Making amends for apartheid: the resurrection of District Six

Ten years after the end of apartheid and white rule, Declan Walsh meets the victims of one of its crimes as they finally find justice
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The Independent Online

Dan Ndzabela, aged 82, stood at the foot of Table Mountain and looked out to the sparkling blue sea. He smiled. "It's good to be home," he said quietly.

Mr Ndzabela was standing in District Six, the scene of one of apartheid's most notorious travesties. Now, in his dying years and a decade after the end of white rule, some justice is finally his.

Until the 1960s District Six was Cape Town's most vibrant quarter. Blacks, coloureds, Jews and immigrants from all over the world bustled through its cobbled streets and crammed into colonial-era houses. Its diversity represented everything apartheid opposed.

In 1966 the area was declared "whites only" under the hated Group Areas Act, and the first bulldozers rumbled in. Houses were levelled, streets wiped from the map, and an entire community dismembered and banished to squalid townships on the marshy Cape Flats.

"They wanted to push the black people into the bush as far as possible," said a former resident, Eileen Abrahams, 63. "There was the mountains on one side, the ocean on the other - the whites had to have it."

Today the bulldozers are back in District Six, but this time to build, not destroy. A new line of houses is rising on the weed-strewn ground, in an ambitious attempt to repair the injustice and - just maybe - rekindle a broken community.

Mr Ndzabela, one of the first evictees, received the key to a new townhouse from Nelson Mandela during a windswept ceremony last month. Weeks later, he watched proudly as plumbers installed pipes in his still-bare kitchen. "Finally, I am at peace," he said. "This allows me to forget the past and think of the future."

Immigrant traders, merchants and a community of freed slaves established District Six on the fringe of the present-day downtown Cape Town in 1867. Over the next century it evolved into a roiling, raucous, easy-living quarter. There were jazz clubs, cinemas and curry houses. Stevedores scrambled down to the docks in search of work; gangsters hung out in the bath house. Creed and colour lived peacefully side-by-side - Indian Muslims with Latvian Jews; churches near synagogues; prostitutes and priests.

"We were like one family," said Mr Ndzabela, who worked as a messenger in a garage - one of the best jobs a black man could get under the strict race control laws. And not all whites were the same, he added. One group of women, known as the Black Sash, protested against the race discrimination outside Cape Town cathedral. But the Afrikaner farmers from rural Stellenbosch were the worst, pure racists. "They would call you a Kaffir," Mr Ndzabela said.

One day Mr Ndzabela's "love letter" - a bitterly ironic nickname for an eviction order - arrived and his family was dispatched to the windy township of Guguletu. He lost his brick house in town for a rickety shack 25 kilometres away. "The government of that time did not take us as human beings," he said.

In all, 66,000 people were evicted from District Six by the apartheid government. Cruelly, many streets in the new townships were named after those that they had left behind. By the time the last family left in 1981, only memories remained.

"It was a heinous act of greed," said Stanley Abrahams, a former resident, sitting on a bench marked "Europeans Only" in the District Six commemorative museum. "Some call it cultural genocide."

But despite the upheaval and heartache, District Six has never been fully developed. A technical college was built in the early 1980s but many local architects refused to get involved because it was for whites only. Similarly, plans for a multinational business park were scuppered by international protests.

About 40 hectares remained undeveloped - a weed-strewn ground that is now being handed back to the original residents, thanks to South Africa's land restitution programme.

More than 1,600 families are expected to resettle in District Six over the next three years. Returning residents will get cheap loans to build new houses. To kick-start things, a small development of 24 houses is being built, the first of which went to Mr Ndzabela.

Resurrecting an entire neighbourhood is an ambitious task, the organisers admit. Hundreds of former residents have chosen cash compensation over land. And those who do return are forbidden from selling for 15 years, to prevent hawkish property developers swooping on some of Africa's priciest real estate.

"There's no way we can recreate the district," said Mr Abrahams. "But at least there's an opportunity for people to come back, and reclaim their dignity."

Mr Ndzabela could have taken the cash payment, and in many ways it would have been easier. His family lives in Guguletu, where township life is not as harsh as it once was. Since 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) government has resurfaced the roads and provided water and electricity. Still, he insisted on returning. "I want my grandchildren to know how we suffered under apartheid," he said.

For others it is already too late. Ibrahim Murat, 87, and his wife waited years for the District Six land claim to be processed. Last year, just after they heard they had been successful, Mrs Murat died. "Now I will live here with my surviving four children," Mr Murat said at last month's ceremony.

But for others on the list of returnees, such as Abduraghman Cassiem, 95, the prospect of going back at such a late stage in life is daunting. "We've been here 24 years," he said at his home in Mitchell's Plains, a township on the Cape Flats. "How will I move all this furniture? And there will be a lot of people who don't know me... I think I don't want to go."

Some families are sending the younger generation in their place. Richard Abrahms, 55, has returned to South Africa from England to occupy a house in District Six. He admits he "doesn't know" if a sense of community can be recreated "but at least it gives us a sense of belonging".

But the family is finding it tough going in Africa's harsh economic climate. With 40 per cent unemployment, Mr Abrahms has not found a job. His Irish wife, Helena, is supplementing their income by selling greetings cards at local craft fairs. When their District Six house is ready - hopefully this month - she will push for a small community hall similar to ones dotted around Ireland. "It would be fabulous for getting people together," she said.

But although District Six is often painted as a model of inter-racial harmony, it had its own tensions that the death of apartheid has failed to extinguish. Coloureds, in particular, feel the ANC government has marginalised them. "The world has changed, said Mr Cassiem. "Now the black man has come to power, and there is no opportunity for the coloureds."

Western Cape will be one of the ANC's few challenge areas at the 14 April elections, which the party is otherwise expected to win easily. The New National Party, the rump of the former apartheid rulers, controls the province. But at his trim townhouse in the new District Six, Mr Ndzabela has no doubts. He will be voting for the party created by Nelson Mandela, his "king".

Sometimes he climbs to the upstairs windows, and looks towards Robben Island on the Atlantic. "When I look to the sea I think of Mandela," he said. "He was jailed there for our freedom." Then he turns to the rear window, and looks up at Table Mountain. "Then I know I am back in Cape Town," he said. "And I am happy."