„I did not want to leave the way my family were forced to do in December 1971. At the time I wanted to plant my one foot on Devil’s Peak and the other on the Table Mountain and shout, ‚Let us stay, don’t force us to go. You are destroying our families and our lives!’ But who would have listened? Nothing could be done. It was hopeless. We were helpless.“ (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 1)
Even 35 years after being forced out of her home in Cape Town’s District Six Linda Fortune is haunted by the memory and pains of losing her home as a young woman when the Apartheid authorities declared District Six a whites-only area. She and her family were removed to Hanover Park, their house like so many others in the area was demolished. In 1994 after the end of Apartheid in South Africa District Six Museum was founded and Linda Fortune was not only employed as education officer soon afterwards but also started to write down her childhood memories of District Six which were published in 1996.
Strict segregation of races was one of the main aims of the South African National Party, forcing Africans to leave the city centres in declaring them “whites-only zones”. The majority of South Africans therefore had to move into the outer skirts of town in the more knocked together than properly build township settlements that until today shape South African cities.
District Six (Cape Town, South Africa)
One example of this policy is District Six in Cape Town. By the turn of the century and in the early 1900s District Six was a lively community – the ancestors of African slaves lived next to white or Indian merchants or Malay people who had been brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company. Even during the early times of Apartheid District Six continued as a cosmopolitan island at the cape. Up until the 1970s almost a tenth of Cape Town’s population lived in the district.
But change was coming, as Linda Fortune tells in her book about childhood in District Six. She remembers her aunt telling them about the early times in District Six.
“’Before you were born, life in District Six was different,’ she said one day. ‘What was so different?’ we wanted to know. ‘When your mom and I were young there was no such thing as apartheid. People could marry whomever they wished and live wherever they chose. Here in this neighbourhood there lived Jewish, Indian, Native, Muslim, Christian and even Chinese people. They all got on well and we never had to lock our front doors at night. People lived freely, and they had a lot of respect for each other. Life started to change when people began to move away one by one. The houses began to deteriorate. Then the landlords allowed just anybody to rent from them. Gangs appeared and suddenly there was a lot of crime going on.’ Aunty was sitting at her dressing table, brushing her long, black hair with her pretty hairbrush. ‘And then after the war, apartheid was introduced and the District started slipping downhill slowly but surely.’” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 16-17)
But it is not this deterioration most former District Six residents describe as their memory today but the feeling of being part of a greater community, the certainty of having a home, a home that was taken away by force.
Some short documentaries on Youtube are giving an example of this forlornness, but also show how “former residences of District Six share the joys, indifferences and inequality of how they experience the place”.
Tahir Levy, a Cape Town community activist who grew up in the former District Six, speaks about why the area was not a paradise in itself but a paradise for him:
Fond memories often outlaw the poverty and social problems most District Six inhabitants had gotten used to – and which were worsened when later on they had to move into the Cape Flats on the other side of the Table Mountain. Especially since many of those former habitants still alive were only children and youngsters when the Group Area Act that started the removal plans were set into place. Big parts of Linda Fortune’s book as well are dedicated to her time as a child in District Six. She describes the streets of District Six as a big open playground.
“There was never a shortage of children to play with in Tyne Street or anywhere else in District Six. If your sisters or brothers did not want you around, all you had to do was go outside and join the first group of children. You would be included and no questions asked.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 20)
When the government declared District Six a whites-only area in 1966 – as they had done in Sophiatown even earlier in 1957 – their reasoning was a farce: The interaction of whites, Africans, Indians, Malayans and other immigrants in the district resulted in conflicts making it necessary to separate the races. Gambling, drinking, prostitution and crime would flourish in District Six – that was the portrait government officials painted of its residents.
