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Friday, February 10, 2017

12/5: Relocation of 60,000 Africans from District Six

Our last stop of the day that had started with our walk on Table Mountain Plateau followed by nearby Signal Hill, the Dutch Reform Groote Kerk church and the Castle of Good Hope was the District Six Museum. Housed in the Buitenkant Methodist Church, the museum "preserves the memory of one of Cape Town's most vibrant neighborhoods and the district's destruction in one of the cruelest acts of the apartheid era Nationalist government." 

Some background: The area was named in 1867 as the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town. By the turn of the century, District Six was already a lively community made up of former slaves, artisans, merchants and other immigrants, as well as many Malay people brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company during its administration of the Cape Colony. It was home to almost a tenth of the city of Cape Town's population, which numbered over 1,900 families.
In 1901, an outbreak of bubonic plague was a pretext for the removal of Africans from District Six and the Dockland Barracks to another location. This was Cape Town's first forced removal and set the pattern for future residential segregation. After World War II, during the earlier part of the apartheid era, District Six was relatively cosmopolitan. Situated within sight of the docks, it was made up largely of 'colored' residents which included a substantial number of 'colored' Muslims, called Cape Malays. There were also a number of black Xhosa residents and a smaller number of Afrikaans, whites and Indians.
Government officials gave four primary reasons for the removals. In accordance with apartheid philosophy, it stated that interracial interaction bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races. They deemed District Six a slum, fit only for clearance, not rehabilitation. They also portrayed the area as crime ridden and dangerous; they claimed that the district was a vice den, full of immoral activities like gambling, drinking and prostitution. Though these were the official reasons, most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city center, Table Mountain and the harbor.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 was created by the apartheid government of South Africa and assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas. An effect of the law was to prevent nonwhites from living in the most developed areas. Poorly constructed working class townships were built, separated by buffer strips consisting of freeways, polluted rivers and strategically placed military land and golf courses. In District Six, the apartheid government's aim was to remove 35,000 people from the city's central core to its distant periphery.
On February 11th, 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, with removals starting in 1968. By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 15 miles away. The old houses were bulldozed. The only buildings left standing were places of worship. 

By the beginning of 1984, the destruction of District Six was complete. Apart from a few buildings, the landscape was stripped and cleared except for a few schools, churches and mosques. A few houses in one street were left, but the homes were sold to white people. Its streets were covered with the rubble from the destruction and its major thoroughfare, Hanover Street, was renamed Keizergracht. The Department of Community Development explained that it sought to give names to the area which had a 'historical association' with Cape Town. 
This moving recollection in 1999 by Victor Kolbe, a former resident of Hanover Street, the heart of District Six, brought the area alive to me. "Buses weaved precariously through impatient vehicles and jostling shoppers. Voices of people shouting from balconies and competitive barks of vendors below punctuated the general din. During the festive season, the Carnival with its kaleidoscope of colour and music surged down Hanover Street, permeating jollity and optimism into the surrounding lanes and ultimately into the city. (Continued below)
Hanover Street was essentially a commercial area, the old cinema and church a reminder that there is more to life than just business. The Isaac Ochberg Hall, a name that recalls the district's Jewish past, was the headquarters  of the Eoan Group, a local cultural organisation renowned for its annual performances of Italian opera.
The Public Wash House with its elaborate machinery was constructed over a mountain stream, which may have been used in earlier times by slave washerwomen. The adjacent swimming bath was designed for the exclusive use of black men, some of them migrant workers and other families who had manged to secure permanent residence in the city. Before it was outlawed, the South African Communist party had its offices at no. 22 Hanover Street. 
One cannot forget the many pubs of District Six. The Rose and Crown was the famous one in Hanover Street, situated across from where the Dutch Reform Church once stood. At the Hanover and Tennant Streets intersection, many businesses were located - the drapery shops, hardware stores, legal and trade union offices, surgeries, and a number of other not too reputable professions. Old trams on tracks once linked this complex to the city."
In an interview in 1999, Thandi Makhupula was quoted as saying that "Hanover (Street) was like Adderley Street (one of the main streets in downtown Cape Town) of District Six because that is where everything took place. The place was busy and everything was accessible. Anything that you needed, you just go to Hanover and get it."

