LIVING HISTORY

District Six: A stroll down memory lane

By Suné Payne 12 February 2020
Caption
A construction site in District Six, Cape Town, pictured on 11 February 2020. District Six will be redeveloped into houses for former residents if a landmark judgment is passed by the Land Claims Court. To date, houses and student accommodation are under construction in this inner-city area of Cape Town. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Tuesday 11 February 2020 marked 54 years since the start of forced removals in District Six, Cape Town. What once was a multiracial community in the heart of the inner city was reduced to rubble. Since then, the area has undergone a massive facelift and some properties in the area could be given National Heritage status in 2021.

“It’s important that young people know about District Six – it’s not just a name,” says Tina Smith, head of exhibitions at the District Six Museum in Cape Town. 

The date – Tuesday 11 February 2020 –  marked 54 years since the start of forced removals in the area. On 11 February 1966, black people who lived in District Six were forcibly removed from the “Whites Only” area into the Cape Flats under the Group Areas Act. 

For the past five years, on 11 February, museum staff and some of the area’s former residents embark on a walk of remembrance to the last remaining part of the old Hanover Street to remember their lives in District Six. On Tuesday, about 100 people, mostly senior citizens who once lived in the area, walked to the last part of Hanover Street and laid out cardboard cutouts of street names, and pigeon-shaped pieces of paper with memories of District Six.

Former residents of District Six embarked on a walk of remembrance on 11 February on the streets where they once lived before the apartheid regime forcibly removed them to areas on the Cape Flats. (Photo: Suné Payne),

As the former residents walked to Hanover Street – where a campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology is now located – several of the women asked students questions such as, “Do you know what this place is?’, “Do you know where we lived?” while some students took photos, asked questions and received pamphlets explaining the area’s history. 

The university, which was built after District Six was destroyed, has attempted to reconcile with the fact that it’s built on what once was the homes of many people who ended up forced out of the area into places such as Hanover Park, Mitchells Plain, Langa and Manenberg. The campus is now called the District Six Campus and a student residence is called the Hanover Street Residence.

In 2019, following large public support, Keizersgracht Street was named Hanover Street in a symbolic gesture, as the last remaining part of the street is now part of the grounds of CPUT. Read Daily Maverick’s reporting on that event here: Hanover Street: A small bandage for the wound that is District Six.

It was announced in December by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa that the area, renamed Zonnebloem after the forced removals by the apartheid regime, would once again be named District Six.

One of the old residents on Tuesday’s walk was 72-year-old Johanna Anthony. 

She pointed out where places of the past once stood, from the bioscopes she ran to after school to the Moravian Church where she went with her mother. 

When asked if she wanted to return now that there could be a Land Court Case, Anthony said, “No, my mother and father passed away, the building [we lived in] fell down. Now I don’t have the papers. What’s the use of going [back to District Six] and they ask for the papers?” 

Johanna Anthony, a former resident of District Six, walks on the former Hanover Street, asking young people if they knew about the history of the area. (Photo: Suné Payne)

When the group walked into the student residence where the last part of Hanover Street is, they sat and put down the cardboard cutouts and paper pigeons. 

The museum’s Tina Smith told the tale of Noor Ebrahim, a man who lived in District Six and was a pigeon keeper. His birds flew in District Six, and after he was moved to Athlone, Ebrahim decided that he would let the birds fly as if he were back in District Six… until one day the birds went missing. Ebrahim drove all around the city looking for them and eventually found them in District Six. 

Smith told Daily Maverick that Ebrahim’s story was a metaphor for the “different ways to return to District Six… today is very symbolic in the memory of District Six, it never dies; it lives forever”.

The group then walked to the office of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) in the Cape Town CBD and presented a petition calling for District Six to be declared a National Heritage Site.

Advocate Lungisa Malgas, the acting CEO of SAHRA, said the entity is already trying to have eight properties in the area given heritage status.

The environmental planner for District Six in SAHRA, Ben Masinga, said the properties include places of worship. Masinga added that these properties could have heritage status as early as 2021, with the first public meetings to be held in March 2020. DM

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