‘If they gave me a house, I’d take it tomorrow’

April 06, 2010

All I want is to die under this mountain.” Noor Ebrahim, a slightly-built former messenger for Reader’s Digest, has returned to the area where he grew up. Now retired, he likes to remember the old days; he can point out his school — “it was tough” — the mosque where his family prayed and the spot where his father ran a ginger-beer business. Today, though, this area of Cape Town is a wasteland. Table Mountain towers over the once-famous multiracial community of District Six, which was destroyed by apartheid bulldozers and has never been rebuilt.

Reconstructing District Six could have been the ultimate regeneration project for a country keen to show the world an integrated face as South Africa prepares to host the World Cup. The murder last Saturday of the right-wing AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, and the release of figures that highlight growing economic inequality, point to something different — a nation ill at ease and still battling with the aftermath of apartheid.

As Cape Town counts down to a tourist and investment boom, District Six remains a ghost town, the remnants of old roads cutting across a landscape littered with piles of rubble from former homes and shops, the only occupants small groups of homeless people living in tents.

The 60,000 former residents of what was once one of the most culturally vibrant areas in the country remain scattered in townships on the far-flung Cape Flats. Their future is still to be determined by a fight over who has the right to rebuild on the land where their homes once stood — and over what kind of country democratic South Africa will become.

Noor’s family were evicted from District Six 35 years ago and he now lives with his wife in a small home built in his brother’s back yard in the working-class suburb of Athlone. He remembers his father driving back to District Six to sit and stare at the plot of land where their house once stood.

“I’d like to come back,” Noor says. “If they gave me a house I’d take it tomorrow. But I don’t think I’ll ever see the day. It’s all about money — everything is about money in this country now.”

For former residents like Noor, the dream of returning has never seemed farther away. Only a few dozen former residents have been able to move back, while a government official who worked on the project called it a “curse” and complained that, at the current rate of redevelopment, it will not be completed “for at least 100 years”.

“I’ll never forget the day they came to move my mother out,” says Mrs Goliath, an elderly former resident who can still recall vividly the effect of the Group Areas Act, which in 1966 declared District Six a “whites only” area. This apartheid legislation was designed to remove non-Europeans from their homes in cities and relocate them in townships. “It was my sister’s birthday,” recalls Mrs Goliath, at a coffee morning with other former residents at the District Six Museum. “My mother had to give away all her beautiful furniture. The family broke up and my sister and Dad didn’t live long after that.” Most residents left with their belongings on the back of a truck.

But the demolished remains of District Six had a potent political legacy: a series of writers, musicians and sports personalities immortalised the area as a multiracial melting pot teeming with life in an otherwise oppressed South Africa. The now long-gone Avalon cinema, Westminster restaurant and public baths have entered folklore, but even those who remember the old days with fond nostalgia admit that residents often relied on free food, and that it was not unknown for deteriorating houses to collapse on top of their occupants. Still, the general feeling is one expressed by Tahir Levy, a community worker, who moved to nearby Woodstock: “It was a slum, but it was our slum.”

Many hoped that a new democratic Government in 1994 would recognise the symbolic potential of rebuilding an area where Europeans, Africans and “Cape coloureds” once lived together. But rapidly rising land values have made District Six arguably the most expensive piece of undeveloped land in South Africa, worth more than £100 million. It is this that has led to infighting and a stalemate between former residents’ groups and politicians. In the 16 years since the introduction of land restitution laws, only a handful of new houses have been built on the site, which lies next to the business district and has unrivalled views of Table Mountain and the harbour.

For those who would like to see the area given back to former residents rather than transformed by property developers, the issue is central to what kind of country South Africa will become.

“District Six is a statement about what poor people are not meant to experience in real-estate terms — it’s an expensive view,” says Bonita Bennet, director of the District Six Museum, a converted chapel which houses a floor map of the area and old street signs saved by a far-sighted demolition worker. But these mementoes mean little in a property boom. Because of planning loopholes and

delays in enforcing new heritage legislation, luxury flats and office buildings have already been built on what was once District Six land.

