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Rebuilding a Rainbow Community

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Photo by Mary Ying

By Mary Ying

A tower constructed from old, scavenged street signs rises from the map on the floor of the District Six Museum.

A lively old man with a scruffy mustache and a white fez on top his head is surrounded by a crowd of visitors. He speaks eagerly and waves around a book with the page open to a black and white portrait of a man.

"This was my grandfather. He was Indian," says Noor Ebrahim, our energetic tour guide, with evident pride.

His eyes sparkle with enthusiasm as he tells us how his family first settled in the house at 247 Caledon Street in the neighborhood known as District Six.

District Six, recognized in 1867 as the sixth municipal district of Cape Town, was a place whose inhabitants came from all walks of life. Among them were freed slaves, immigrant laborers, artisans, merchants, religious leaders, and musicians--all of various races, religions, and trades.

Ebrahim's grandfather was a businessman from Bombay who married a Scottish woman. Together they planted the first roots of their family tree in South Africa.

Born and raised in District Six, Ebrahim describes the area as a cosmopolitan neighborhood where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Chinese, Indian, Hindus, and Africans all roamed the streets, coexisting peacefully with one another.

But it was this sort of cultural diversity that led to the area's demise, he says.

On February 11, 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the Apartheid regime and marked for demolition. Ebrahim recalls watching day-by-day as beloved homes and businesses fell prey to bulldozers that slowly encroached on his own house.

Soon enough, his home fell, too, and his family, like many others, was forced to relocate to a township designated according to racial classification--black, white, colored, or Indian.

Today, Ebrahim is a founding member of the District Six Museum, which opened in 1996 and is dedicated to preserving the memories of the colorful community that once existed there.

He has a knack for bringing stories to life, encouraging us to come closer as he unfurls his next tale about life in the multi-cultural district.

"District Six was alive with song and dance," Ebrahim says.

He does a little jig as he recounts his participation in numerous community musical groups, such as the Muslim choir, which colored the neighborhood's lifestyle. He describes listening to rock and roll on a Saturday night and dancing the twist with his peers.

Ebrahim conveys the tight-knit sense of community and respect in what he considers his "most beautiful memory": Each Christmas day, members of the community--Christians, Jews and Muslims alike--would come together in the churches to celebrate, regardless of their beliefs.

"We loved each other, but most importantly, we respected each other, no matter what color or religion," he says.

Of the thousands of families that once called District Six home, only 139 have been reinstated since the democratic elections of 1994. The rest remain on the waiting list for land, with many remaining in the impoverished townships to which they were relocated.

Ex-residents write their names on the map on the museum floor, marking where their homes once stood in hopes that one-day they too will be able to return.

Ebrahim himself has not returned. The place where his house once stood is now covered by a wing of the University Cape Point Technikon.

Ebrahim notes the various strides the government has made in pursuing a democratic republic, counting it a blessing that he can even speak freely of it now. Yet with many people still living in separate townships whose residents are for the most part of the same racial or ethnic group, the nation still has a long way to go before a truly unified and integrated South Africa can be achieved.

Perhaps one need not look farther for a role model than the preserved images of District Six, a community that once epitomized coexistence, acceptance, and love for all humanity.

Posted by South Africa Group on May 24, 2014 5:06 AM
Category: South Africa 2014

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