District Six lives again, 35 years later


District Six was colourful and vibrant before removals and demolitions. The rebuilt suburb will try to regain some of that flavour. (Image: Department of Rural Development, Cape Town)

• Michael Worsnip
Chief Director, Restitution Support, Western Cape Regional Land Claims Commission
+27 21 409 0300

Lucille Davie

The lively, cosmopolitan Cape Town suburb of District Six, like Fietas and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, came to symbolise the suffering and cruelties endured under apartheid when it was systematically bulldozed in the 1960s and 70s, forcing hundreds of families to leave their homes.

District Six was a working class area just beyond the CBD, probably dating back to the early 1800s, and was originally home to freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. Now, almost 35 years after the demolitions, the suburb is being revived, with original residents, or their descendants, reclaiming their interrupted lives.

“The return to District Six can serve as a model for restitution, as a process which has made it possible for citizens who ordinarily would not have been able to afford it to have access to prime real estate in an increasingly gentrified Cape Town. It has facilitated the process of repossession of the city by the dispossessed,” according to the District Six website.

In all, some 50 000 people were removed from District Six.

Healing the scars

The area remained an empty scar of land for a decade or two, and was renamed Zonnebloem, with a campaign – Hands off District Six – preventing private development on the prime real estate. Then, in the 1980s, the apartheid city council erected housing for the police and the army, and built the Cape Technical College, now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

After democracy in 1994 restitution claims were submitted, and the slow process of rebuilding the suburb began. In a pilot project started in 2003, 139 homes were built by the District Six Trust, created by former residents. Now, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform is to go into phase three, and by next year, around 2 000 homes will be completed, resettling 1 500 people back in the suburb. Some R700-million has been set aside for the development.

The original suburb consisted of 150ha, but only 40ha is available for restitution, with pressure from the municipality to densify the area, says Michael Worsnip, the chief director of restitution support in the office of the Western Cape Regional Land Claims Commission.

Worsnip says plans are in place to restore the former New Hanover Street running through the suburb, to revive its lively atmosphere. With minimal housing, it will consist largely of shops on several storeys, with balconies overlooking the street, which will host carnivals, parades and events. The idea, says Worsnip, is to create a tourist area.

“Tourists come to Cape Town for Table Mountain, Robben Island and District Six,” he explains. He envisages designated tourist routes running through District Six, with monuments and places of interest.

Revenue from events and rentals will help offset the government’s capital investment in District Six.

“The plan is not to recreate what was there, but model a new suburb with the look and feel of the old District Six,” he adds.

The homes, a mix of three- and four-storey apartments, and one- and two-storey row houses with balconies, all with possibilities for expansion by the homeowner, are being built by the department and given to residents – some of whom are in their 80s – for free. Restitution also gives the residents free rates for the first 10 years. Former tenants and owners will be moving in, with owners or their descendants obviously getting a better deal than tenants. Worsnip stresses that many of the original residents are now dead.

A history

In 1867 District Six was named the sixth district of Cape Town, but by the early 1900s the suburb’s population began to change when the first removals took place. Resident blacks were forcibly displaced in 1901. The suburb was neglected over the following decades, and by the 1940s the municipality made plans to demolish houses in a slum clearance policy.

Then the Nationalist government came into power into 1948, and the first of a succession of Group Areas Acts became law in 1950. The act was fine-tuned by 1966, when District Six was declared a white area, and wholesale removals and demolitions were in full swing. Residents resisted but by 1982 the last of them were removed to the desolate and windswept Cape Flats – in all some 40 000 people. Several churches and mosques were all that remained. The act was repealed 25 years later, in 1991.

Generations of the mostly coloured people who lived in District Six nurtured the many artists who portrayed the suburb in literature, art, and music. Alex la Guma and Richard Rive wrote A Walk in the Night and Buckingham Palace, District Six, the latter adapted for the theatre. Artists Gregoire Boonzaaier and Gerard Sekoto captured District Six in colourful depictions. Talented musicians David Kramer and the late Taliep Petersen wrote and produced District Six – the Musical, which toured internationally. The musical Kat and the Kings was set in the District Six of the late 1950s, and poets Don Mattera and Tatamkhulu Afrika wrote emotive poems on the destruction of colourful suburbs.

The late jazz musician Basil Coetzee, who was born in the district, collaborated with internationally renowned jazz pianist Adbullah Ibrahim, their most famous song being Manenburg, which, decades later, is still a hit. Ibrahim, who has 100 albums to his name, described the suburb in a 2001 interview with The Guardian as a “fantastic city within a city”, “where you felt the fist of apartheid; it was the valve to release some of that pressure. In the late 50s and 60s, when the regime clamped down, it was still a place where people could mix freely. It attracted musicians, writers, politicians at the forefront of the struggle. We played and everybody would be there.”

Land claims

After the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994 was passed, more than 2500 former residents and owners submitted claims, and the process of resettlement began with a heritage impact assessment in 2003.

“This redevelopment of District Six is no ordinary ‘development’. It is about allowing for the return of a community that was forcibly removed more than thirty years ago and for the reconstruction of a quarter in the city centre. In doing so, it is an urban project that deals primarily with social justice,” states the website.

This has been followed by a succession of steps to reach the goal of restitution – first a conceptual framework, then a development framework, followed by precinct plans, and now finally, building plans.

In 1998 a record of understanding was signed by the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust, the City of Cape Town and the Regional Land Claims Commission, in which the multicultural character of the area is acknowledged. It resolves to “provide restitution for those forcibly removed from District Six through an integrated redevelopment which will result in a vibrant multicultural community whose dignity has been restored in a developmental environment, grounded in, and meeting the social and economic needs of the claimants and broader community that will contribute towards the building of a new nation”.

Twenty-four units were constructed during the first phase, while 115 units went up in the second phase, each consisting of three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and toilets, making up 90m² each. Work on the third phase began in mid-March, with 300 units going up. It is hoped that all claimants will be in new houses by 2015.

The restitution aims to “conceptually reflect the past but be innovative”.

Seventy-five-year-old Aboubarker Brown moved back to District Six with his wife four months ago. Born in District Six, he was 49 years old when he and his family were relocated back in 1988. “I am very, very happy to be back,” he says.

“I’m extremely confident – we have an amazing resurrection of a piece of land so critical to the city,” says Worsnip.

He concludes, saying that over Christmas last year the suburb was buzzing, “just like it was previously”, with people out on the streets, braaiing and enjoying each other’s company.

“It is an exciting period ahead.”