For District Six claimants, life's a stairway to hell

LAST month we attended a meeting in the City Hall where a newly formed representative body reported back to former District Six residents about the plans to bring some of them back to the area. I have been feeling uncomfortable about the meeting ever since.

We attended with my parents-in-law who had made a claim almost 20 years ago to return to the area from where they were forcibly removed to Mitchells Plain in the late 1970s. It has been a long and tiring process which, in their case, has meant attending meeting after meeting with government officials, only to walk away every time feeling nothing has changed.

We went to the latest meeting in high hopes, but walked away feeling the same despondency that we have felt many times in the past few years.

To call what has happened in District Six a disgrace is an understatement. It is ironic that, in our democratic era, the barren land lies as a reminder of one of apartheid’s worst crimes against people who were oppressed and dispossessed.

First let me deal with the meeting we attended. The meeting was held in the City Hall, which is not disabled friendly and definitely not a place where you would call a meeting with mainly older citizens. The downstairs hall filled up very quickly and we found ourselves having to climb the steep stairs with two people aged around 80.

I had problems with the meeting being co-hosted, and apparently being sponsored, by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, because you need a forum where District Six residents can talk freely without being watched over by government.

But I understand that the committee, whose members had only been appointed about two years ago and who work as volunteers, does not have money and would not have been able to afford hosting such a big meeting.

The meeting started well, with mainly administrative stuff, but when the floor was opened for questions and comments, the raw emotions that many people still feel over what happened in District Six, came to the fore.

It was clear there were many people who had run out of patience to return to the place that still holds dear memories about their youth. Many older people, who had lodged claims, have passed on and their children are now fighting for compensation.

My in-laws were hoping to hear when they would get a house in District Six, as they have been on the waiting list longer than most. But, once again, they left without being any clearer.

The only thing the meeting did was to agree on a process whereby people would be placed on the waiting list and ways in which houses would be allocated. The major purpose of the meeting, it appeared, was to get a mandate for the committee to speak on behalf of the residents.

District Six was declared a white group area more than 50 years ago and removals took place throughout the 1970s and even into the 1980s. Because of pressure from community groups, the apartheid government was never able to realise their plans to turn the area into a white residential area, with the only building on the site being the buildings of what is now known as the Cape Town campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

These buildings still stand out as a sore thumb in District Six.

In recent years, a few houses have been built for people to return, but the building has been at less than a snail’s pace. The first buildings were single- and double-storey, but the lates, which must still be allocated, also boast three-storey apartments.

After attending the meeting at the City Hall, we drove to see the new houses and I could not help thinking about how old people are supposed to climb the stairs to reach their third-floor apartments. And, when they reach the top, they will probably not be able to come down because of the effort involved.

I suppose, for the officials involved, it is not about dealing with the situation in a compassionate manner but merely making sure they provide housing for the people who have been forcibly removed, even if the new housing is inadequate.

As a young man in the 1980s, I was one of those who believed the democracy we were fighting for would be based on respect, because apartheid was based on a lack of respect. However, when I look at the way people are treated around District Six - as just one example of how respect is not deemed as important by those in power - then I feel we have moved away from what we had envisioned.

Democracy will only work if everyone feels that his/her views and feelings are considered. The people who were moved from District Six can justifiably feel that their views and feelings are not important.

Why else would they be kept waiting for so long?

I wish I was wrong, but you cannot argue when you see what is happening in front of your eyes. I really want my in-laws to return to District Six, because it is what they have always hoped for, but not to a third-floor apartment where they will be trapped. They would probably be better off staying in their little home in Mitchells Plain.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 26 August 2017)