The Savagery of Apartheid Remembered in the Callous Destruction of District 6

It’s been 50 years since tens of thousands of black South Africans were brutally removed from their homes in Cape Town’s District 6.

A person seen walking in District 6 on June 27, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa  
A person seen walking in District 6 on June 27, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa   Michelly Rall/Getty Images

Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 11, 1966, District 6—an iconic, densely populated, predominantly Coloured, working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa—was reclassified as a “whites-only area,” a result of the infamous Group Areas Act introduced by the odious apartheid government.

With that piece of pernicious legislation began the relocation of some 60,000 people to the arid, godforsaken townships of the Cape Flats—the forced removal of not only families but also entire communities. With them, myriad lives, hopes and dreams were callously destroyed by the malevolent bureaucracy of the Afrikaner juggernaut and its capricious laws. Thus, today sadly marks the 50th anniversary of the official destruction of District 6, and with it, the attempted decimation of Cape Town’s Coloured community.

Today, half a century separates us from those savage, ignoble deeds. Yet the pain is still raw and glaringly evident wherever you turn in Cape Town. Despite its stunning natural beauty and awe-inspiring setting by the sea, with the regal vistas of Table Mountain providing a majestic backdrop, the city is tragically one of the most racially segregated on earth, with millions of black people still living in heinous poverty many miles from the city center, having been consigned to the geographical margins by flagrant European rapacity.

At its most base, Cape Town is a breathtakingly stark monument to man’s inhumanity to man. The profound psychological scars of apartheid are still both legion and omnipresent. The divisive racial contours are so deeply entrenched in the city’s collective “post-traumatic culture” that it is impossible to avoid the ethnic zoning of the city—divided into affluent white suburbs and sprawling black shanty-shack ghettos. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, the segregation may now be economic in name, but it is still de facto racial.

Today, when you drive around the townships that litter the Cape Flats—places like Hanover Park, Mitchell’s Plain, Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Lavender Hill, Elsie’s River and Bishop Lavis (some of which were cynically named after streets in District 6), with their dilapidated tenement blocks, their soaring violent-crime rates and plethora of medieval social problems, plagued by the twin scourges of internecine gangsterism and rampant drug abuse—you are confronted with a ubiquitous miasma of pain, poverty and hunger.

Wherever your gaze rests, abject suffering is indelibly etched on people’s faces. Chronic indigence, frustration and despair all sadly thrive in areas where the basic amenities necessary for living a decent life are conspicuous by their absence. Replete with human misery, a journey around the Cape Flats is crushing, depressing and humbling in equal measure.

The Cape Flats is, in the main, a dystopian landscape that tells of pain, joy extinguished and human lives let go. It is a landscape of the impoverished, the marginalized and the ostracized. Yet despite its many problems, it can also be seen as an elegiac testament to the victory of the human spirit over tremendous adversity. Hope is thankfully still alive in children’s faces as they walk to school each morning. Young learners are, despite the odds, thirsty for an education and ardently crave a tangible way to better themselves.

The months and years following February 1966 were a period of searingly painful dislocation and both physical and mental deracination for Coloured people, from which many have never fully recovered. To this day, District 6 is a touchstone of stolen innocence and lost beatitude, as well as a towering monument to the appalling injustice done to a people. Thus, the redesignation of District 6 as “whites only,” the subsequent forced removals and the ensuing horrific ramifications as played out over half a century on the Cape Flats have now come to rightfully symbolize the acme of white oppression and one of the supreme evils of the apartheid regime.

Memory, belonging and nostalgia also permeate literary descriptions of District 6. Celebrated Cape Townian novelists (and former residents) Alex La Guma and Richard Rive in A Walk in the Night (1962) and Buckingham Palace, District Six (1986), respectively, both strove to immortalize the neighborhood in their work.