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16 February 2004

Cry land, cry freedom

Some lived in Georgian double-storey houses. But during apartheid's heyday, they all had to leave be

By Bryan Rostron

The once all-powerful P W Botha wasn’t in Cape Town on 11 February when President Thabo Mbeki handed over new house keys, in an act of land restitution, to two octogenarian residents of District Six. It was 38 years to the day since P W Botha (“the Great Crocodile”) declared the neighbourhood a white area. Such was the infamy of this act that to this day, much of District Six has remained undeveloped: a green scar on the slopes of Table Mountain – and a reminder of the racial fanaticism that forcibly removed more than 60,000 people from a pulsating quarter close to the city centre, with its magnificent views over the docks and bay. P W Botha now lives in seaside retirement, unpunished and apparently unbowed. But the Great Crocodile is also an octogenarian, and at least he has lived long enough to witness all apartheid’s grandiose works of white supremacy crumble to naught.

On the Wednesday evening, as part of the first phase of the former residents’ return to District Six, Mbeki handed over house keys to Ebrahim Murat, 87, from Retreat, a “coloured” area, and Dan Mdzabela, 82, from the black township of Gugulethu. They will be neighbours in Chapel Street. The District Six Beneficiary Trust plans to build about 4,000 houses for those who had their homes bulldozed during apartheid. Forced removals became a pattern repeated all over South Africa – more than three and a half million blacks were affected.

The obliteration of District Six was particularly poignant because it was an unruly multiracial, working-class neighbourhood of teeming streets, double-storeyed Victorian buildings, tenements with wrought-iron balconies, tailors’ shops, spice bazaars, churches, mosques and nine synagogues. Four years after it had been declared a white area, with removals already taking place, I remember coming across a sign in the window of a closed-up shop called, I think, Professor Colombi’s Dispensary. Perhaps the owner had already been relocated to the soulless wastes of cheap new housing estates on the Cape Flats. The window was dusty and cracked, the sign smudged: “We have pills for all your troubles – stomach troubles, ulcer troubles, ear troubles, eye troubles, wife troubles.”

But there were no pills for the pain of forced removal. David Newby, for 11 years minister at the nearby Methodist church in Buitenkant Street, founded for the descendants of slaves, and serving District Six, recalls how such was the attachment to where they had grown up that some elderly residents actually crept back into derelict buildings to die there.

Noor Ebrahim, now 60, took his racing pigeons to Athlone when his family was moved there in 1975. After three months he let them out to see if they would return. That evening, as he recalls in his memoir, Noor’s Story, there was no sign of his pigeons. After a sleepless night he drove to Caledon Street in District Six, where “I saw a sight which shook me to my core: my pigeons, all 50 of them, were congregated on the empty plot where our home had stood.”

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The apartheid authorities renamed the area Zonnebloem (“sunflower”). As if cursed, the ground remained empty until finally the city council built a convention hall, the cynically named “Good Hope Centre”, and erected two other official buildings – the Cape Technikon and a police barracks. Only about one-third of the land remains for rebuilding homes: a wasteland of grass tussocks, with ghostly traces of old roads.

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The process of agreeing a policy for restitution has been fraught. There have been fights, factions, repeated delays. Thabo Mbeki formally handed over the land in 2000, and some houses were promised for 2001. This month’s ceremony was largely symbolic because the first two terraced homes in Chapel Street are still incomplete.

The management of competing interests after so long has been complex. Some now feel settled out on the Cape Flats, or have moved on; many dream of nothing but a return. For others, it’s too late; they died while the wrangling dragged on. An inclusive formula for restitution has been worked out: some opted for land, others for monetary compensation.

Central to the preservation of memory and the battle for return has been the District Six Museum, housed in David Newby’s former Methodist church, long a renowned centre of anti-apartheid struggle. Ironically, the building was originally owned by a slave trader. Today, the museum is movingly simple: household mementoes, black-and-white photos of dance troupes or sports clubs, a huge map on the floor to which inhabitants first trickled back and wrote down their names on the spot where they had lived. A city official had been given the job of taking all the old street signs out into Table Bay and dumping them into the Atlantic; instead, he kept them in his home, and when the museum first began as a temporary exhibition he brought out his haul. Now the rusted street signs hang as a reminder of a community that was erased.

“It’s the story of ordinary people,” says Newby, who has left the pastoral ministry to work as a development consultant. “Once we saw an elderly fellow weeping in front of a photograph of a powerfully built youth who was flexing his muscles, posing as Tarzan. ‘That’s me,’ explained this old guy. ‘There I am! I never knew I was a Somebody . . . ‘”

Visiting the museum, I was struck by the irresistible desire of people to tell their stories. In the cafe, a middle-aged lady with a scarf struck up a conversation with three young Germans to tell her tale. Linda Fortune, the education officer, after selling me postcards of ghostly places I remembered, showed me the spot on the floor map where she had lived, in Tyne Street; Joe Schaffers at the information desk took me aside to see a picture of the half-demolished block of flats where he’d grown up.

Stan Abrahams was in his thirties when his family was taken from de Villiers Street. A former factory worker, Stan is now 75, a lay pastor and a founding trustee of the museum and the District Six Beneficiary Trust. “I was one of nine children and the family split up,” he says. “We lived in a double-storey Georgian house. My parents stayed till it was demolished. Then they went to live in a single room in Athlone. When the district was destroyed, the city lost its soul . . . I’ve seen people consumed by bitterness, poisoned. That’s why this restitution is so important. It’s a dream. It’s good for the country, you see – for healing terrible wrongs of the past.”

There is a long way to go. Land restitution claims all over the country have been agonisingly slow. In 1994, the African National Congress promised to transfer 30 per cent of white-owned land to dispossessed blacks within five years. Ten years later, an estimated 2 per cent has been reassigned.

Over the years a romantic myth has grown around District Six. Much of it was a slum. There were gangs: the Jesters, Killers, the Globe Gang. Once I was held at knifepoint by a gangster who was probably experimenting to see how pale a white man could go. Another time, a man held a pistol to my head for ten minutes. He had served in the Second World War, but being “non-white” he hadn’t been allowed to carry arms, and seemed to blame me. He’d brought back the Luger as a souvenir. In the end, he called over all his friends and they decided that sharing a joint and some cheap wine with me would be more fun. We had a party.

The bulldozing of District Six was, says Stan Abrahams, the dispossession of the disenfranchised. The Great Crocodile may be unrepentant, but the final triumph over his racial bigotry is that all those complex stories which he tried so brutally to silence – Noor’s, Linda’s, Stan’s – will now continue, even if we don’t know how they will end.

Stan won’t be going back. “We made a family decision,” he explains. “My younger brother will get a house there later this year. If he’s in, my spirit is there.”