There was indeed crime in District Six. “According to the newspapers and to outsiders, District Six was a notorious place. Visitors who had nasty surprises there warned others not to go near it. What they should have said was that Friday and Saturday nights were not very good times to be in this unfamiliar territory. In fact, not only on weekend nights did strangers have to be careful, they needed to be on the lookout for thieves and robbers all of Saturday. The people of the District were aware of this, but most strangers were not. People who grew up and lived in District Six knew everyone who belonged in the area. So did the gangsters, who grew up there and lived there. They recognised strangers immediately, and some of them would linger about, waiting to rob an unsuspecting victim. They never bothered any of us living in District Six.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 20)
Selling dagga (marihuana) was a minor crime. One day Linda Fortune climbed on the flat roof of her parent’s house and “I discovered a small bag of dagga cigarettes hidden in a crack in the wall. I had noticed that the paint had been scraped away and that one crack had been made bigger, so I investigated. I took one look and pushed the small bag back into the crack and scuttled down the ladder. I didn’t tell anybody because I was not supposed to be on the roof, and I knew very well that things like that were better not talked about.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 57)
Like in every poorer and by authorities abandoned parts of towns people learned to live with crimes going on, especially if the crime did not affect people themselves. “My dad was respected by the gangsters, and whenever we children were out on the street and the gangsters wanted to interfere with us, one of the gang members would know us. ‘Hey, leave that gentleman’s children alone,’ he’d say. They knew that my dad would not take any nonsense from them. If they knew you weren’t scared of them, they respected you.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 61)
When the removal orders were made, most residents believed to see another, the true reason behind white authorities’ policy: District Six lies close to the harbour, the Table Mountain and the city centre – which is actually in walking distance – and was therefore valuable land. As a consequence authorities and investors wanted the non-whites population to be removed to the other site of the Table Mountain and unto the less sought after Cape Flats.
“We had a flat roof and I would climb up with a ladder that always stood in our backyard. From our rooftop we had the most beautiful view of Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head, central Cape Town and the docks. It was a millionaire’s view. Many times there were big ships docked in the harbour, or I stood and watched an ocean liner enter Table Bay harbour.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 57)
The counter campaign against the removal started when the first rumours of resettlement reached District Six, like the campaign of the District Six Defence Committee which for example asked Muslims not to help with the removal of African or Coloured citizens. Under the headline “MUSLIMS WARNED: DON’T HELP DISTRICT SIX MOVE” the Post wrote in March 1966: “ALL MUSLIMS have been warned – on pain of ‘the fire’ – not to help carry out the removal of District Six, which is to be declared a White area. The warning was made this week in a strong statement from the Muslim Judical Council.” (Cited after a picture in Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 74)
The Africans or Natives were removed first, no longer deemed appropriate to live among Coloureds not to mention an area that had been declared for whites only. Even though people had known what was coming the hurry with which the new rules were enforced for many came as a surprise. “The one evening we still saw our African friends and neighbours, and the following morning the building (that was inhabited by Africans) was completely empty. All the places in Tyne Street where Africans used to live were deserted (…).” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 100)
It must have been a terrible experience to be forced to leave home from one day to another, when sometimes not even hours after the residents left bulldozers began to tear down the houses. Linda Fortune describes how shocking the experience was for the still remaining citizens:
“Our first encounter with a bulldozer was terrifying. Suddenly one morning this big monstrosity rumbles and roars down Tyne Street and comes to an abrupt halt in Chapel Street. Most of the neighbours and their children were running behind it, while other grown-ups had gathered outside their homes to see what the noise was all about. It looked as if a space ship had just landed, as if it had come to invade District Six. ‘Can you people now see what’s happening here? I told you the world is coming to an end!’ one old lady shouted. ‘No!’ a man shouted back from across the street. ‘The world is not coming to an end, we here in District Six are coming to an end!’” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 122/123)
Finally it was time for Linda Fortune’s family to leave as well. When one day coming home from work her mother told Linda that a white official from Group Areas had come by to bring the forms necessary to fill in for the removal. “The man had clearly intimidated my mother, saying that if she did not sign the papers and move as instructed, then he would have to make the necessary arrangements to forcibly remove us.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 126) Even though the young woman’s first reaction was to tell her mother she would never leave her home, in the end she had to give in. She writes about the moment she walked through her home a last time. “I started to cry. I sobbed as if someone had just died. I didn’t care, I was sentimental about District Six. The place was our home, after all.” (Linda Fortune: The House in Tyne Street. Childhood Memories of District Six. Page 129)
In a short movie clip made by James Hilgendorf the former resident Noor Ibrahim heartbreakingly describes not only the true reasons for resettling the residents of District Six but also the painful impact this had not only on the community but even small families. Like that of his friend who was white but married to an African woman.
