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.
Back then, campaigners fought to voice their disapproval when policemen with sjamboks and guns came to evict families and bulldozers razed homes to the ground, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. Today we must use our voices to remember the lives that were lost, the wealth of talent that was stymied, and the humanity that was never allowed to blossom and flourish. Several generations of people—including those of my father and my uncle—had their life chances torpedoed by the insentient apartheid regime and its draconian legislation.
Robbed of their collective humanity by the myopic evils of white supremacy, Coloureds were discarded like chaff on the wind. Therefore, commemorating this seminal anniversary will help the children of District 6 tell their rightful story and promulgate their own, more accurate narrative—itself vital for the healing process.
To this day, despite much talk of resettlement and restitution, huge swaths of District 6 still lie empty and undeveloped, a graveyard of frangible dreams, doleful longing and twisted, apartheid-era logic. Despite much petitioning, many former residents—some in their 90s—still cannot move back to the neighborhood they once fondly called home.
While we must, of course, resist the temptation to overromanticize District 6 as a place of solely Edenic bliss and virtue—like many slums, it was overcrowded, poverty-stricken and often violent—we must readily acknowledge the magnitude of the loss suffered and its gargantuan effect on several generations of Coloured people, together with the debilitating toll it took on the psyche of a dispossessed and disenfranchised group. Many Coloured lives have been irrevocably blighted by the trauma of displacement, the loss of identity and the downturn in fortune they encountered after being unceremoniously dumped on the barren, unforgiving Cape Flats.
Today, as it has done since opening in December 1994, the District Six Museum valiantly strives to preserve the memory and the dignity of the neighborhood and its former inhabitants for subsequent generations.
Today, 50 years later, we must salute and honor those who survived this vicious act of larceny and celebrate those who, by their recalcitrant thoughts, words and deeds, fought the annihilation of a community and a people. As Don Mattera, a former resident, said in words that powerfully articulate the people's plight, and are proudly displayed in the museum:
Covered by the dust of defeat –
Or so the conquerors believed;
But there is nothing that can
Be hidden from the mind,
Nothing that memory cannot
Reach or touch or call back.
Today, District 6, for you and for all your sons and daughters, wherever you are now, we shall remember, and in so doing, we will make sure that you did not suffer in vain.
For more information about District 6 and to support the work of the District Six Museum, please visit its website.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.