|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
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'.
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
One of those who grew up in District 6 was Lionel Davis -
read his story in the Personalities
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Growing up in District 6