District Six no longer exists. On February 11, 1966, the lively inner-city district in Cape Town with its many and varied cultures, a population that ranged from Blacks to Muslim Cape Malays to white Afrikaans to Indians, was officially declared a white area. The building speculators were already waiting longingly for the quarter, which was near both the harbor and the city center. The total demolition of District Six began too late and took an unexpectedly long time. Ultimately the bulldozers, facing the resistance of the residents, had to destroy it house by house.
But even the demolition (1968-1982) proceeded quite unfavorably for those doing the demolishing. At the end of the cleansing process, this prime location in Cape Town was vacant. True, more than sixty thousand people had lost their homes and been forced to resettle. Yet large portions of the white upper class did not go along with the plan. This wound to the city lay open in people’s consciousness: nobody wanted to live there. Fear of the revenge of the residents played as much of a role as did the basically uneasy feeling of taking part in an injustice. The investors gradually faded away. Today, open fields and squalid meadows in the middle of the city testify to one of the most senseless and aggressive “urban-planning” measures in history.
Many people think that the razing of this district marks the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime. One eyewitness, Noor Ebrahim, works today in the bookstore of the District Six Museum, where street signs and a variety of original materials bring the vanished neighborhood back to life: “I wrote this book myself,” the man explains eagerly. His ancestors came from Bombay and Scotland. The title: Noor’s Story. My Life in District Six.
Noor likes to tell stories about those years when the residents doubted that the government would actually tear everything down. Just as it often happens that before a major crime, some doubt that it will actually take place. “It was unimaginable for us,” Noor says. “But it actually did happen.”
Currently an attempt is being made to give some of the former residents their land back. Nelson Mandela started on this over ten years ago. “Of course, I’d like to move back to the district someday,” Noor says, “but that’s going to take time. The government works incredibly slowly.”
District Six Museum, 25A Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, South Africa
Translated from the German by Geoffrey Howes