I have written before about interviewing Rashaad Fataar under a solitary avocado tree in a swathe of scrubby grass on the periphery of central Cape Town.

It was, ultimately, an interview about the cost of a political idea, in particular the cost to the family who lived in the house that once stood next to that tree in what was once a teeming District Six.

There are conceivably hundreds of thousands of stories just like it; taken together, they implicitly reinforce the idea in many South Africans’ minds that justice – and the guarantee of a better, fairer country – demand a state-devised revision of property ownership.

Or do they, really?

When I first wrote about the Fataars of District Six, I began with the tree.

‘Every tree has a story,’ I wrote, ‘and this one’s is a story of endurance.’

Its gnarled elbows and limbs, weathered amputations and thickened scars are contained in an overall posture of forbearance, stooped with the burdens of wind, time, solitariness and, one can’t help imagining, heartache.

This is an avocado tree all its own, once the inhabitant of a homely garden on Albert Street, filled with children who’d climb it or hide in it, the dominant feature of a garden with roses and a fig tree, once animated by the elders’ murmuring talk and chiding advice as they sat on the shaded stoep, by comings and goings, unexpected knocks on the door, the smell of cooking.

And it’s still there, this dogged hanger-on, its elephantine girth proof of a determined indestructibility – but all alone, now, in a field of weeds and broken bricks, beer bottles and fragments of discarded things, a snapped CD, a pen top, a cigarette packet and countless shards of plastic, glass and porcelain that formed objects whose functions and shapes have long been indecipherable.

Albert Street is no more, nor Ellesmere Street, nor Smart Street; it’s all just lumpy grass and broken things. But the tree is still there, and the memories.

Rashaad Fataar amply provided the last.

What I’ve never written about before is that, almost slyly – as if it verged on an impermissible disturbance of a greater artefact of history – I pocketed a shard of marble, two fragments of white tile, each still bearing a trace of the blue line that was the unbroken original’s minimal decoration, and a small piece of granite.

Bulldozed to rubble

These are the fragments in the image that accompanies this piece, the backdrop a photograph by former colleague and long-time picture editor of the Cape Argus, Jim McLagan, of children playing cricket in a District Six street before it was all bulldozed to rubble.

What is the point?

The fragments I have kept – with a scribbled note ‘Albert St, District 6 (see cuttings, Feb 27 2016)’ – are not strictly aide-mémoires. I cannot claim any authentic memory, here. In part, they are a token of my own incorrigible impulse to collect things, as remembrances of places, encounters, episodes.  

But I remember there being something distinctively purposeful in bending down to pick these few things up in February 2016 – the bit of marble that can never be returned to its place along the edge of a scullery sink; the shards of tile that are beyond restoring to any kitchen or bathroom surface; and the nub of granite, once part of a wall, perhaps, a gate post or a step, but never again.  

The history of District Six, and the larger history of dispossession, of racial engineering and forced removals, and the effect of these brute intrusions on the lives of millions of people, are so familiar as to seem old hat. We all know the gist, and must accept the absence of wiggle room for making anything less of it.

But we do perhaps need constant reminding that history – this history – was a lived experience that played out for families, for people like us, in their intimate spaces and routines; the bustling kitchen, the kids whacking a ball down the street, the homely bathroom.

Can their losses be restored? Or – considering the fragments in the photograph above – can the broken pieces be put together again?

If 1994 didn’t do the trick – and couldn’t reasonably have been expected to, on its own – the lingering injustice of the years since is that South Africa has yet to properly face up to the challenge of providing an answer.

The African National Congress and those who favour land expropriation as a means of exacting justice and achieving redress think they have the answer in the drive for expropriation without compensation, the Expropriation Bill and the moves to amend the property clause in the Constitution.

The argument against it – vigorously promoted by the Institute of Race Relations, among others – is routinely misrepresented as an attempt to preserve the status quo, sometimes referred to as ‘apartheid property relations’ (intended to mean that whites keep the land they own and occupy and never mind the rest).

Real public interest

Viewed in these terms, opposition to the expropriation drive can be made to look like resistance to what is ‘just and equitable’ and what is in ‘the public interest’. But the real public interest lies in what we do with the future, not the past.

Even leaving aside the now crippling deficiencies of the ANC government, its corruption, cronyism and incompetence, granting powers to a state to intrude once more to try to remake the landscape – as in District Six and elsewhere over decades – will only produce new victims and new resentments and leave to its successors a country with yet more broken things that will defy repair. 

South Africa doesn’t have to repeat its history, but it will do so if it fails to admit the cost of trying.

