31 May 2012

District Six - A Forgotten Injustice

District Six, for those who are not familiar with South African history, was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.  Located to the southwest of central Cape Town, which evolved around it, the area became, by modern standards, a slum which occupied prime land.  Originally established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants, District Six was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and the port.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the history of removals and marginalization had begun, with the consequent decay.
The first to be 'resettled' were black South Africans, forcibly displaced from the District in 1901.  As the more prosperous residents of Cape Town moved away to the suburbs, the area became the neglected ward of the city.  In retrospect, I am quite sure that this was a deliberate ploy on the part of the municipal authorities.
District Six was where the Cape Carnival street bands originated (called the "Coon Carnival" in those days).  The minstrels dressed up in bright silks and satins, with their faces painted in the style of Al Johnson and played the banjo and sang traditional folk music, which had it's roots in the American deep south, while dancing through the streets on January 2nd, or "Tweede Nuwe Yaar".  One of the most well known folk songs is “Daar kom die Alibama” (There comes the Alibama) which refers to the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, which called at Cape Town for provisions in August of 1883.  Some of South Africa’s most celebrated traditional dishes have their origins in the kitchens of District Six.  Babootie, Cape Malay lamb curry, Koeksusters (plaited deep-fried pastries soaked in a light syrup,) Waterblommetjiebreedie (literally water blossom stew, a lamb stew with water hyacinth blossoms) and smoked Snoek (the Cape Barracuda or Thyrsites atun) all come from District Six.   
In 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the Group areas Act of 1950, which was the only means the apartheid government, could find that would allow the demolition of the area as "slum clearance".  The bulldozers moved in and the area was all but flattened by 1970, and re-named "Zonnebloem".   60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats.  The families that were moved away are now having their land restored to them, with modern housing having been built to replace the demolished homes.
The thing that I remember most about District Six was the laughter of children as they played in the streets and alleys.  The people were ever friendly and hospitable, and despite their poverty, they were proud.  I loved to walk around indulging in my passion for street photography, and found many willing subjects.  I shall always remember one particular morning when I was invited into the home of a colored lady and offered tea and cookies.  She said that she had seen me wandering around taking pictures on more than one occasion.  It was a very humble home, but spotlessly clean.  The tea was strong and sweet, and the cookies were traditional, spicy and delicious.  Her name was Mrs. Peterson and her husband and son were stevedores at the Cape Town docks.  The old Methodist church, which was abandoned when I took these photographs, is now the District Six museum and cultural centre.  Some of the families had lived in the same houses for generations.
Just above District Six there was a clothes laundry with rows of concrete troughs all under a vast iron roof.  Each trough had a single cold water faucet.  The washer woman in the photograph was one of many who worked in the wash-house.  She did my friends weekly washing and ironing for 2/6 a basket.  That's about ten pence in today's money.  The wash house was provided and maintained by the city council (or municipality, as it was called).  The washer-women did washing in these troughs for most of the bachelors and many of the guest houses in Cape Town, in cold water summer or winter, and hung it out to dry on long lines  and then ironed it on wooden tables using real cast-iron irons heated on a brazier.  You never saw such white whites!  Some of them worked there from the time that they were little girls, helping their mother, to old age.  "Ownership" of a wash trough was passed down through the family from generation to generation.
Not many people remember District Six as it was in its heyday.  I was privileged to have been welcomed there, and I treasure my memories of the place and the people.

Graham Serretta, London, 2012

1 comment:

Keep it civil.