Apartheid leaves scar on Cape Town neighborhood


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Naz Ebrahim descends the parched slope of Devil's Peak, stepping over weeds in the cracked pavement of her once-beloved Rochester Street. She moves to a desolate plot of land overlooking the docks of Table Bay and stops where her six-bedroom house used to stand.

"It's very sad for me even now to stand here and to look at the devastation that took place," said Mrs. Ebrahim, who remembers the vibrant, racially mixed neighborhood that once was here on the side of one of Cape Town's spectacular mountains.

"You had families here who had built most of their homes. They were masons. They were carpenters. They were builders. And they took a great pride in building their own homes."

The destruction of those homes began 25 years ago, when the government enacted the Group Areas Act of 1966 and declared the section of town known as District Six a "white group area."

The neighborhood was flattened by bulldozers, its residents forcibly moved to townships outside the city, and the square-mile area on the edge of downtown Cape Town went up for sale to developers who would rebuild it for whites.

But the enactment of the Group Areas Act sparked a pitched battle over District Six, which became an international symbol of the forced removal of millions of South Africans from their homes because of their skin color.

Most of the land never was developed. Builders considered it a bad investment because of the protests and publicity surrounding District Six, which sat vacant and neglected, an ugly reminder of the pain inflicted by government-enforced racist policies.

As the government of President Frederik W. de Klerk abandons those policies and repeals the laws underpinning apartheid, the battle over District Six rages on.

The Group Areas Act will end this year under a proposal Mr. de Klerk submitted to Parliament, but its repeal will not resolve the -- District Sixdispute.

Community activists such as Mrs. Ebrahim, who lived in the neighborhood for half a century before being evicted in 1982, say people were virtually robbed of their land by a government eager to give the best areas to whites.

Those activists want the land returned to working-class people of all colors. They say that would restore the old character of District Six.

"We basically want the government to expropriate all the land and build affordable housing," said the Rev. Basil van Rensberg, a white South African who was the priest at Holy Cross Church in District Six when the area was declared white and his parishioners tossed out.

"We don't expect people to get their old houses back. We're talking about 25 years. Those people are old now," said the 60-year-old priest, another key figure in the battle to save District Six.

But some sort of restitution needs to take place, he said, rather than allowing developers to make huge profits now off the suffering of former residents.

Developers bought a few sections of the neighborhood, but the government still owns most of the land, which it was unable to unload. The one major development has been a sprawling vocational college built for whites, the Cape Technikon. The rest of the government-owned land is dispersed among a variety of departments that have not yet done anything with it.

Community activists, including a group headed by Mrs. Ebrahim called the District Six Residents and Ratepayers Association in Exile, are negotiating with government officials in an effort to find acceptable solution to the decades-old dispute.

Their proposal for the government to reclaim the land for affordable housing would cost an estimated $140 million. Father Basil said the government paid residents almost $1 million to expropriate their land in the first place.

"When the government expropriated District Six, they paid people a pittance for their land. Was it fair for them to rip people off?" he asked. "This became the greatest mass movement of people anywhere in the world because of color. When people were put out of their homes, a lot of them became squatters."

Between 1966 and 1982, more than 50,000 residents were removed from their hillside neighborhood on the edge of downtown and assigned to townships in the Cape Flats, a sandy, wind-swept area about a 20-minute drive from town.

Most of the people were sent to the township of Mitchell's Plain, which was established for "coloreds," the mixed-race people who make up the majority of Cape Town's population.

Mrs. Ebrahim's family was sent to Gatesville, a dreary little community established for Indians.

"My husband thought he was a Cape colored but learned from the government that he was East Indian," Mrs. Ebrahim, 65, a former schoolteacher, said with obvious disdain. Under the Population Registration Act, another apartheid law being scrapped this year, all South Africans were classified by race, and their classification determined where they could live.

Only whites could live in District Six until late 1989, when the government decided to declare it an "open area." That meant that after all the years of pain, destruction and dispute, people of all races were allowed to live there again.

Kobus Meiring, administrator of the Cape province, said District Six, which had been a largely Jewish area at one time, "became a slum and it became overcrowded and dangerous" during the years it was inhabited mostly by coloreds and Indians.

Mrs. Ebrahim conceded that there were some "slummy areas" but said that hardly explained why the government tore down all of District Six, including beautiful single-family houses such as her old Manley Villa overlooking the bay.

Mr. Meiring, who has met with community and political leaders, said he favored proposals to expropriate the undeveloped government-owned land but opposed expropriating land already purchased by developers.

Even if Mr. Meiring reaches an agreement with the activists, which he thinks is possible soon, he must persuade national officials to provide funds to redevelop District Six with affordable housing. He thinks it's a worthwhile mission.

"For the past 25 years, this area has been vacant land. It has been a scar in the image of Cape Town and a wound in the hearts of all the people who were thrown out of that area.

"If there's one thing I would like to achieve during my term as

administrator, it is to find an amicable solution to this thing," Mr. Meiring said.

Whatever is done, the government cannot remove the pain of forced removals for people such as Mrs. Ebrahim, whose voice still trembles when she describes the scenes of bulldozers trampling thousands of homes or when she tries to describe the sense of loss she still feels.

"When anyone tampers with your home, they tamper with your soul," she said. "And when they tamper with your soul, that's death."

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