Lack of restitution in District Six is blot on our record

Nobody wants to take responsibility for what has happened to the restitution process in District Six, writes Ryland Fisher

SOMETIMES, when I am trying to beat the afternoon traffic out of the city centre, I drive down Constitution Street, turn left into Vogelgezang Street and then right into Keizersgracht Street, before making my way through Walmer Estate

This route, of course, is through District Six and past what is now known as the Cape Town campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, formerly known as Cape Technikon. It is a route I have travelled for many years and I am amazed at how barren much of it has remained for all this time.

Fifty-one years ago today, District Six was declared a white group area, which meant that about 60 000 African and coloured people who lived in the area were about to be forcibly removed.

The forced removals, which began a few years after the area was declared white, lasted until the early 1980s, with former District 6 community leader Naz Gool Ebrahim’s house one of the last to be destroyed by the bulldozers. She and her family were moved to Gatesville, an area reserved for Indians under the Group Areas Act.

I remember, as a young journalist, visiting Ebrahim in her home in District Six – I forget the name of the street – and later in Gatesville. She had to offload some of her furniture when she moved because her new house was much smaller than the home she occupied in District Six.

I remember her defiance before she was moved in 1982. I remember the pain as she reflected in her house in Gatesville on a lifestyle that had ended and a community that had been uprooted.

Ebrahim and many others like her tried in vain to return to District Six. She died in 2005 at the age of 79, not having realised her dream of returning home.

Whenever I drive through District Six, I try to remember the old street names, streets where we used to play as children and where many people hope to return one day. I can still see the narrow streets and the houses which were very close to each other.

It is one of our post-democracy government’s biggest crying shames that they have allowed District Six to stand barren for so long. It was good for it to stand empty during the apartheid years as a reminder of the community who used to live there.

But surely nearly 23 years after we became a democracy, someone in authority should have taken the responsibility to restore some life to what used to be one of Cape Town’s most vibrant communities?

Nobody wants to take responsibility for what has happened to the restitution process in District Six. It has all but ground to a standstill.

National government will blame provincial government and provincial government will blame local government.

Local government will probably blame disagreements between activist groups and people who want to return to land from where they or their parents had been removed.

Meanwhile, thousands of people wait patiently – and I don’t know for how much longer – for their turn to call District Six home once again.

My father-in-law, who is turning 80 this year, is one of them. He has been attending meetings in Lentegeur, Mitchells Plain, for many years to hear if there is any progress. Each time he returns home more despondent.

I listen to politicians a lot – I suppose that’s one of the hazards of journalism – and I have yet to hear anyone speaking passionately and with conviction about what happened in District Six and what needs to happen in District Six.

It seems the only people who are doing anything to honour the memory of those who had gone before us in District Six are the people at the District Six Museum and Homecoming Centre, which appears to be fighting a losing battle in a city that could not care less about what happens to an important part of our history.

Last year I attended the launch of Die Suidoosterfees at the District Six Homecoming Centre and spoke to a councillor who thought that District Six was part of the Bo-Kaap.

She thought that people had been forcibly removed from the Bo-Kaap. Fortunately, they have not. I could not believe that one of our supposed city leaders could be so ignorant.

I support the calls by District Six Museum director Bonita Bennett for the area to be declared a National Heritage Site. It is important to preserve the area so that future generations can learn from the mistakes made by past governments.

But more than that, I support any move that will fast-track the return of people to the area.

I would like soon to be able to visit my father-in-law in his house in District Six and not in Mitchells Plain, to where he and many others were forcibly removed.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 11 February 2017)