Cape Town’s District Six is a prominent but not the only example for this policy. Nelson Mandela for example wrote about the removal of Africans from Sophiatown in Johannesburg in his autobiography „Long walk to freedom“:
“The government had scheduled the removal for 9 February 1955. As the day approached, Oliver Tambo and I were in the township daily, meeting local leaders, discussing plans and acting in our professional capacity for those being forced out of the area or prosecuted. We sought to prove to the court that the government’s documentation was often incorrect and therefore illegal. But this was only a temporary measure; the government would not let a few illegalities stand in their way.
The night before the removal, Joe Modise, one of the most dedicated of the local ANC leaders, addressed a tense meeting of more than five hundred youthful activists. They expected the ANC to give them an order to defy the police and the army. They were prepared to erect barricades overnight and engage the police with weapons and whatever came to hand next da. They assumed the slogan (of the anti-removal campaign “Over Our Dead Bodies) meant what it said: that Sophiatown would be removed only over our dead bodies.
But after discussion with the ANC leadership, including myself, Joe told the youth to stand down. They were angry and felt betrayed. But we believed that violence would have been a disaster. We pointed out that insurrection required planning or it would become an act of suicide. We were not yet ready to engage the enemy in its own terms.
In the hazy dawn hours of 9 February, four thousand police and army troops cordoned off the township while workers razed empty houses, and government trucks began moving families from Sophiatown to Meadowlands. The night before, the ANC had evacuated several families to prearranged accommodation with pro-ANC families in the interior of Sophiatown. But our efforts were too little and too late, and could only be a stopgap measure. The army and the police were relentlessly efficient. After a few weeks, our resistance collapsed. Most of our local leaders has been banned or arrested and, in the end, Sophiatown died not to the sound of gunfire but the sound of rumbling trucks and sledgehammers.” (Nelson Mandela. Long walk to freedom. Page 192-193)
The same thing happened in other parts of Johannesburg, in Martindale and Newclare.
South End Port Elizabeth
Even in smaller towns like Port Elizabeth this policy had a devastating effect, destroyed existing social structures and neighbourhoods and changed not only a district but the entire appearance of the city.
South End was among other Port Elizabeth districts which were affected by the Group Areas Act. South End was once a vibrant suburb defined by a cultural diversity of Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, Indians, Chinese, Jews, Greeks and others. The vibrancy stopped when the Group Areas Act required forced removals and Blacks for example were moved to townships such as New Brighton or Coloureds to Gelvandale or Korsten. One of the negative consequences was that people had to travel long ways to get to work, school or church. These consequences which also affected other parts of the city such as the Central/Hill district can still be felt today. Although the inner city of Port Elizabeth is a bustling place during office hours it is far from being a multicultural place and unfortunately many of its buildings are in a devastating condition. A nearby suburb, Richmond Hill, shows how the future could look like though. Beautifully refurbished old houses, small shops, street cafés and restaurants along Stanley Street are a sign of change.
Museums and Memory
The memory of forced resettlement is not only one of those people who themselves or their family had experienced the destruction of whole districts, but became part of South Africa’s collective identity. And that is also due to forms of collective memory and remembrance.
South End Museum
Today, South End is one of the city’s many indistinguishable suburbs. Similarly to Cape Town’s District Six Museum, Port Elizabeth’s South End Museum commemorates the history and life of the former multi-ethnic and vibrant district of South End. Situated close to Port Elizabeth’s port the museum presents stories of former inhabitants, displays photographs from before and after the demolition and has sections on the different communities as well as exhibitions on sports, music, dancing and fishing in South End (www.southendmuseum.co.za).
