History Of District Six Museum - The destruction of a community

History Of District Six Museum - The destruction of a community

In 1966, the apartheid government decreed that a multi-racial community living at the foot of Table Mountain had to be removed. MICHAIL RASSOOL looks looks at the consequences of the destruction of a community.


The character Mary Bruintjies in Richard Rive’s novel Buckingham Palace, District Six captured the essence of what the apartheid government destroyed when it razed District Six, a working class suburb at the foot of Cape Town’s Table mountain, over a 15 year period.

"A community is not just a place where you live. It is not just another locality like Hanover Park or Bonteheuwel. It is much more than that. It is alive. A community is our home. It is the place where many of us were born and spent most of our lives. It is a place where, before this wicked law was passed, most of us also hoped to die. It is a place some of us come home to rest in after a day’s work, to be with friends and neighbours. It is a place of warmth, of friendship, of love and of quarrels. Here we enjoy a feeling of togetherness."

In 1966, the government invoked the notorious Group Areas Act to declare Cape Town’s city centre and its immediate environs an area for white occupation only. Most of the area’s "coloured" residents, who could not afford better alternatives, were subsequently removed to the desolate areas of the Cape Flats–as far away from the city as possible, in low-cost housing provided by the state.

Author Linda Fortune, education officer with Cape Town’s District Six Museum whose family left the area at the end of 1971, recalls that people were initially attracted by the prospect of owning their houses, regardless of where these were situated.

District Six was characterised by much poverty and houses there were often overcrowded with as many as five families, she said. Many of the buildings and houses, which were owned by whites, usually absentee landlords, were run-down and vermin-infested.

"It was not uncommon for a young, newly married couple to lease a room in somebody else’s home and for the first of their children to be born under such circumstances," Ms Fortune said. "But when these ‘matchbox’ houses were being developed in such areas as Bonteheuwel, many couples jumped at the chance of ownership."

Ms Fortune, a Catholic, distilled her experiences of growing up in District Six in the autobiographical The House on Tyne Street, a book that lyrically conveys the poignancy and contradictory aspects of life in the area in the mid-20th century.

Her family were members of Holy Cross parish in Nile Street, one of the few places of worship that were allowed to stand when the bulldozers razed everything around them. Today the church serves as the headquarters of the Scalabrini Fathers’ ministry in Cape Town.

Holy Cross parish has a special place in the struggle that was waged in the battle to save the area, from the time of the government’s declaration of 1966. Its parish priest in the 1970s and early 80s, the late Fr Basil van Rensburg, played a vocal and prominent role on the Hands Off District Six Committee.

The churches and mosques of District Six were particularly vocal in condemning the area’s destruction and warned of the likely consequences for the collective spirit of a scattered community.

The then archbishop of Cape Town, Cardinal Owen McCann, represented the Church on the District Six Defence Committee, which was established shortly after the government’s declaration. Here he served with such religious luminaries as the Anglican Church’s Archbishop van der Byl and Sheikh Nazeem Mohammed, a city councillor, who later became head of the national Muslim Judicial Council.

In the final years of the area’s demise, some families steadfastly refused to leave. Many were forcibly removed from their homes so the bulldozers could move in to demolish. Mostly they and their belongings were simply loaded on to government trucks and dumped in front of their new Cape Flats accommodation.

As Rive and, more recently, Taliep Petersen and David Kramer in their District Six—The Musical illustrate, more than just bricks and mortar were destroyed. It was about the elimination of local kinship and community patterns. The destruction of District Six also altered the social landscape of the city, especially in tampering with employment opportunities to an established urban working class.

Many District Six historians point out that the apartheid technocrats fostered a more profound sense of marginalisation and alienation among these former inner-city working masses from the city’s political and social economy.

In the process it only reinforced their conscious sense of dependency on this economic hub in order to survive, which necessitated a gruelling physical movement, by train or bus, and back again, a movement associated with the harshness of material survival, in which there was hardly energy for much else.

This alienation arguably was a key factor in the proliferation of a more brutal brand of gangsterism than had been known before, and a heightened sense of disaffection among youth on the Cape Flats (many from "decent", hard-working families). Having witnessed the humiliation of their parents’ generation, they no longer saw their elders as holding the answers to life’s myriad questions.

Such humiliation and sense of dislocation were felt in similar ways by the former inhabitants of such areas as Sophiatown, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and Cato Manor, near Durban, both of which also fell victim to the Group Areas Act.

Vivian Bickford-Smith, associate professor of history at the University of Cape Town, says that District Six was almost a natural by-product of the colonial port town’s growth as a significant trading place, where contact between black and white was far more tangible and social divisions were not quite as stark as they are now.

This was in the decades following the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in the 1830s. The area developed almost by osmosis, Dr Bickford-Smith said, was well known then and in subsequent years by almost all visitors to Cape Town, this sense of cosmopolitanism, a harmonious, textured and multi-layered communal existence that persisted right up until the area’s demise, whatever the segregationist policies then in place.

The myriad forms of cultural expression that the area gave rise to, serving as the nurturing seed-bed of many well known artists, novelists, poets, playwrights, musicians, political figures and other significant individuals, testify to this cosmopolitanism and dynamism.

Such names include the late Richard Rive, novelist Alex la Guma, poet James Small, poet James Matthews, councilors Dr Abdullah Abdurahman and his daughter Cissie Gool, and veteran politician Dullah Omar.

In many oral testimonies, former District Six residents recalled their sense of desolation after they were forced to leave. In many words, ordinary people have expressed their conviction that it was this organic sense of integrated community life that the apartheid state consciously set out to destroy.

By many accounts, this outlook, this deep sense of community, coloured every aspect of existence in the district, an assurance of emotional survival despite material deprivation. It was a relatively classless community: working class people and professionals–teachers, journalists, even doctors and lawyers–lived in the area.

Another significant by-product of the removals was the destruction of this social integration, with the establishment of separate middle-class and working-class areas, further polarising communities.

This very ethos of communal integration that was impossible to recreate so arbitrarily on the Cape Flats. One does not know whether the apartheid authorities had such recreation in mind when they named the new slums, such as Hanover Park and Lavender Hill, after famous District Six landmarks. There are many who believe that these names were meant to taunt into perpetuity a dislocated people.

Today, approaching the city centre along the Eastern Boulevard, the last stretch of the highway leading to Cape Town’s suburbs before turning into the commercial hub, one bypasses the vacant stretch of land where District Six once stood.

Depending on one’s sense of the earthly supernatural, one can almost see the unquiet spirits hovering over the terrain, lamenting the amputation of their souls by the apartheid state. Perhaps this, and the fact that the area has become a potent symbol of the apartheid system’s excesses, partly explains why few, other than the Cape Technikon, have dared to pursue development ventures in the area.

But the spirit of District Six lives on; under the District Six Museum Foundation and its Buitenkant Street premises, the area and all its complexities are being kept alive, and are taking their rightful place in Cape Town’s collective memory and its history.

Also see: District Six Museum preserves South Africa's pre-apartheid history

District 6


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