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District Six: The soul of land redistribution


Ryland Fisher has more than 40 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age, and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times. Fisher is the author of ‘Race’ (2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, ‘Making the Media Work for You’ (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. His most recent book is ‘The South Africa We Want To Live In’, based on a series of dialogues he hosted on the topic.

Forty-seven years ago, on Friday 11 February 1966, the Apartheid government declared District Six a white group area and ordered the forced removal of thousands of coloured, African and Indian residents. The removals started two years later and continued for more than 15 years as some residents dug in their heels.

In the end, the government won and even the most stubborn residents had to leave, including Naz Ebrahim, who resisted forced removal until she was eventually forced to live in a small government-built house in the Indian area of Gatesville. Ebrahim had lived in District Six for almost 50 years and continued her fight to return to the area until she passed away a few years ago.

The destruction of District Six was inevitable for the Apartheid government, which was riled by the interracial mingling that was prevalent in the suburb closest to Cape Town’s central business district and within walking distance – albeit it a demanding walk – from the harbour.

Though most of the residents could be described as “coloureds”, there were people of all races living cheek by jowl in District Six. This irked the government, which declared the area a slum that had to be demolished. The only buildings to survive were places of worship.

District Six today stands as evidence of Apartheid cruelty at its worst. Anyone who drives into Cape Town’s CBD cannot help to notice the prime land lying barren on your left, just before the copper-domed roof of the Good Hope Centre.

Over the years, protesters have made sure that the government was unable to build houses in District Six and, since our country became a democracy, there has been a concerted push for former residents or their children to return to District Six.

Ironically, the Cape Town campus of the Cape Peninsula University stands as a defiant reminder of Apartheid’s plan for District Six. The campus was built as the Cape Technikon, for white students.

From accounts of former residents, District Six was a happy place, full of music, laughter and neighbours living in harmony, despite a proliferation of gangs in the area. “But the gangsters never interfered with innocent people,” several former District Six residents have told me over the years.

One of the biggest fears of the Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs, which has been tasked to oversee the reintegration of residents for District Six, is that there will be an expectation that things will be the same as they were more than 40 years ago.

“However,” said Rural Development and Land Affairs Minister Gugile Nkwinti at a seminar at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town on Saturday, “things can never be the same again.”

The seminar was called “Chronicles of the land – towards a socially cohesive society” and Nkwinti was remarkably candid about the problems faced by his department in relation to not only the District Six situation but also other land claims.

“Land dispossession started under colonialism. We cannot answer our ancestors confidently when they ask whether we have properly addressed the effects of colonialism. While the land was taken away by war in most cases, we are now trying to address it through constitutional means. The harm caused by war has to now be addressed by the law.”

His sharing of his department’s problems surrounded by a range of land “stakeholders” made a lie of the assertion that government is not always accountable and transparent.

“Land restitution has to be a controlled process, but a just and equitable one,” said Nkwinti. “One of the biggest problems with land restitution was that we had to have a cut-off date. We settled on 1913, the year the Native Land Act was introduced. If we did not do this, we could have had a war on our hands.”

The government has decided, however, to reopen the land claims process to accommodate particularly San and Khoi claims. “When Jan van Riebeeck came to South Africa in 1652, the Khoi and the San were the first line of defence. Their land was taken away long before 1913 and there needs to be some restitution,” he said.

Nkwinti said that the land issue was not only about houses. “It is about so much more. Without land you cannot practise your culture. You become alienated from yourself.”

The people who attended the seminar bore testimony to the fact that the land issue is complex. Questions ranged from what to do about training black farmers, to what will happen to the shack dwellers who lost their homes to a fire in Khayelitsha two months ago and now live in a community hall. There was a question about the rights of tenants as opposed to owners and also a question about what is being done to help people deal with the trauma of losing their homes and their land under Apartheid.

The land restitution process has three possible solutions: restoration, financial compensation or an alternative in cases where it is not possible to restore people to their original land.

For the residents who lost their homes in District Six the pain is still very real and there is still hope that they, or at least their children, will be able to return to the area that they once called home.

But the restitution process is about far from then land. Vincent Kolbe, who was one of the stalwarts in the struggle to reclaim District Six for its rightful owners, was quoted by Bonita Bennett, director of the District Six Museum at the seminar: “The Land Restitution Act deals with people who were thrown out of their homes. What we need is something to deal with people who were thrown out of their souls.”

Giving people back their homes or their land seems to be the easy part. Giving them back their souls might prove to be more difficult. DM


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