

The best way to remember District Six and preserve its legacy is by making sure our children and their children grow up in a society where all colours, cultures and traditions live in harmony, writes Ryland Fisher.

This week I have been nostalgic about District Six. I have been looking at old photos, reading old articles and listening – over and over – to songs by David Kramer and Taliep Petersen which gave life to so much of District Six’s character.

Yet, it was only when I was on Espresso on SABC3 on Thursday morning, talking about the 50th anniversary of District Six being declared a white group area that I suddenly remembered the impact of what had happened.

Before my interview, they showed footage of the bulldozers flattening homes while residents’ possessions stood on the pavements.

Those images almost made me cry because it brought back vivid memories of one of the cruellest acts of the apartheid government.

I remembered going to interview Naz Ebrahim, who was the leader of the District Six residents, in her home in Rochester Road in 1980. She was one of the last people to resist removal and her home stood out like a beacon among the rubble of houses that had been demolished. Her home, Manley Villa, was the last house to fall in that street.

Much has been written about District Six in the past week – including in this column – and I don’t normally write about the same thing two weeks in a row.

But the question that has been nagging me is the best way to preserve the legacy of District Six, a place that influenced many of us as we grew up and continues to influence us today.

District Six was in many ways what Cape Town, and indeed South Africa, is struggling with today.

It was a community where people lived together and in harmony despite apartheid-imposed differences.

Apartheid was an evil system that not only destroyed communities, but also people’s souls. It was designed to divide people, thus giving a minority power over the majority.

Now South Africa is maturing as a democracy – we are celebrating 22 years of democracy this year – it is important to strive for a society that is everything apartheid was not.

District Six was such a society. It allowed Africans, coloureds and whites to live together as neighbours. It was a melting pot of cultures reflected in the music and art generated in the area.

The best way to remember District Six and preserve its legacy is by making sure our children and their children grow up in this kind of society.

We must learn to respect and enjoy each other’s cultures and not confine ourselves to narrow cultural experiences.

We often hide behind tradition and culture as a way of excusing ourselves from exploring other cultures. There is still intolerance of difference.

The response this week to Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, marrying a Muslim woman – from Muslims and Xhosa traditionalists – showed how far we have to go as a society.

The chiefs opportunistically want to depose Mandla as a chief while many in the Muslim community have asked questions about his conversion.

I love that somebody from the Xhosa tradition and of royal blood married a Muslim.

This could debunk many myths about perceived differences between groups in our society. This is partly what we fought for when we opposed apartheid.

We wanted the right to live where we chose and the right to get married to whoever we wanted, irrespective of differences.

We are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world but it is also one of the most diverse and we should do more to explore this diversity.

We need to get out of our residential areas, many of which are still race-based, and go into communities where we would not normally go. We might just be pleasantly surprised when we realise most people are not very different from others.

It is easy to shelter from things that might appear strange to you but, sometimes, if you are prepared to open your mind, you will find “strange” cultural experiences can be enjoyable.

This would show a rejection of apartheid and its architects and would be the best way to memorialise the spirit of District Six.

It will probably be impossible to rebuild the vibrant community that is District Six in the area where it was situated, but we can build it everywhere in Cape Town and South Africa.

Let’s learn to embrace each other, appreciate each other’s cultures and not point fingers at people who fall in love across religious, racial or cultural barriers.

If we do this, it would give new meaning to the cry: Long live District Six, long live.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 13 February 2016)