Cape district that still bears scars of apartheid: Pretoria's racial zoning destroyed a community. Benjamin Pogrund reports on plans for regeneration

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The Independent Online
District 6, on the edge of Cape Town's city centre, is an eerie sight. A few churches and mosques stand amid large open spaces of weeds and scrub. The roads are wide. Large modern buildings are flanked by low-rise apartment blocks. It is set between the majestic backdrop of Table Mountain and the scenic sweep of the city and Table Bay.

The place is a scarred reminder of the worst years of apartheid. Now, with democracy nearing with next month's elections, the prospect of regenerating District 6 lies ahead. But how to do it is still uncertain.

The name goes back to 1867, when it was the municipality's sixth district. Once it was home to around 40,000 people, most of whom were mixed-race 'coloureds'. Then came the Group Areas Act of 1950: the Afrikaner Nationalist government zoned the entire country into separate residential and business areas for different racial groups. In 1966, it declared District 6 an area for occupation by whites only.

It was the same pattern throughout the country as whites acted to seize most of the best residential, business and farming land. The removal of coloureds, Asians and blacks, sometimes at gunpoint, ran into the millions while only small numbers of whites were dispossessed of their homes or businesses. The government-determined compensation for non-whites was more often than not derisory.

Cape Town has the country's longest interracial existence and until apartheid was imposed, many whites, coloureds and Asians lived side by side. The Group Areas Act evicted coloureds from suburbs such as Claremont, Newlands and Goodwood, all names reflecting the immigration from Britain that began at the start of the 19th century. As working-class coloureds were pushed out of their modest houses, whites bought in, going on to upgrade or rebuild to upmarket levels.

Clearing out coloureds and Asians began in the same way in District 6. Residents came to fear the sound of the 'GGs' - the Volkswagen Beetles with 'Government Garage' number plates used by white officials - as they roared up and down the hilly streets. A 'GG' stopping outside a house could mean an official was delivering a 'love letter' - the ironic term coined for an eviction notice, usually giving seven days to get out.

Gradually, District 6 was cleared of people. Most houses were bulldozed into the ground. A few churches and mosques were left standing forlornly, bereft of worshippers. But even while the removal went on remorselessly, it proved not to be the same as elsewhere. Perhaps it was the popular view of District 6 - slummy and crime-ridden, as the government said, yet with a tradition of vibrant community life for Christians and Muslims alike embedded in Cape Town folklore. It was also true, as the government said, that most people did not own their own homes but paid rents to private landlords; but it was home to them.

The removal generated such passionate opposition that an unusual thing happened: for once, whites did not rush in to buy up the 'ethnically cleansed' properties. A groundswell of public opinion kept a good deal of District 6 bare.

Not only did the clearance take some 20 years, ending in the early 1980s, but few moved in. A multinational oil company that tried to do so had to retreat in the face of public anger. Only the government rode roughshod over opposition, and built an imposing technical college and housing for whites.

Some District 6 residents accepted the inevitable and found accommodation where they could, as close to their original homes as possible. Others waited for government housing up to 20 miles away on the wind-swept Cape Flats. Around 10,000, many of them the poorest, who officially did not exist because they had not been included in the original census, scrabbled around desperately for a place to live.

Ricky Behardien, 36, remembers leaving 18 years ago. His family stayed on as long as possible. 'Most houses around us had been bulldozed, we were living in the middle of vacant land,' he says. 'We were sad to go. In District 6 we lived like a large family. We could go to a neighbour in the middle of the night to ask for a cup of sugar. We still talk about the good old days.'

Tahir Levy says five generations of his family lived in District 6. He was born and grew up in Caledon Street, the main road running through the area. Because of a series of enforced moves under the Group Areas Act - 'We were like pieces on a draughtsboard which they moved' - the family gradually scattered and disintegrated. 'I seldom see them these days. It's problems of distance, transport and crime,' he says.

As apartheid rule nears its end, there is again discussion about how best to use the remaining 39 hectares (96 acres) of open land. A broad-based Community Land Trust, it is proposed, will develop the area. One idea is to provide 'affordable' high-density housing for 17,000 people; but that will mean overcrowding, say critics.

People from the past are not hopeful about such plans. But,as one former resident says: 'The older generation still remembers what was done and they are angry. To younger people, it's just history.' Those who were driven out are scarred every bit as much as is the land, he says. For them, 'you cannot take the soul from a body and then resuscitate it.'

(Photograph omitted)