My own appropriated fragments of ‘District Six’ memory remind me of the tail end of my conversation with Rashaad Fataar in 2016. He was, by then, long settled elsewhere in Cape Town, but I wondered if he ever thought of returning to live in District Six, considering his sentiments about being forced to leave.

Earlier in the interview he had recalled the day of reckoning in 1980: ‘I never thought that day would come. For us, for the people living here, this was our whole life … everything we did, we did here.’ He paused. ‘When you finally left knowing you were not coming back ….’

So, would he ever consider returning?

‘Right now? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be the same,’ he told me. ‘I think for people who have been staying out in the townships, coming back is better, they get a piece of property, a place of their own.’

But the yearning, that was real enough. ‘Most of the people who lived here long to come back because of the way it was. Whether it will be the same … I doubt that. But they long for it.’

South Africa will never be what it was – doubtless a painful truth for many – and it is beyond the power of planners or politicians or anyone else to take the country back to whatever ideal state they might imagine once existed. But they might try, and that is the problem, for it can only be a repetition of the error it purports to correct.

Too modest

The problem is not that the ambition is too great, but that it is too modest, imitative rather than genuinely restorative.

The alternative is to persuade South Africans to long for a country that is better than it has ever been. That will be harder, and may not even seem fair. But steeling ourselves to avoid repeating the unjust failures of the past is the first condition of creating a society in which people – and that can only mean all people – can reasonably expect to have ‘a place of their own’. And for such a society to succeed will depend on the state’s protecting, not threatening, property rights.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully written article, Mr Morris. Thank you. And a haunting challenge to all of us who wish for a better South Africa.

  2. I have read someone that parts of the old district six were decidedly unkempt and unhealthy — bordering on slum status and that there were in effect actual cases of bubonic plague ?

    Perhaps this is all old NP apartheid mythology and justification ?

    I do believe that the — Bo-Kaap is still there — with all the old buildings and original inhabitants ?

    Perhaps some good scratching in the archives and the old Cape Town city documentation — as well as the deeds office will show what the real events were that took place and why ?

    • Life in District Six has doubtless been romanticised, though much less so by people who actually chose to live there, and were forced to leave because of their skin colour. The following passage from from Alex la Guma’s 1962 novella, A Walk in the Night, is a good example of the more candid representations of ‘what it was really like’ by those who really knew:
      ‘In the dark, a scrap of cloud struggled along the edge of Table Mountain, clawed at the rocks for a foothold, was torn away by the breeze that came in from the south-east, and disappeared. In the hot tenements the people felt the breeze through the chinks and cracks of loose boarding and broken windows and stirred in their sweaty sleep. Those who could not sleep sat by the window or in doorways and looked out towards the mountain beyond the rooftops and search for the sign of wind. The breeze carried the stale smells from passageway to passageway, from room to room, along lanes and back alleys, through the realms of the poor, until massed smells of stagnant water, cooking, rotting vegetables, oil, fish, damp plaster and timber, unwashed curtains, bodies, stairways, cheap perfume and incense, spices and half-washed kitchenware, urine, animals and dusty corners became one vast, anonymous odour, so widespread and all-embracing as to become unidentifiable, hardly noticeable by the initiated nostrils of the teeming, cramped world of poverty which it enveloped.’

      The Bo-Kaap is on the opposite side of the central city, and was never declared a ‘white group area’ under the Group Areas Act.

      As for what the archives reveal, the following report from the Cape Argus of 11 February 1966 is perhaps a good place to start in getting to grips with the history of the district.

      ‘“DISTRICT SIX: BIG SHAKE UP IN PLANS FOR CITY, Proclamation A shock”
      ‘A complete reassessment of central Cape Town land uses and population groupings is likely to result form the proclamation today of part of District Six as a White group area. The proclamation may cause the biggest shake-up in city planning Cape Town has known since the reclamation of the Foreshore

      By proclaiming part of District Six for White ownership and occupation, the Government has ripped the heart out of the city’s main traditional coloured residential area.

      In doing so, it has created new prospects for White expansion on the fringe of the city’s central business district and has forced the issue of the establishment of a new core of Coloured occupation – inevitably on the Cape Flats.

      The effects

      The effects of the proclamation appear to be:
      • A huge increase in the city’s already overloaded housing burden
      • The probable scrapping or complete adaptation of the council’s R800 000 pilot urban renewal scheme to build 253 flats with all social amenities for the Coloured people in District Six.
      • The mass movement of up to 80 000 people away from District Six and the creation of transport problems for a much larger commuter population.
      • New difficulties in the labour held for commerce and industry as a result of the labour force being moved far from their places of work in the central city.

