District Six: Reconstructing Home Competing visions for the future of one of Cape Town’s most controversial neighborhoods

By Charley Locke

“I was standing right there when they demolished my home,” explained Noor Ebrahim. The day in 1975 when he was evicted from his home at 247 Caledon Street, all he could do was watch.

Alongside his diverse fellow residents of District Six – as Ebrahim described it, “one big happy family of Muslims, Christians, Indians, Hindus, Portuguese, Chinese, Africans” – he could only stand by as the apartheid era government demolished his vibrant neighborhood. Redesignated on February 11th 1966 as a Whites Only Area under the Group Areas Act, one of apartheid’s most effective, long-lasting acts of enforced segregation, District Six was demolished. Over sixty thousand of its residents were evicted. Many of the elements that distinguished District Six as a center of Cape Town culture, including Carnival jazz celebrations, Klopsa music, and Christmas bands, were lost.

After the apartheid era government decided to designate the centrally located land as a whites-only neighborhood, all businesses, homes, and organizations owned by non-whites were no longer legally permitted. Using logic similar to separate but equal, colored and black residents were relocated to newly created townships organized by race. With little prior notice, neighbors, friends, and even families were separated. As Ebrahim described in the stories of several of his friends, a legally colored husband would routinely be assigned a different township from his legally black wife and children. To visit another township and see his family grow up, he would have to get a permit, allowing him to see them for two hours once every three months.

Chrischrene Julius, an archivist at the District Six Museum, describes the demolition process as a Holocaust. Individuals would come home from work to find their neighbors gone and local businesses demolished. As she described, the apartheid era city planning not only broke apart neighbors and fractured families, but also broke down the connection between an individual and the city itself. To Julius, the loss of identity – “the trauma of it, of people losing the communities, the strong networks of District Six, the physical space of generations who had been living in one place and one building over many years” – has clear effects in Cape Town to this day.

Cape Town’s District Six was one of many communities demolished across South Africa. But through the continued efforts of volunteers and former residents, Ebrahim’s old neighborhood now stands as a “symbol of forced removals” and a testament to this dark era of South African history. It provides a canvas for envisioning the future organization of South African cities and neighborhoods.

Throughout the 1980s, activists prevented redevelopment of the neighborhood as a Whites Only Area through the Hands Off District 6 Campaign, proof of the loyalty and power of the neighborhood’s community. But since the official end of apartheid in 1994, District Six has remained largely in rubble, caught between current residents, the Cape Town bureaucracy, and activists, who, as Julius argues, insist “there’s no way over our dead bodies that you’re going to redevelop this space without ex-residents.”

Many of the current residents identify their neighborhood as The Fringe, home to a burgeoning community of artists and young professionals. In 2014, Cape Town will be recognized as a World Design Capital, and young creatives are seizing the opportunity to redevelop the old District: it’s cheap, centrally located, and unusually, predominantly abandoned, precluding many of the tricky questions that gentrification usually entails.

Pre-apartheid District Six as depicted on a historical postcard from the District Six Museum (Locke/TYG).
Pre-apartheid District Six as depicted on a historical postcard from the District Six Museum (Locke/TYG).

Roch Schollij works at Charly’s Bakery, which she describes as one of the neighborhood’s first creative businesses. She sees The Fringe as part of a recent “mini revolution in urban regeneration” in Cape Town, creating a young community that is “energetic, a little rough around the edges and mostly just quite wonderful.” Schollij acknowledges the powerful history of District Six, and sees The Fringe as building upon the old neighborhood. To Schollij, new businesses and young people reawaken a neighborhood that long lay dormant. She recognizes the vibrant culture of the old neighborhood, centered in “the art and music it produced, in how people lived and how they really enjoyed their lives,” and hopes that through initiatives like The Fringe, the new generation can bring back the energy that made District Six a center of Cape Town culture.

But loyalists to the old District Six, argue that it shouldn’t serve as a building block for a new generation of creatives. Rather, as Julius explains, its “salted earth.” To her and others who work at the museum, the city regeneration process has attempted to paint over the injustices of the forced removals, brushing away the wishes of previous residents, many of whom, like Ebrahim, still strongly identify with their old neighborhood. To Julius, the only way to “unsalt the earth” – for District Six to exist beyond a ghost town or memorial plaques – is for ex-residents to move back in.

