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A Vibrant Community: Crushed


Photo by Dan Connell.

By Kaylie-Ann Flannigan

Cape Town--Noor Ebrahim is the third of four generations born in a two-story house in District Six, one of many areas targeted for destruction by the apartheid government because of its multi-racial make-up. Over 60,000 of its residents were forcibly removed and many houses demolished, including Ebrahim's, beginning in 1966.

These forced removals broke up the vibrant community as well as close-knit families. A father might have been brought to a black township and a mother and children sent to a colored township, based solely on nonscientific tests such as a pencil sticking in one's hair. If it stayed there, you were classified as black. If it fell out and you were dark skinned, you were classified as "colored" (mixed race).

Splitting families up created many hardships. In order to visit other townships you did not reside in, you needed to apply for a permit. This was not an easy process. But cutting whole segments of the community off from each other and from the cultural stew in which they lived and worked was also a major loss.

"District Six was alive, with music, with everything," says Ebrahim, reflecting on his childhood, as he guides a group of Simmons students around a community-run museum that recaptures some of this with photographs and personal testimonies, as well as recordings and special displays. He says the cultural harmonies that existed made the apartheid regime nervous in the first place.

"I was very proud to be Muslim, my Jewish friends were proud to be Jewish," he says, describing how people of different faiths attended each other's special holidays and religious services. I could see the light in his eyes when he spoke about his youth.

Today 136 families have moved back into the District Six area, yet there are many issues still to be resolved over land ownership and compensation, with some sections still undeveloped despite the prime location near the Cape Town city center and others built on by new owners during the apartheid period. A technical college stands on a hillside where Ebrahim's house used to be, with big office buildings and modern apartments looming nearby.

The government has promised to build 300 low-income houses in eight months for former residents, yet this promise was made around the time of the new elections this month. "They promise, they never deliver," says Ebrahim in disbelief. Many native people are unable to afford to build in District Six because the property values have risen incredibly high, he adds.

The District Six Museum is a powerful reminder to local people of their past and their culture and a window into their experience for visitors like us. In the center hangs a tower of old street signs, collected by the man ordered to bulldoze the houses in District Six back in the 1960s.

Instead of discarding them, he hid them until the collapse of apartheid in the 1990s and then donated them to the museum when it was established. This tower, like the museum itself, gives people hope for the future of the area while continuing to look to their roots.

Posted by South Africa Group on May 23, 2014 1:42 AM
Category: South Africa 2014

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