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District 6
Foundation Development Destruction
In the early British era, especially after the release of slaves in 1838, large numbers of 'free blacks' required housing in Cape Town. They had only limited incomes and former slave owners took advantage of the situation to develop slum areas where they rented rooms to artisans and labourers.

In the absence of building restrictions (introduced 1861) buildings without water or sewerage jumbled together between narrow alleyways. Areas of lower Cape Town and District 6 developed in this way, with certain 'slum lords', such as J Wicht, owning hundreds of such cramped dwellings, renting out rooms to the families of free blacks.
Although conditions remained very poor, and over-crowding became worse, District 6, with its central location above the city, became a multi-racial and vibrant community and a cultural centre for the working class, with strong links to the Carnival.

Children growing up in District Six were expected to contribute to the family income from a young age, through washing, running errands, sewing, charring and cooking, as well as helping out with family domestic chores.

Most houses were small, some consisting of only one room housing as many as 16 people. The toilet was in the back yard and washing comprised turns in the bath tub in the kitchen.

District Six is remembered fondly as a place of hardship, but a tolerant and mutually supportive community that enjoyed lively entertainment. People recall the lawlessness of District Six, but even the gangsters are remembered as basically harmless. The core of the 'skolly' gangs comprised street children, most of whom earned a living selling newspapers.

In the 1930s the city engineer, W.S.Lunn imagined a dramatic reconstruction that would completely transform District Six and by the beginning of the Second World War, a total of 1127 homes had been built. The problem was that many of District Six's residents could not afford the rents being charged for the new housing.

During the 1950s the Cape Times ran a series of articles aimed at 'demythologising' District Six's reputation as a dirty, infested place full of gangs and brothels, and in the process created myths of its own that emphasized the lively, convivial and harmless nature of the area. These portrayals were used to argue the case for saving District Six in the 1950s and '60s when powerful forces were pressing for its destruction on the basis that it was crime-ridden, unsightly and full of vice.
Plans for the re-development of the Cape Town foreshore in the 1930s included the idea of destroying District Six. 'Control' had become a feature of urban planning and shows clearly how the spatial concepts prevalent in town planning at the time fitted neatly with the political ideology.

When the first municipality redevelopment plan was published in 1940, residents of District Six became aware of these schemes. The plan was proposed as urban improvement, but Cissie Gool claimed that this government scheme was the introduction of racial segregation by another means

In 1966 the National Party declared District 6 to be a 'White Group Area' so enabling them to destroy all buildings, except religious ones, on the grounds of 'slum clearance'. Politicians of the ruling party maintained that the area was squalid and 'dangerous' environment and ridiculed Coloured leaders who described the destruction as a 'tragedy'.

Group Areas legislation led to the forced removal of about 150,000 people from unplanned residential areas in the town centre, including District 6, to the Cape Flats. Most of these were coloureds and Africans who were moved to new municipal townships built near industrial estates. The humiliation of removals had profound social effects (more..)

Approximately 60,000 people were removed from District Six itself, at a cost of more than 30 million rand. Two thirds of the residents were moved to the Cape Flats, however housing provision was insufficient and there were 24,000 people on the municipal waiting list by the early 1970s. The psychological and emotional wrench experienced by the residents of District Six is well expressed in poetry and prose.

In 1970, the government renamed the area Zonnebloem after the original Dutch farm, in an effort to attract developers who would transform it into a modern suburb. However protest organisations effectively dissuaded developers by ensuring that the area was considered 'tainted' ground. Apart from the Oriental Plaza, a small gesture to Indian traders removed from the area, nothing was built.

The government responded by building the Cape Technikon and accommodation for its staff, meaning that by 1985 the areas population of 3,500 was mostly middle-income, Afrikaans-speaking whites.

Now a barren area where churches and mosques are the only remaining original buildings, it is one of the most tangible and evocative testimonies to this period of social engineering.

There is a sense in many of the testimonies from low class Capetonians, that in spite of poverty District 6 had a richness in spiritual things and community character. No doubt, these memories are in part the product of 'rose-tinted spectacles' as people who experienced forced removals look back. Nevertheless, District Six itself became probably the most potent symbol of what apartheid did to families and indeed a whole communities.

One of those who grew up in District 6 was Lionel Davis - read his story in the Personalities section

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