According to Julius, the regeneration process has entirely focused on economics. As she explains, “there’s a very big emphasis on factually finding out what the histories were, and putting that up, and then you’ve done your job in terms of nurturing this historical memory.” To advocates of the old District Six, this brief acknowledgement is hollow of sincerity: redevelopment requires “due recognition of the traumas that it is built on.” As Julius reasons, “people aren’t willing to deal with that complexity, because then you have to find out the ugly bits about yourself, and see the racism within communities, between communities, and how the Group Areas Act has fundamentally broken down our relationships with each other.”

Describing Beinkenstadt, a once locally prominent Jewish bookstore now repurposed into the cheery Charly’s Bakery, Julius explains that by “painting jumping cupcakes on this historical landmark,” the new owners are whitewashing the narratives of loss. “Changing the material fabric of District Six, you do change mindsets,” explains Julius. “This is why gentrification is such a difficult thing to actually fight, because how people erase history, erase memories and spaces, happens through painting buildings, happens through changing a street curb.”

Schollij doesn’t agree. Her family, who started and owns Charly’s, feels a deep affinity for the old bookstore. She finds it “quite symbolic that at the end of one Jewish family business, another, very different one, found its home in the same place.” Schollij reminisces about Beinkenstadt, and explains that while “we’ve gone wild with our paint designs,” they made sure to “maintain the integrity of the building.” For her, the physical history “adds an old-world charm to the Bakery.” She sees their changes as a way to respect and honor the area’s past by “continuing the tradition of bringing life to the area.” For Schollij, painting cupcakes isn’t whitewashing. It’s honoring the history by making the area relevant and accessible for modern Capetonians.

A former District Six resident poses with street signs from his old neighborhood (Locke/TYG).
A former District Six resident poses with street signs from his old neighborhood (Locke/TYG).

For Julius, reimagining the city this way simplifies its past, and avoids acknowledging that its foundations largely rest on the injustices of apartheid. Restructuring a post-apartheid Cape Town will require more than paint. While Schollij recognizes the valuable role of District Six and its displaced residents in the city’s history, she hopes to “honour them and what they lost through building something beautiful.” Julius argues that in these enthusiastic attempts to transform the area, young creatives brush over the complex aspects, in the meantime “actually dehumanizing somebody, you’re saying, ‘your story isn’t valuable.’” Julius argues that in current day South Africa, “trying very fragilely to negotiate what democracy means, you can’t be reckless with those kinds of things, because in the end that’s what shapes a society.”

Capetonians agree that engaging with the dark history of the neighborhood entails “working with a spirit of place” to revitalize the area. To Schollij, that means focusing on the revitalization. The tragic demolition of District Six left a “scar on the hearts and minds of Capetonians,” but the longer the plots are empty and abandoned, “the deeper the cut gets.” For young Capetonians, the abandoned buildings and empty plots of land act as a weak reminder of the “distant memory” of District Six’s character. She feels that the best way to honor its previous vibrancy is to inject it with the young energy of a new creative generation.

To Julius and her coworkers at the District Six Museum, that “spirit of place” means prioritizing previous residents over revitalizing the physical area. While the museum has several programs to introduce young people to District Six, the focus is on reconstructing, rather than generating a new neighborhood. Julius emphasizes the importance of restitution to Capetonians who want to move back to their previous neighborhood, a process that has been moving slowly and bureaucratically. Thousands of ex-residents have registered to move back. Only 64 families have moved so far.

After 35 years away, Noor Ebrahim still hopes to move back. As Schollij argues, there’s no use in fighting against losing the old character of District Six now: that was largely lost due to the efforts of the apartheid regime. And Ebrahim knows the neighborhood in which he grew up and raised his children will never again exist. But although he “cannot expect the same” neighborhood as when he forcibly left Caledon Street, Ebrahim still feels that “District Six and its people shaped me, showed me who I was and how I should be if I wanted to get on in life.” District Six was where he turned for guidance, for culture, for community. Now, the area houses a vibrant culture for a new generation. By relying on the area as a center of their own culture and community, young Capetonians hope to move beyond memory and memorials, and actively honor the power of District Six’s community in their own lives.

Thousands of other previous residents of the neighborhood can testify to that lasting power. Noor Ebrahim certainly can: for the first 26 years of his life, District Six was his home. And now, 40 years after he was forcibly removed, it still is.

Charley Locke ’14 is a Humanities major in Calhoun College. She can be reached at charlotte.locke@yale.edu.