“The sinister view is that the heritage legislation has been slowed down deliberately to let the developers build first and make more money,” Bennet says. “It has been a hard struggle. They have big money and all we are sitting with is our memories.”

In the past few years some of the most powerful political figures in South Africa, including a government minister and a high court judge, have been linked to the controversial redevelopment of land next to District Six.Dr Anwah Nagia, the Cape Town businessman who has been chairman of the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust (DSBRT) since its inception in 1998, believes that many people are reluctant to overturn apartheid ideas and encourage non-white South Africans to reoccupy the city. “This is a political agenda driven by class interests,” he says. “The property developers won’t let the return of a working-class population threaten the value of the apartments they want to build for wealthy expats who come chasing the summer sun, then leave the city a ghost town. But District Six is too important to give over to the feeding frenzy of these people.”

Some believe, though, that the real problem is the trust itself. After the democratic elections of 1994, a third of the former District Six was placed under the control of the DSBRT, but problems with money and infrastructure beset the project from the start. A single street of 24 houses stood alone for several years, and a second phase is only now nearing completion. “I had to put up my own money to fund building the first street of houses,” says Dr Nagia. “I just want to rebuild. I’m building in defiance.”

However, Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape and former Mayor of Cape Town, has described the trust as “a protest group, not a legitimate vehicle for redevelopment”, and last December threatened court action unless the planning difficulties were resolved.

Part of the stalemate has involved former residents themselves. In 2006 a handful of disgruntled former District Six property owners broke away, annoyed by a lack of consultation. Calling itself the District Six Advocacy Committee, the group claimed that the DSBRT had no mandate from former homeowners when negotiating land deals, and proceeded to seek a larger financial settlement. Its members claim to be seeking fair restitution for their land, but Dr Nagia says that they remain wedded to apartheid policies that gave “coloureds” preferential treatment over black South Africans.

“They are disgusting,” Dr Nagia said. “They wave a bit of paper saying ‘we owned this land’. That land originally belonged to Africans, who were the first group to be evicted from Cape Town. While these people were supposedly ‘owning their land’, Nelson Mandela was rotting in a little cage on Robben Island. Coloured people got those title deeds on the shallow graves of Africans.”

Not everyone wants to move back to District Six. Nearly 2,000 former residents have taken government compensation, others have rebuilt their lives elsewhere. Some simply believe that the modern urban problems of crime, drugs and unemployment mean that the great days of District Six are long gone, anyway.

At a planning meeting to discuss redevelopment, old-timers spoke wistfully of wanting to “move back to the mountain” — but the younger generation also want to park their cars and have the privacy of suburban gardens in what will be, in essence, an inner-city housing project. Even those who have moved back are not entirely happy. There is resentment that the first people to return were moved to an unattractive street under a noisy motorway, while new residents will have a higher plot with clear sea views.

Meanwhile, the DSBRT continues with its plan to rebuild, with 60 new homes about to be handed over to residents, and an agreed business plan with the Government and the city to build thousands more within two years. Cape Town’s Executive Mayor, Dan Plato, says that he hopes to “accelerate” the project, which he says is “symbolic of the dismal state of land reform in our country as a whole”.

Whether that happens depends on the law, and on the outcome of the predicted World Cup economic boom. For Noor Ebrahim there are parallels with the day he heard that Nelson Mandela was free.

“My friends persuaded me to take a walk to Sea Point, which was a white area,” he recalls. “We got to a café and they went inside but I was afraid. The people in the café were saying, come on, come in — apartheid is over! But I stood there with one foot in and one foot out. I thought, can I really go in, am I really a part of it?”

It is a view echoed by many former residents of District Six. Without restitution or return, they can never really be a part of the new South Africa.

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