Impressions from District Six

District Six is a former residential neighborhood in Cape Town.

It’s pretty central, within the so-called city bowl. And, weirdly, it’s a pretty barren area in the middle of town.

It is barren and abandoned, as over 60.000 of its inhabitants were forcibly removed from their homes during the 1970s under apartheid laws, when the regime declared the area a whites-only neighborhood.

The logic of apartheid was to keep races apart, hence the word, as the interaction of races supposedly caused conflict.

So they tore a whole lively neighborhood apart.

A short history lesson

At the start of the 20th century, District Six was a lively neighborhood, with former slaves, merchants, craftsmen, and immigrants living side by side, and rather cosmopolitan, with whites, Indians, Xhosa, Muslims and Colored all living together.

It was also the home of a lot of the Cape Malay population (who were later removed to today’s colorful Bo-Kaap).

The apartheid government though saw things differently when they looked at District Six: they saw crime, prostitution, gambling, drinking… in short, a slum, that needed to be cleared.

Though the value of the land, in the city bowl between Table Mountain and the harbor might have also played a role.

Tearing apart a community

So in 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area. The removals of its residents started two years later, and by 1982, more than 60.000 people had been relocated.

Their new homes were mostly located in the Cape Flats township, some 25 kilometers away.

Communities were destroyed, sports clubs dissolved, neighbors torn apart. Jobs lost, lives destroyed. Their old houses were bulldozed. The only buildings left standing were churches, mosques and schools.

District Six, Cape Town

Apart from a few new buildings, police housing and parts of the university that were relocated, nothing much happened, though, and the area was left undeveloped.

Walking through the area, you cannot stop shaking your head about so much stupidity. Besides the human tragedy and the loss of community, in the middle of the city, the economic disaster is blatantly obvious.

How afraid must you be of the mixing of the races to ruin whole areas…?

Starting over again: reconstruction

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the new, democratic South African government has recognized the claims of the former residents and supported rebuilding.

It wasn’t that easy though, as parts were so redesigned with a new layout and street grids, running through empty lots, that it was difficult to identify the old claims.

Progress is slow, as you can see everywhere, but still… In 2004, 38 years after the area was bulldozed, former president Nelson Mandela handed the keys to the first returning residents. There’s hope.

Visiting the District Six Museum

I learned about all this in the small but worthwhile District Six museum. Housed since 1994 in a former church, it tells the individual stories of residents and their losses, the general frame of apartheid, and the history of District Six before the removals.

There is a large street map of District Six on the ground floor, best seen from above.

Notes from former residents show where their homes had been. You can see former street signs, and whole recreations of places, among them a former hairdresser’s salon.

It is definitely worth a visit. I didn’t take the tour, but I heard from friends that it’s really good to take it.

The museum is a bit crammed, and there are so many individual stories, testimonies, newspaper articles, etc., it is a bit overwhelming. You need some time in it to go through it all.

But it is a vital memorial to apartheid, and a warning.