      Act of piracy

      Reaction to the Government’s proclamation of District Six came from many quarters today.

      Dr. Oscar Wollheim, (Liberal Party member of the provincial council), said the proclamation of the major portion of District six for the White group was an act of piracy for which he should find no parallel in the modern civilised world.

      “It is a cynical dispossession of land owned or occupied over many years by Coloured people for the benefit of White people under the cloak of slum clearance,” he said.
      Dr Wollheim said the dreadful effects of mass removals had been pointed out. Sociologists, social workers, economists and anthropologists had warned that the uprooting of an established group and an attempt to resettle it elsewhere in a strange environment was certain to result in social chaos and economic disruption.
      He said: “Slums are being cleared all over te world without the use of group areas or the mass removal of thousands of people to new and foreign parts where a completely new pattern of life must be worked out and established.
      “Apart from the social factors, the other practical effects of this proclamation will be the same as previous ones. Estate agents and property speculators (all white) will make fortunes in the massive transactions to follow, as has happened in Newlands. Coloured owners will get little or nothing for their properties. White owners will suddenly find their properties doubling and trebling in value.
      “If ever separate development was shown up to a complete fraud this is it because here you have living in a compact, well defined area enough coloured people to form a town the size of Worcester with people from all social classes, established businesses, commercial and industrial enterprises, financial institutions and services, to make a viable municipality,” Dr Wollheim said.
      Mr J P Jacobs, former chairman of the Gardens branch of the National Party, who appeared before the committee of the Group Areas Board which inquired into the desirability of declaring group areas for District Six, and who submitted that the area should be proclaimed for white ownership and occupation, said the latest proclamation would give central Cape Town a new lease of life.
      It would be to the advantage of coloured people, too.
      The government was going to a great deal of expense and trouble to establish coloured businessmen and industrialists in places like Athlone and it was only right that they should have the ready markets for their products and the necessary labour for their enterprises which were being created by the establishment of coloured townships near them.
      The chairman of the City Counci;’s health and hosuing committee, Mrs M A Hopkins said the council might have to hold a special meeting to discuss the implications of the proclamation.
      It was clear that the rehousing of the residents of District Six woiuld have to be spread over a number of years, possibly more than 10 years.
      Mrs Hopkins described the proclamation as “quite a bombshell”.
      Houses were being built by the city at a rate of 3 000 a year but there was still a backlog of houses (or more than 8 000 families needing them). The backlog had grown longer in the past six months.
      The housing burden on the city would be greatly increased and there would have to be some form of subsidisation by the government if it expected the city to rehouse all the District Six residents as well as seeing to other housing needs.
      Many of the District Six residents fell into the category of slum dwellers and were virtually unhousable because they could not even pay sub-economic rents.
      Accommodation for these people would be a further aggravation of the problem. In addition, the coloured population was growing faster than that of the whites.’

      [As a footnote, it is worth noting – in light of Mr J P Jacobs’s confident assertion that the proclamation would give central Cape Town a ‘new lease of life’ – the eastern city district was economically devastated by the District Six proclamation, and only began to stage a sustainable recovery in the past decade.]

  3. Thank you — and back in your court

    District Six – Before and After

    “Poverty, overcrowding and lack of sanitation took its toll on the inhabitants of District Six. In 1882 there was a smallpox epidemic which led to an attempt at cleaning up the area. Twenty years later an outbreak of Bubonic plague resulted in hundreds of people being evacuated and their houses destroyed. The demolished houses were rebuilt but in no time at all, overcrowding, poverty and disease were as bad as ever.”

    [ KwaNdabeni — named after Sir Walter Stanford of the Native Affairs Department. It would be interesting to know where the Black Africans ( Xhosa ) originally hailed from and how they came to be in District 12 ( later renamed Six ) ? Were they the descendants of those that had survived the Cattle killing and had gone to Cape Town to look for work ? ]

    “By the middle of the 20th century, overcrowding had reached terrifying proportions; District Six was regarded as a slum and a place to be avoided at all costs. Yet for those who lived there, it was home and they were determined to make the best of it.”

    https://lynnssite.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/district-six-before-and-after/

    One wonders IF those living in District Six THEN , had title deeds or some formal form of occupation and tenure ?
    Cape Town Archive / Deeds Office will tell us
    IF they did — were they COMPENSATED ?

    Is the non-racial party of Mandela about to commit the very same APARTHEID crimes ?

