The evicted residents of District Six were robbed of the golden threads of community

The evicted residents of District Six were robbed of the golden threads of community
Vernon Terrace, District Six. (Photo: District Six Museum)

In Cape Town, the loss of community is what residents of an area known as District Six mourn, following their eviction in the 1970s. What was it they perceived they had? And what did they lose, following their removal to the Cape Flats? As former residents wait endlessly to return, these are questions worth asking.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In the way that elephants gather in places where one of them once died, thoughtfully fondling the bones of the departed, I sometimes go to the empty fields of District Six and park, waiting for the full moon to rise. I always leave feeling melancholy.

It’s strange that, in such a rapidly expanding and infilling city such as Cape Town, this space has remained largely unoccupied for nearly half a century.

There have been bureaucratic reasons for this – land claim delays and squabbles. But this hardly explains the City of Cape Town’s sustained unwillingness or inability to properly re-people the area.

Something else is at work here; the collective memory of an outrage done to a socially cohesive community, perhaps? Or maybe a sadness of what cannot come back to life or be regained for District Six’s descendants, now scattered in tenements and dangerous, still-racial ghettoes of the Cape Flats?

Woven into the chaotic tapestry of the area seem to have been golden threads of community that, having unravelled, nobody seems willing to try to reweave lest their hearts be broken yet again by the impossibility. Where District Six once stood has, to a considerable degree, become holy ground, a treeless, windblown monument to lost community. What was this thing they called community?

The history of a city is the story of its neighbourhoods. Each has a zeitgeist, an identifiable personality. They all look and feel distinct from one another and have persistence over generations.

Studio shot from District Six. (Photo: District Six Museum)

Explaining zeitgeist is difficult because it comprises many things: the type of buildings; the width of streets; the presence or absence of gates and walls; greenery or lack of it; street lighting; how people dress; who’s hanging around; the friendliness, indifference or fear of people; the smell of cooking, rubbish or flowers; and the types of cars.

Organised communities have higher levels of formal and informal solidarity. There’s consensus on important values, often cohesion and social interaction among neighbours, formal and informal surveillance as well as a preparedness to intervene in altercations, question strangers and admonish children for unacceptable behaviour. These areas generally look and feel different.

District Six was such an area and has come to represent a time when things were better. But what made it so?

The District was never easy to live in. It was overcrowded. Houses were often not repaired by absent landlords who were content to rack-rent to families by the room. Alleys often stank of urine and fish heads.

But it’s not the physical conditions that former residents yearn for; it’s the way in which people interacted, a feeling of sharedness. In a city where this has been lost, it is this sense – these golden threads – that are most remembered and mourned.

There was crime and some disease, but given the crowding, housing condition and poverty, it was, by today’s standards, very limited. This limitation of social harm was directly linked to the social cohesiveness and control exercised by extended families.

District Six row housing. (Photo: UCT Archives)

Within the extended family were people who could be trusted implicitly and would give assistance willingly. In major calamities, such as the loss of a job or a death in the family, it was kinsfolk who rallied to support and whose support lasted longest.

Kin also helped find employment and accommodation and bribed or bailed you out of the clutches of the law. They were, in short, indispensable. In a hostile and uncaring world, extended families provided a refuge and a domain within which strategies of survival could be worked out.

The fine-grained lattice of community enterprise was noted by journalist Brian Barrow:

“The place has more barbershops to the acre than anywhere else in Africa. There are tailors by the score, herbalists, butchers, grocers, tattoo-artists, cinemas, bars, hotels, a public bath-house, rows of quaint little houses with names like ‘Buzz Off’ and ‘Wy Wurry’ and there is a magnificent range of spice smells from the curry shops. The vitality and variety in the place seem endless and the good-humour of the people inexhaustible. Anything could happen and everyone in the end would laugh about it.”

The area became known for the ingenuity, novelty and enterprise of its residents. By day, it hummed with trade, barter and manufacture; and, by night, it offered the “various pleasures of conviviality or forgetfulness”.

The area’s rich social fabric had an unintended function as well. Not only did it provide the possibilities of a roof and an income; it also fostered networks of social control. On the District’s many shallow verandas, grandparents commented, gossiped and watched. Because effective police protection was lacking, this surveillance was beneficial, even essential, to life. It kept things “safe”.

This surveillance provided safe space for children to be children, as Barrow observed:

“Children everywhere. Shouting, laughing, whistling, teasing, darting between old men’s legs, running between fast-moving buses and cars and missing them by inches with perfect judgement. Poor, underfed children but cheeky, confident, happy and so emotionally secure in the bosom of their sordid surroundings. Everyone loved them. To them, it seemed, every adult on those busy streets was another mother, another father.”

Powerful families also “ordered” the District through their “connexions”, intermarriages, agreements, “respect” and, in some cases, their access to violence. An aspect of this type of control was the rise of what began as a vigilante group known as the Globe Gang. A member of the Globe Gang told me: “The Globe hated the skollie element in town, like the people who robbed the crowds on celebrations or when there were those marches in town with the Torch Commando or Cissy Gool’s singsong [demonstration] outside Parliament buildings. Mikey and the boys would really bomb out the skollie element when they robbed the people then. They tore them to ribbons.”

But, throughout the 1950s, storm clouds were gathering around the District. The National Party won the elections in 1948 on a segregationist ticket and began to promulgate racist laws. In 1966, District Six was declared a whites-only area.

