As I stood on the steps of the Moravian Church in District Six, with my camera in hand ready to capture the moments, feeling the power of resilience, of remembrance and heartbreak of an oppressed community who were forced out of their homes by a horrendous apartheid regime, I wished I had the power to restore District Six to its era of humanity and community where people lived.
This was on Thursday 11 February 2016 when the District Six Museum in Cape Town held a commemorative event to remember the lives of humans who were forcibly removed from their community because of South Africa’s legislated apartheid policies which implemented the racial group areas act.
The event was attended by many humble and ageing former and last residents of District Six, human rights activists, allies of District Six Museum, including South Africa’s Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugu Nkwinti.
The remembrance was painful. But there was much laughter amongst the former residents, like Mrs Abrahams, 65 and Mrs Bam, 92 years old. Former neigbours met up at the event and they recalled how they moved road by road, to various newly set up neighbourhoods on the Cape Flats. Some went to Lavender Hill, Hanover Park, Mitchells Plain and so on.
Some residents told stories about how they stayed on in their District Six homes, refusing to move out. Then the bulldozers arrived and they were forced to move.
It was an enjoyable and pleasurable walk from the District Six Museum in the city centre to the Moravian Church, next to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). On the walk I heard stories about the good and fabulous times in District Six, how sugar and salt were borrowed and readily exchanged between neighbours and how New Year’s Eve celebrations were the best in Cape Town.
They haven’t forgotten the memories; that’s the people of District Six. They also haven’t gotten over the pain and heartbreak.
They’ve gone on with their lives, loaded with heavy hearts of the pain of loss and forced removals. They long to be back in a District Six they knew and loved. They want to get back the District Six they lived in; that was their community of sharing and interaction.
Some residents have returned; thousands more of the 60 000 strong community that was District Six are still awaiting their return. As we walked up the slopes towards the Moravian Church, people stopped and talked about their homes; they pointed out where they lived and what buildings stood where. And they did this with much pride and passion.
‘That is where we stayed,’ indicates a pensioner to an enquiring tourist on the walk. ‘Just here is where we played on the streets with our cricket bats and football,’ indicates another.
It’s on the steps of the Moravian Church where I pause. No photographs are taken. I’m just taking it all in as I keep my gaze on the District Six residents, as they get to the top of the slope, look out at the adjacent land being developed by bulldozers and recall a memory of a life sacred to them.
These are the residents, who have never forgotten; the residents who are prepared to walk many miles and take several steps just like they remembered the iconic ‘seven steps’ in District Six; this to get back what was theirs in their lifetimes.
Religious affiliation is very much evident amongst the residents as the mostly Christian and Moslem residents enter the church. ‘We didn’t bother which religion you were’, recalls an ageing resident. ‘We lived as a community, as one people’.
Residents of whatever religion enter the church and also speak in the church. And when proceedings are concluded, and people walk out of the church on a hot summer’s day in Cape Town, the stories and memories are again continued as District Six’s residents walk on and write their stories on note paper given to them before the walk started, still desiring the return of their land that was District Six.
‘Restitution’ is what the District Six residents are demanding. It was the people’s community that they lived in and made their own. Forced removals were violent, oppressive and inhumane. The community that was District Six cannot come back in its past format. At least, the District Six community and their generations after them can reclaim and own the land that housed them and also destroyed them. There still remains the chance to make people once forcibly removed from their community, feel human again.