Apartheid failed to demolish memories

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Walking past the food delivery bays at a Cape Town technical college, Noor Ebrahim stopped abruptly and pointed to the pavement like a man discovering lost treasure. This, he said, was the spot where his family's home once stood.

"It was a double-story house made of bricks," said Ebrahim, spreading his arms wide to show the dimensions of a house that now exists only in his memory.


"When they bulldozed my house I was standing right there," he said. "I couldn't stop them. No one could."

That was 1975. Ebrahim's house was one of the last standing in District Six, a Cape Town neighborhood that South Africa's apartheid government declared a whites-only area, tossing out more than 65,000 black, Indian, Malay and mixed-race residents to crowded townships before flattening their homes.


Nearly 30 years later, the bulldozers are back in District Six. But this time they're clearing the way to build houses in this neighborhood of weed-choked empty lots for the return of 4,000 evicted families, Ebrahim's among them.

In the past month, the first nine families have moved into a newly completed row of two-story, whitewashed houses on Chapel Street.

The eldest former District Six residents are returning first, giving them the opportunity to savor, if just for a few years, some compensation for what they lost.

Dan Ndzabela, 82, sat at his dining room table on a recent Sunday afternoon spilling over with pride at the new three-bedroom, two-bath home he shares with his two grandchildren.

"I'm finally happy," Ndzabela said.

Ndzabela recounted coming as a young man from the green hills of the Eastern Cape to Cape Town in 1942 in search of work. He found a job as a messenger for an auto-repair shop and looked no further than District Six for a place to stay.

Founded in 1867 as Cape Town's Sixth Municipal District, District Six was one of the few neighborhoods in South Africa where everyone was welcome, no matter the color of their skin. Set on a hillside below the majestic Table Mountain near the heart of Cape Town's city center, District Six was a bustling urban melting pot of Muslim, Christian and Jewish artists, laborers, business owners and newly arrived immigrants.

'One big happy family'


"It was one big happy family. We proved to the apartheid government that it could work. I think that was one reason they destroyed it," said Ebrahim, 60, a descendant of Indian and Scottish immigrants, who works at the District Six Museum in Cape Town.

At first, the government forcefully removed District Six's black residents. Ndzabela received a notice in 1959 informing him that he and his wife and two children would be moved to Nyanga West, a black neighborhood on the backside of Table Mountain about 15 miles from Cape Town.

His new government home was a one-room brick house, "cold in the winter and hot in the summer," he recalled. With few options for public transportation, Ndzabela's 10-minute commute from District Six to his job in Cape Town became an arduous three-hour journey.

In 1966, as the apartheid government put the finishing touches on its master design to separate the races, it announced that the remaining residents of District Six would be relocated. The plan separated friends and sometimes families. A wife, for instance, who was classified as black would be separated from a husband who was Indian.

Under the apartheid government, Ibrahim Murat was classified as "colored," or mixed race, and trucked off with his belongings to the township known as Retreat.

"In the township, it was terrible," said Murat, 87, Ndzabela's neighbor and the second resident to return to District Six last month.


Sitting in his living room, Murat recalled District Six bustling with the sounds of gambling, jazz clubs and bars. He remembered playing dice on street corners with his friends.

Block by block, the vibrant rhythms of District Six grew quiet as the government methodically carted away families before demolishing the housing so they would not return.

"It was [as] if the floors and walls were weeping," said Jawayer Floris, 82, who also returned recently, recalling the day she cleared all her belongings from her family's home.

But while the apartheid government was successful in turning District Six to rubble, it failed to erase its memory.

Wary investors rejected the whites-only neighborhood, refusing to develop businesses or homes there. A technical college was eventually built on part of the land in the 1980s, but the rest of the 1.5-square-mile neighborhood remained a collection of weed-filled lots.

With African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the country's first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa set to work settling thousands of claims made by South Africans evicted from their land during apartheid.


Reclaiming the land

The resolution of land claims across South Africa has been painfully slow, with fewer than half of nearly 70,000 claims settled. But many of the former District Six residents benefited from their shared memories and unified vision to reclaim the undeveloped land. Community leaders organized the former residents scattered across Cape Town and the country to file claims and pleaded with the government for money to rebuild.

Under an agreement reached with the government, all former residents of District Six were given a choice between a cash payment of about $3,000 or an opportunity to buy a new home with a low-interest loan.

Many residents who continue to live in the poor townships in Cape Flats took the cash, but 4,000 families like Ndzabela's would not be satisfied with anything but a house.

"I said to myself that money can go away anytime. I want to have the house so that my children, when I'm passed away, will ask: How did our grandfather have this house? Because he struggled," Ndzabela said.

Ndzabela, Murat and Floris may all live in District Six again, but the neighborhood they once knew is gone. Their friends, the clubs, the lively street life have all disappeared.


"I don't think that you can re-create District Six, but we can give people the opportunity to be home again," said Stan Abrahams, a trustee of the District Six Beneficiary Trust, which has organized the home construction.

But he added: "They can sit on the stoop and watch the world go by and reminisce."

Which is what Ndzabela often finds himself doing. Sometimes, he says, he walks slowly up the stairs to his second-floor back window just to sit and look out at the clouds gathering around the top of Table Mountain. Then, when he tires of the view, he steps to the front window and stares out at the Atlantic Ocean, where on a clear day he can see Robben Island, which once served as a jail for the apartheid government's political prisoners.

"That reminds me of all our heroes, like Nelson Mandela, who fought for us so we can have this spirit," he said. "I have a smile. It is great."