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Some of Cape Town's Displaced to Go Home

South Africa evicted nonwhites from an area in '66. A pilot project aims to rebuild District Six.

June 01, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — When Fatima Benting moves back to her old neighborhood this year, she knows she won't find her favorite movie houses or the fish markets where she once shopped, or the factories where friends used to work. Soon after she left District Six a generation ago, bulldozers knocked down her home and those of her neighbors, dug up their streets and their sidewalks, erased their history.

Still, even though she is 88 now and frail, Benting is determined to return to the site of District Six on the slope of Table Mountain, a short walk from the city's harbor.

Her dream is to once again feel part of a close-knit community, where neighbors know neighbors and relatives live nearby. All that ended for her after 1966, when the apartheid government said the area called District Six was just for white people and began to forcibly resettle its 66,000 residents in scattered townships far from their roots.

For nearly half a century under South Africa's white-minority government, forced removal was a fact of life for millions of South Africans who weren't white. The Group Areas Act of 1950 let the government restrict an area by race without regard for its inhabitants. Those pushed out by whites would be resettled by race -- usually on much less desirable land, frequently among strangers.

"They put some people here and some people there. They put us all over the show," Benting said.

Benting and 24 other former District Six residents will move into a townhouse complex being built just for them. They'll be part of a pilot project aimed at rebuilding not just the physical neighborhood of District Six but also the community networks the removals ripped apart.

"To leave your happy home, to have to go and start from the beginning again, it's not easy," Benting said. "It became just a life of survival."

Benting is one of about 1,700 District Six residents who successfully claimed land in their former neighborhood under a national land-restitution program. Because of her age, she'll be one of the first to return. Homes in the pilot project are reserved for people in their 80s and older and who are running out of time to fulfill their dream of going home.

The houses will sit close together, with shared courtyards and walkways to encourage communication and friendships. But they won't echo the rickety and rambling mix of architectural styles of the old District Six; they'll be modern and sleek. Those who watched their homes being plowed under say daily reminders of what the neighborhood used to look like would be too painful.

The government said destruction of District Six was justified as slum removal and hoped to redevelop the prime downtown land as a white commercial and residential area. It was renamed Zonnebloem, which means sunflower in Afrikaans, then along with English one of the nation's two official languages. A new street grid was superimposed on the old one. A sprawling whites-only technical college went up on some of the land. But much of the land remained empty -- partly because of protests against the removals.

Of all the buildings in District Six, only a handful of churches and mosques were spared the bulldozers. One old church was converted in 1994 into the District Six Museum. Visitors who arrive there step inside to encounter an enormous map that covers most of the first floor. It's a grid showing the old neighborhood streets before most of them were destroyed.

Each day, former residents arrive and stand on the map, trying to get their bearings, which they can no longer do easily in the neighborhood outside. They are given felt-tip pens to write their names where they once lived -- and, often, they weep as they do so.

"It's cathartic," said Terence Fredericks, a former resident who is the museum's chairman and a trustee of the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust, which has been working to coordinate efforts to rebuild the area for those forced out.

"We were dispersed," he said. "We lost our sense of identity. This is a place where we can come to find a way to connect with our community."

District Six wasn't paradise. Many people who lived there were poor. More often than not, they rented their ramshackle homes, which absentee landlords let crumble over the years. Outsiders looked at the decrepit structures and called them slums. But the buildings in the area, if shabby, were often beautiful -- many of them two-story structures in the Georgian or Cape Dutch styles, some with wrought-iron balconies and fretwork much like that of New Orleans' French Quarter.

From the streets of District Six, people awakened to the sound of the foghorn in the harbor. They could look out their windows at the splendor of Table Mountain or the ocean.

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