Removal of around 2,000 families and the destruction of houses began in 1968. Some 60,000 people would eventually be moved.

Homes being bulldozed in District Six. (Photo: District Six donor E Walker / District Six Museum Collection)

Group Areas Act

The Group Areas Act was to undermine and ultimately smash social cohesion in District Six. It ploughed up networks of knowledge, relationships, shared experiences and history – systematically dismantling the scaffolding of a culture.

One of the greatest complaints about Group Areas removals was that individual people or singular families rather than whole neighbourhoods were moved to the Cape Flats. Extended families were not considered and only nuclear-family dwellings were provided. Informal childcare and surveillance evaporated.

The stresses resulting from these changes brought with them psychological difficulties and skewed “coping” behaviour. Marital relationships were upset and the rates of divorce and desertion rose. Parent-child relationships also became problematic – often because of the father’s sense of inadequacy in his new environment.

The destruction of District Six also blew out the candle of household production, craft industries and services. The result on the Cape Flats was a gradual polarisation of the labour force into those with more specialised, skilled or better-paid jobs; those with the dead-end, low-paid jobs; and the unemployed. As the new housing pattern dissolved kinship networks, the isolated family could no longer call on the resources of the extended family or the neighbourhood. The nuclear family became the sole focus of solidarity.

Pressures gradually built up, which many newly nuclear families were unable to deal with. The working-class household was thus not only isolated from the outside, but also undermined from within. These pressures weighed heavily on housebound mothers. Neighbours were not well known and, with nobody to supervise them, the street was no longer a safe place for children to play. The only space that felt safe was a small flat.

Children were shaken loose in different ways. One way was into early sexual relationships and perhaps marriage. Another was into fierce, street-corner, drug-driven subcultures, reinforcing the neighbourhood climate of fear. The situation was to be compounded by rising unemployment among young people and the hardening of gangs.

District Six before demolition, 1944, Department of Land Affairs, Trig Survey.

Social disorganisation

The failure of the government to reduce poverty or to prevent rapid squatter settlements, compounded by older racial ghettoisation and the division of the city between glitter and ghetto has – by design, inability or perceived necessity – resulted in massive social disorganisation of poorer neighbourhoods.

Despite the turnover of residents through time, these conditions persist and residents in “those kinds of places” continue to be seen as “those kind of people”. They are labelled and treated accordingly, to a point where many of them embody the definition and act accordingly, lashing out or wearing their situation as a badge of ironic resignation.

In these neighbourhoods, collective efficacy declines, violence increases and other forces move into the power vacuum in an attempt to control, stabilise, disrupt or benefit.

Contact crime across a city tends to cluster in such neighbourhoods, as does low income, high unemployment and raised levels of interpersonal conflict and stress. What’s important to note, however, is that social disorganisation is a property of neighbourhoods, not individuals, and that crime is one of its characteristics.

The difference between District Six and newer neighbourhoods such as Manenberg and Lavender Hill, Mitchells Plain or Khayelitsha is that the former was a community that cohered and policed itself and the latter are, comparatively, socially disarrayed and organisationally unglued. Poverty is not merely deprivation, it’s isolation and social confusedness.

As a consequence, many of the residents in Cape Town’s high-risk, low-income townships voice a degree of fatalism about transformation in their own lifetime and a moral cynicism about crime, which they view as inevitable. As a result, contact crimes are not vigorously condemned because of an inability to prevent them occurring.

In 1994, the newly elected ANC government was to inherit a Cape Town working class that was like a routed, scattered army, dotted in confusion about the land of their birth. In the lonely crowd of satellite clusters with rising rates of violence, the townships had become increasingly difficult places to meet people after work, favouring silent conformity and not rebellion.

The ultimate losers were working-class families. The emotional brutality dealt out to them in the name of rational urban planning has been incalculable. The only defence the youths had was to build something coherent out of the one thing they had left – each other. Between windblown tenements on the dusty sand, gangs blossomed.

A carnival in Hanover street. (Photo: District Six Museum)

What was lost

As I watch the full moon slowly illuminate grassy mounds covering the bricks and mortar of buildings that once housed District Six, the saddest thing is the silence. Here, once, was a community that buzzed with life and laughter. What former residents miss and yearn for is, I think, not so much where they once lived, but who they once were living there.

What, then, can we say about the golden threads that illuminated the tapestry of this particular urban neighbourhood?

People may be defined by their built environment – be it patched and crumbling – and the economy that supports it, even if in halfpennies and farthings. But these are pale threads. More robust and colourful are yarns of context – of others, mainly extended family, within whose regard a person is held. Lacing through the warp and woof of that regard run bright strands of what a community really is: the sense that, without doubt, you’re somebody in a place where people accord you respect.

Exposed to the harsh, acid rain of racist urban management that dissolved communities in Cape Town and unpicked the fabric of their lives, this gold turned to tinsel. In the social tangle amid unforgiving tenements on the dusty Cape Flats the message was clear: “You’re nobody”. Barrow noted the result:

“What the residents of District Six had was a community which was socially cohesive and held together by friendships and obligations within and between extended families. What they lost after laws and bulldozers scattered them across the Cape Flats was a sense of who they are. That is one of apartheid’s most insidious crimes.”

This month, the District Six Working Committee expressed concerns over the ongoing delays in the return of land to claimants; it says it will be exerting further legal pressure on the government in a bid to speed up the process that’s been lagging for decades. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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