Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nelson Mandela and District Six

February 11th marked the 18th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom. I missed the opportunity to make a commemorative post on that event, but hopefully I can make up for it by sharing an equally important, though less known, story of apartheid - the story of District Six.

District Six was established adjacent to the downtown core in 1867 as the "Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town" – a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. Over the next century the modest area grew into a cosmopolitan melting pot boasting a rich jazz scene. Later, as the dark years of apartheid clamped down on the city, it became a haven for musicians, writers and politicians looking for a moment of escape. In the words of legendary South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, District Six was a "fantastic city within a city. Where you felt the fist of apartheid, it was the valve to release some of that pressure."

However, by the mid sixties the government had the community in its sights. In 1966, after allowing the area's infrastructure to crumble for years, the government classified District Six a slum and declared it a 'whites only' area under the infamous Groups Area Act. Forced removals began two years later and by 1982 sixty thousand people had been relocated to the Cape Flats township some 25 kms away. District Six was razed to the ground and, despite having once been home to a tenth of Cape Town's population, the area remains barren wasteland to this day. In the face of growing political opposition from within, and international pressure from outside South Africa, the apartheid regime never succeeded in redeveloping the 528 acre site.

I visited the area after a brief tour of the excellent District Six Museum. Arriving there at 5pm with the southeast winds blowing over Table Mountain, the scene was harrowing.

New tarmac winds through what appears to be undeveloped land and overgrown grass, but as you pick your way through barrens, increasingly vivid relics emerge. Broken brick work and porcelain tiles become more frequent and the concrete foundations of old residential buildings poke through the ground. Cracked and weed ridden streets run uphill towards new developments while the housings of old sewer entrances stand open and uncovered, leading 25 feet down to the storm sewers that serve the ghost community.

It was one of the most stark and disturbing sights I've seen, and powerfully symbolic of the injustices committed against non-white South Africans during the time of apartheid.

The healing process continues as the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust carries on the work of land restitution on behalf of displaced residents. Their formal goal is to "facilitate the return of previously dispossessed persons to their ancestral land." Negotiations are ongoing.

District Six slide show below.

No comments: