Remember the vibrant way of life

2016-02-11 11:01
District Six encapsulated “a particular way of life that was exemplary in all its complexity” before it was declared a white area exactly fifty years ago, says the director of the District Six Museum.

District Six encapsulated “a particular way of life that was exemplary in all its complexity” before it was declared a white area exactly fifty years ago, says the director of the District Six Museum. (Richard Girdwood/ District Six Museum)

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On 11 February 1966, a declaration was made that would change the lives of over 60 000 people: District Six became a white area.

District Six was named the sixth municipal district of Cape Town in 1867. It was originally established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants.

District Six was a mixed-use area, explains District Six Museum director Bonita Bennett, made up of mostly a residential community, places of worship, schools, sports clubs and community centres.

“Structures were grand old buildings with intricate architecture, some crumbling and in need of repairs but many still sturdy and inhabitable. People from all over lived there: local, early immigrants from Europe, India and other parts of Africa,” she says.

The area was much like “downtown Harlem in New York City breathing a life of its own”, says Shahied Ajam, a former resident and chairperson of the District Six Working Committee.

“It was a city within a city and life was relatively good despite our hardships. Trade and commerce were vibrant and it ‘felt good’ to be a part of this cosmopolitan community,” he says.

But all this changed on 11 February 1966, when it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act. Over the next twenty years the community was forcibly removed to the Cape Flats, their houses in District Six bulldozed to the ground.

Looking back

Yusuf Khan remembers the day he realised he would have to leave, after hearing the news while at work at the harbour.

“I understood we would have to move, but I refused to move to Mitchell’s Plain. I said: ‘They will have to throw me out.’”

But working later shifts, with his four daughters and three sons at home, the safety of his children soon became an issue.

“It was dangerous for them. People would come to the empty houses next door and set them alight,” he remembers.

“We moved on a Friday night in November or December to Lentegeur. When we got there, there was no electricity.”

Harold Titus was 15 when the declaration was made. Having been born and growing up in District Six, in a diverse community, he had little understanding of what it would ultimately mean for his family.

“There was no difference between Muslim and Jewish, or between white and coloured,” he says of District Six.

In 1979, he was forced to move with his wife and three children to Manenberg.

“I didn’t want to move and they came with trucks and moved my things. I had no choice,” he says.

Leaving District Six broke his heart, Khan says.

“People talk about the rainbow nation, but that was the real rainbow nation. Our neighbours were white and three houses down were blacks. We were all friends. They played rugby on our team and went to the bioscope with us,” he says.

The lesson to take from District Six is that there is nothing to fear in diversity, Bennett says.

“The more diverse a community, the more enriched the community members are likely to be as a result of their exposure to different ways of being, different cultural norms and ways of life. A vibrant public cultural life is the result,” she says.

In the fifty years since the declaration, some notable achievements have come out of District Six, Bennett believes, in the affirmation of the cultural contribution of artists, writers, political thinkers and others from the area.

“There has been a growing awareness of a particular way of life that was exemplary in all its complexity. There has been an awareness that restitution is not only about building and claiming homes, but also about the cultural memory of the community. Without ensuring that the intangible values and heritage of the community is protected, District Six restitution is likely to just be a concrete jungle,” she says.

Looking forward

However, a lagging restitution process still remains a deep disappointment to many, Bennett says.

The 50th anniversary of the declaration naming District Six a white area means “remembering the pain, anguish, dehumanisation, deprivation and degeneration which forced removals brought with it,” Ajam says.

“The people need closure and the land claims commission, as well as the newly revitalised Land Claims Court, need to practically implement the transformational intent of the provisions of the Amended Restitution of Land Rights,” he says.

“Restitution in District Six is not about half-baked housing schemes doomed to fail. Restitution is about restoring the rights of people, restoring back the land to the people and respecting the dignity and heritage of the people. And that goes for all other historically disadvantaged communities who were affected by apartheid and its racist practices,” he says.

But the future of District Six looks bright, Bennett says.

“We look forward to a vibrant community which is both aware of and invested in its heritage; a community which can build a post-apartheid diversity and has structures and leaders who can help to imagine a wonderful future together.”

Khan believes the culture and heritage of District Six will be carried forward by the future generation.

“It won’t be the same, but I’d like for my grandchildren to go back. It would be nice. A fresh start,” he says.

Titus adds: “We want our land claims back. To move back to District Six would be like living in paradise.”

Bristol Barber in District Six.


Ebrahim Toefy/ District Six Museum


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