    Something very similar happened in Johannesburg

    Plague, Gandhi and the Parliamentary Clerk’s Daughter

    “According to the Rand Plague Report of 1905, the Indian location in which the plague appeared was in a terrible condition. This location was included in an

    area of about 150 acres which the Town Council of Johannesburg decided to appropriate as an insanitary area in March 1902; it appointed a commission to investigate possible alternative locations to which residents could be removed. Under questioning, Dr Porter, Medical Officer for Health for Johannesburg, says of the area, “It almost passes description. It consists of a congeries of narrow courtyards, containing dilapidated and dirty tin huts without adequate means of lighting and ventilation, huddled on the area and constructed without any regard to sanitary considerations of any kind.” He further describes the place as a rabbit warren, and states that he considers the location’s very existence as “fraught with danger to Johannesburg”.”

    http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/plague-gandhi-and-parliamentary-clerks-daughter

    It is quite interesting that the PNEUMONIC plague the death dealer of the “Black-Death” occasioned far fewer deaths then– than SarsCOV-2 today ?
    and
    Here last word from Mark Gevisser — who we understand is in lockdown / does not visit the V&A waterfront with — young female “students”
    and
    Has not yet disgraced himself ..

    https://www.markgevisser.com/blog/was-apartheid-the-ultimate-lockdown

    NO Mr Gevisser — we do NOT need “apartheid-style ‘epidemic expediency”
    We have EWC !!!!!!!!!

    One wonders if the — Rietfontein development has actually taken place ?

    • Indeed. In fact, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague at the Docks, too, in 1901, a news report of February that year notifying readers: ‘For the last few days Dr. Gregory, the Acting Medical Officer of Health for the Colony, has been making investigations into a disease of a suspicious nature which has broken out amongst the rats at that portion of the Docks known as South Arm. Bacteriological examinations conducted by Dr. Gregory lead him to conclude that the disease is bubonic plague.’
      Interestingly, the novelist Andre Brink wrote about his later acquaintance with District Six in the 1960s – when ‘the ruthless bulldozers of the apartheid regime had already begun to lay waste the lower slopes of the mountain’ – as a place that ‘had teemed and pullulated for centuries’. For him, (this comes from ‘a city imagined’, a compilation edited by poet and essayist Stephen Watson and published in 2006) District Six ‘truly spells Cape Town for me: its indomitable, raucous, rebellious way of saying No – not only to apartheid, but to everything that tried to domesticate and inhibit the human spirit and its wild, affirmative freedom, its laughter, its compassion. And also its outrageous and jubilant way of saying Yes – to life itself, without inhibition or shame or reservation.’
      I imagine some might have thought of Victorian Lambeth in much the same way … without ever dreaming of living there.
      Equally, despite the extremes and the risks, District Six was home to countless ordinary, decent families whose lives were shattered by its destruction.

      • “LIFE”
        Shatters ALL of us
        Some — pick up the pieces and get on with it — “life”
        Without constantly harping on the — glorious gilded past !
        Death / New Life / Regrowth — the constant cycle

  4. I enjoyed this a lot Mr Morris. I lived in Ysterplaat in 1966. Used to catch the bus into the City on the odd weekend. The bus drove through district 6. In those days the Cape Times & The Argus were trustworthy news sources.

    I never went into District 6, but was able to look from the top deck of the bus. It looked interesting. The NP were strong, they had many devoted followers. They did not have the majority of the South African people on their side. But this did not deter them.

    The current situation in South Africa reminds me of the way it was back then. The ANC are not deterred at all. They sail on seemingly oblivious to what is right in front of their eyes.

    • Very interesting, Garth. Yes, it’s that quality of blind certainty that makes the two standard-bearers of modern South African race nationalism (though at opposite poles) so alike.

  5. Constitution notwithstanding (I first read it when it was published in booklet form in 1996, 3 years BEFORE becoming SA citizen, what I learned after living a bit over 29 years here is that injustice and ignoring the need for justice so long as it’s politically expedient are national pastimes in this country. What happened before 1994 was bad, but what the ANC government did after 1994 was worse because even though it was in a position to give justice to victims and their families on both sides, it pretended the five golden years of Mandela’s presidency in which the man did a lot of work towards reconciliation were all that was necessary. Well, it’s not and it wasn’t sufficient. Confronted with an unconscionable backlog and under rising pressure due to anger over its corruption, cronyism and lethal (to the people) incompetence, it now thinks confiscating land is an awesome idea. It’s not, never has been and never will be, especially since the process is bound to get corrupted by greed and the racial politics which drive this looming disaster.

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