District Six Museum
The District Six Museum Foundation was already established in 1989 but the museum only opened in 1994 after the eviction of Apartheid to keep alive the memories of District Six and as the museum writes on his website www.districtsix.co.za “displaced people everywhere”. The self-set goal for the museum is: “As an independent space where the forgotten understandings of the past are resuscitated, where different interpretations of that past are facilitated through its collections, exhibitions and education programmes, the Museum is committed to telling the stories of forced removals and assisting in the reconstruction of the community of District Six and Cape Town by drawing on a heritage of non-racialism, non-sexism, anti-class discrimination and the encouragement of debate.”
The museum therefore is not only an exhibition about the history of District Six, but a way to preserve oral history and create a collective memory as well. One example is a guest book in the upper part of the museum. It is in invitation to former residents to write down their names, former and today’s addresses and their experiences of living in District Six.
As the following pictures show the museum also collects items of daily life in the area between the early 1900 and the demolishing of many of its buildings.
Coming back to District Six
The area that was formerly known as District Six today is part of Cape Town’s, perhaps even South Africa’s collective memory, a living document of history and a remembrance of the Apartheid regime as well.
During the Football World Cup the BBC made a short film about the area starting in the District Six Museum, speaking with former residents and showing what the district looks like today: many parts where once stood houses are now a flat green area. Some of this land will be given back to former owners who filed in an application, but part of the area is planned to be left as an open space, a park to commemorate those people forced to leave their home. A memory to the destroying force of the Apartheid regime.
BBC via Youtube:
In 2003 work started to make it possible for former residents to come back to District Six, 24 houses were the first ones build for those already older than 80 years. Ebrahim Murat, aged 87, and Dan Ndzabela, aged 82, were the first ones who got a key for their new District Six houses in 2004. President Mandela himself handed them over on February, 11th. Over the next three years over 1600 families were scheduled to come back to the place they had once called home. But the coming back is a slow and sometimes not always successful process. The big question still is: How to heal the wounds gashed into the middle of a town when those affected are scattered all over the outer areas and even the whole of South Africa? How to redeem when many of the older residents have died without ever seeing their home again? Many cases are still unsolved and not everyone had the chance to claim back their former territory, apart from the fact that many of those who had lived in District Six had not been the house owners but rented the houses from better situated people. They had called it their home none the less.
Al Jazeera English: Few can return to Cape Town’s District 6 (13 Dec 2008)
District Six in Literature, Art and Popular Culture
Collective memory is not only formed through museums and mouth to mouth talk but popular culture as well. Speaking of District Six this can be proved by the amount of literature, art and music approaching the subject.
Richard Rive – “Buckingham Palace, District Six”
Alex la Guma – “A Walk in the Night”
Rozena Maart – “No Rosa, no District Six” (Shortstory), part of the debut collection “Rosa’s District Six”
Music and musical
Not only South African Jazz, like Basil Coetzee and Abdullah Ibrahim, had its home in District Six but even musicals later on were dedicated to the district: In 1986 David Kramer and the later murdered Taliep Petersen – both very famous in South Africa – wrote the musical “District Six”. 1997 the musical “Kat and the Kings”, set in District Six during the 1950s and also written by Petersen (music) and Kramer (lyrics), premiered. After touring South Africa the musical appeared on the London stage in 1997 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
The historical events in District Six were also an inspiration for the Movie “District 9”. In the 2009 science fiction movie situated in an alternate Johannesburg and produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp the members of an alien ship are forced to live in a kind of Alien concentration camp – a result not of an actual threat but fear and prejudices.
Jessica Holzhausen and Kevin Grecksch have been travelling South Africa for three months in 2013. This text is a result of their travel experiences – more can be found on Jessica’s blog: jessicaholzhausen.com
Follow the authors on Twitter:
Jessica Holzhausen: @Hol_Jessica
Kevin Grecksch: @KGrecksch