By the end of the 1970s, the Group Areas Act had authorized the relocation of nearly 150,000 Capetonians, with black people by far the most affected!
When the residents were relocated to new townships on the Cape Flats, the basic amenities necessary for a decent life were absent.
Petitions, letters to the press, delegations, prayers and protest meetings followed the declaration of District Six and other parts of the city as 'white' Group Areas. The results of these protests were always the same - some evictions were delayed but the process went on. The government made sure that the implementation of the Group Areas Act occurred in a staggered fashion which made it difficult for communities to stand together and fight.
It was heart wrenching reading this account of the psychological toll on the removal of residents.

Street signs from the old district:

It was horrifying to find out that District Six was just one of 42 'sites of removal' in and around Cape Town that began in 1901. Nearly 1,000 non-white people in a number of small communities were told they were living illegally in a White area and that they must make arrangements to move as soon as possible. Even though the residents of those communities had for the most part been living there for more than 100 years and longer than the Whites, it was the whites, spreading outwards, who had surrounded them.

The entire first floor of the museum had a giant map of District Six with handwritten notes from former residents indicating where their homes had been. The map was beneficial for tourists as it gave a real sense of the scope of the area; it also aided former residents to identify the locations of their homes, record their names and help sort out land claims. 

When apartheid forcibly evicted 60,000 people from District Six, most left with little more than a suitcase. I couldn't even begin to fathom how they decided what to bring and what to leave behind.

In the early eighties, building operations began on a portion of District Six with two structures symbolic of the new order which had come to impose its will on the people and landscape of District Six: Cape Technikon (now Cape Peninsula University of Technology) and the South Africa Police Barracks. The government renamed the area Zonnebloem after the original Dutch homestead in the area.
The election of a new government in 1994 brought hope to former residents of the restitution of their rights. After a series of struggles, former residents, the City Council and the Department of Land Affairs reached an agreement for a process of consultation for the loss of property and tenancy rights.
Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the South African government has recognized the older claims of former residents to the area and pledged to support rebuilding. By 2003, work had started on the first new buildings: 24 houses that will belong to residents over 80 years old. On  February 11th, 2004, exactly 38 years after the area was rezoned by the government, former president Nelson Mandela handed the keys to the first returning residents, Ebrahim Murat, 87, and Dan Ndzabela, 82. About 1,600 families were scheduled to return over the next three years. However, as we clearly saw from our aerial view of District Six, that has yet to happen.
International and local pressure made redevelopment difficult for the government. The Hands Off District Six Committee mobilized to halt investment and redevelopment in District Six after the forced removals. It developed into the District Six Beneficiary Trust, which was empowered to manage the process by which claimants were to get their "land" back - actually just an apartment. In November 2006, the trust broke off negotiations with the Cape Town Municipality. 
Steven and I found the District Six Museum profoundly moving. Not only were there displays of the histories and lives of District Six families, and historical explanations of the life of the District and its destruction as befitting any museum chronicling a life and time gone by. It also served as a memorial to a decimated community, and a meeting place and community center for Cape Town residents who could identify with its history.

Near the District Six Museum was St. Mary's Catholic Church but it, like some other city churches we'd hoped to stop at, was locked up.

Barbed wire atop buildings and homes in downtown Cape Town was unfortunately all too common a sight.

Security was also tight at many businesses:
Cape Town's City Hall was a large Edwardian building in the city center which was built in 1905. Located on the Grand Parade, the city's main public square to the west of the Castle of Good Hope, City Hall was built from honey-colored limestone imported from Bath in England.
On February 11th, 1990, only hours after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech after his release from the balcony of City Hall. More than 100,000 of his supporters gathered across the street in the Grand Parade, a former military parade ground, to hear him. 
The Grand Parade square is generally used as a market place and parking area but has also been the venue of major political rallies. Nelson Mandela also addressed South Africans there following his election as president on May 9th, 1994.
Another of the entrepreneurial Cape Town parking attendants: he saw us coming and was thus cleaning the car in anticipation of a tip!
Image of Nelson Mandela on the third anniversary of his death:
Heading back to the Altona Lodge, we reflected on the terrible effects of all the apartheid policies, of so many families uprooted and of so many lives forever changed. 

Posted on February 10th, 2017 from Littleton, Colorado.

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