"It struck me that our history is contained in the home we live in, that we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled."
--Achmat Dangor from Kafka’s Curse1
The story of District Six in Cape Town, South Africa, is one of people’s homes being taken away from them; about human beings torn from the places that had shaped their identities and community. In the aftermath of such actions, can justice be achieved? Can a human being “go back home” when her home no longer exists? Can restitution “right” such a “wrong?” These are some of the questions—and legacies—of District Six.
On February 11, 1966, District Six, a geographically desirable area near Cape Town's city center, below beautiful Table Mountain, was declared a "white group area" and the process began of forcibly removing the non-white residents. Over the next several years, eventually 60,000 people were moved to the Cape Flats, a much more difficult area to live in, far from services and in a relatively desolate and remote area of the Western Cape.
Historically, District Six had been a "mixed" area. As author Robin Malan describes it, "The population of District Six came from all over the world. The largest number were people whom the Cape Government referred to as 'Malay,' or 'Mixed,' or 'Coloured,' people who were the descendants of slaves, Khoi, African and white colonists originally from Europe. Jewish people from Russia, Indians, Chinese, British, Australians were all to be found in District Six."2
(p.199) While there were problems in District Six as there are in any area, the area was celebrated for its vibrant character, neighborliness and the fact that people from all over the world and South Africa "mixed" and got along well. Many of the former residents believe this success was that very reason that led to the decision to destroy District Six.
One of those residents, Noor Ebrahim,
considers District Six their home even though he has not lived there for decades. Like so many other people who have been torn from their home and their land, Noor has been forced to confront an unimaginable loss. He has also reflected on the possibilities of memory, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Additional background on District Six:
In South Africa in 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed, stating that people were to live only with others of their particular racial group. During the 1960s and 1970s, entire neighborhoods were destroyed and housing, usually for whites, was created in their place. For example, in 1960, Sophiatown was razed and the white suburb of Triomf was built in its place.
Even though it was renamed "Zonnebloem" in 1970 with plans for whites to move in, District Six remained a "scar" on Cape Town, standing undeveloped and barren following the years of activity and vibrancy that characterized the neighborhood. Only a few mosques and churches that refused to move remained. Development became impossible because of the continuing protests of the former residents, supportive religious leaders, and interested community members.
In the late 1970s, catalyzed by the activity of the black liberation movement and other social justice efforts, former residents of District Six joined together with religious figures and other community activists to create the "Friends of District Six." The District Six Rent, Rates and Residents' Association was also formed and, in 1979, the group brought a lawsuit against the Department of Community Development. In 1982, however, the Cape Technikon, a college for white students, was established in the midst of strong public protest, and, by 1985, Zonnebloem had a population of approximately 3500 primarily white, Afrikaans speaking people.
In 1987, the Hands Off District Six (HODS) alliance of civic, religious, political and sports organizations and schools came together to protest the development of the area without the involvement of the former residents. This was also a period of massive unrest and violence in South Africa. As the National Party felt the increasing resistance of activists and the international community, it responded with campaigns of violence and terror.
In 1988, at a conference at Zonnebloem College, the HODS committee and the people of District Six passed a resolution to establish a museum for District Six. In 1992, the District Six Museum Foundation held a two week photographic exhibition in the Central Methodist Mission Church (the "Freedom Church"), one of those institutions that refused to move in the face of the government's bulldozers. In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections and in December of that year, District Six hosted an exhibition called Streets: Retracing District Six. The exhibition was only supposed to be open for a few days, but so many people came that it kept going. This was the beginning of the District Six Museum.
The District Six Museum has grown in the nearly ten years since it opened. The Museum has become an important locus for political and social activism, particularly around the restoration of land rights. In 1994, the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights (the Land Claims Commission) was established and all persons deprived of land rights after 1913 could claim full restitution. In 1997, the District Six Beneficiary Trust was founded to "drive, co-ordinate and monitor the processes of restitution and redevelopment in District Six." Marking the importance of the Museum as a site that represented the people and interests of District Six, the Land Claims Court held a session there to pass a significant decision.
Many former residents and relatives of former residents are now poised to move back to District Six. Noor and his wife are among them. They plan to move back home as soon as they are able.
Noor is credited with laying a foundation for the District Six Museum and many of its subsequent efforts. All beginning with the photographs that he and his brother Hoosain took with a Voigtlander camera that they bought when the bulldozers moved in to destroy District Six.