Dare to return: Сape Town’s District Sixth and healing after trauma

Кадр з фільму "Шостий район постає з пилу"

“The memory of District Six is as iconic for Cape Town

as Table Mountain.”

Weaam Williams

District Six Rising from the Dust

If we consider Table Mountain the primary tourist attraction of Cape Town, District Six is the way into its soul. It is hardly surprising that tourists inevitably get recommendations to visit this formerly buzzing part of the city, currently resembling a wasteland.

In 1968, the apartheid regime cleared the area, evicting the population and destroying almost all buildings.

Luckily, the identity and zest of this location have outgrown its geography: District Six has become part of the family heritage of its former inhabitants and their offspring, spread across the entire territory of South Africa. South Africans’ family stories preserve treasured memories of better times for District Six of Cape Town. Sometimes you ask a person you’ve met, was anyone in your family from that area? And you beware the response, as it is about pain.



I have felt the need to write about District Six of Cape Town for quite a while, but most of this time, I lacked that internal spark that gives you just enough courage for a story like this. This feeling reminded of that time in Bakota when I went into the water of a much-admired blue color and was unable to swim.

The water seemed impossibly prickly, as if permeated by countless fragments of dead trees and houses. It took away courage and strength, just like one day, it took away the homes of those people it displaced. Since then, I have struggled to see the beauty in images of that picturesque area: it was haunted by ghosts of once-destroyed human dwellings at the bottom of the great water, populating its eternal calm among the melancholic hills. I do not know that any of my relatives were among the former inhabitants of Bakota or other flooded villages. It was probably the sense of one of Ukrainians’ collective trauma connected with displacement: deportations, construction of reservoirs, Chernobyl, the current war in the east of Ukraine.

The tragedies of internally displaced persons, in other words—exiles, from the Ukrainian village of Bakota and from District Six of Cape Town have almost coincided in time. In 1981, Bakota was abandoned by its last inhabitants, and the village was flooded during the construction of the Novodnistrovska HPP. A year later, there were almost no residents or dwellings left in District Six—the area was cleared as prescribed by apartheid.

Everything else about these two geographically distant stories is different, with each having its own depth, sharp edges and corners, with different final touches put in by time and circumstances. The main “circumstance” of District Six was the policy of apartheid which segregated the population, violating human rights, committing multiple crimes against the country and leaving its society with profound traumatic impact.

The story of District Six primarily means a conversation about overcoming collective trauma, which is something South Africa is working on—and this is a good reason to talk about it to the Ukrainian audience.

Destruction of the Sixth District 1974-1975 and relocation of 6,000 families. Photo: Stan Winer

“City in the City”

District Six, or the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town, is both a suburb and a town center, given the city’s location along the coast and around a mountain. The question remains whether we should speak about it in the past or present tense: “is” or “was”?

You can easily look up social, ethnic, religious, and racial composition of the District Six population in mid-twentieth century—and find out that any sources characterize it primarily as cosmopolitan. For a hundred years, from 1867, when the district was officially established, to 1968, when its population began to be forcibly removed, there was an atmosphere of friendliness and freedom, opening up prospects for everyone, regardless of origin and wealth. Despite the apartheid laws that changed the country’s society from the middle of the twentieth century and increasingly separated its European population from the rest, the District Six continued to lead its own life.

The community always played a crucial role in its history. On the eve of the eviction, it consisted of 55,000 people of color, Black and white, Muslims, Jews and Christians, Malays, Xhosa and Afrikaners, more wealthy or less but always tolerant of each other—their children would play in the streets together and the elderly would discuss recent news. Everything pointed to the fact that this space remained untouched by segregation and was shared by several generations of people of various origins.

People would use a local dialect, a combination of English and Afrikaans, which remains a point of pride for District Six residents. Of course, this community developed in opposition to the political regime: its culture brought together what the government sought to divide. For apartheid, which aspired to achieve “radical purity,” linguistic purity was just as important—trying to introduce Afrikaans as the official language in all aspects of social life, the government impeded mutual influence of local languages. Of course, the vernacular of District Six was a language of resistance, as Afrikaans was perceived by the local community as an imposed language, as opposed to the more liberal English, spoken by the entire world. Locals recall how even those who once spoke Afrikaans at home in their families switched to English, preferring it in informal communication.

In his interviews, musician Abdullah Ibrahim, forced to leave South Africa due to persecution by the regime, calls District Six a “city in the city,” which, at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, when the regime tightened the restrictions on population and its freedoms, remained a place where people could move around, communicate and associate freely. It drew in people who valued freedom: musicians, writers, opposition politicians.

For the apartheid government, such vitality of the cosmopolitan community created many problems, so they deemed the area “depressed,” not fit for rehabilitation but only for clearance. Among the objective reasons for the destruction of the District Six community, the government cited the presence of local crime, gambling, prostitution, and alcoholism, calling the administrative unit a “slum,” citing the need to eliminate “interracial interaction,” which was considered a source of conflict in the country.

Evidently, District Six was a source of much inconvenience from the government, so in 1966, it was ruled a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, and in two years, they started forcible removals of district inhabitants, then constituting about a tenth of Cape Town population, to remote townships. According to various estimates, between 60,000 and 80,000 lives were ruined. District Six is one of the most tragic leaves in the history of apartheid and a case of the highest concentration of forced relocation in segregation policies.

Now, the majority of this wasteland frightens visitors with the skeletons of former streets and draws in the homeless with mounds of rubble, where they build their huts. One outlet writes that this space is currently “a memorial, a graveyard and a park” combined and can indeed be considered a monument to the crimes of apartheid.  

Although the affected area is virtually undeveloped, in the 1970s, apartheid began building police and army barracks here, as well as a college, which eventually became a university. When the regime fell, the new government, led by Mandela, announced a restitution policy to bring the former residents back. Of the 150 hectares previously occupied by District Six, only 40 were available for restitution. However, this has not made a significant difference in local life: former residents or their descendants are returning very slowly, facing many problems, including high housing costs and low security.


“What Are We Punished For?”

Weaam Williams became one of those who dared to return to the land of their ancestors. Screenwriter, filmmaker and poet, owner of the independent company Tribal Alchemy Productions, in 2013 she and her husband, cinematographer Nafia Cox, began work on the documentary District Six Rising from the Dust, which took about six years to complete.

This year, the film participates in international festivals, having already won awards at the Florence Film Award in the nomination of Best Original Story and at the Scandinavian International Film Festival. In May, the film will be available for viewing in Australia, India and New Zealand. It would be great to introduce it to the Ukrainian audience as well.

The film was supported by one of the national foundations, and after its release was recognized as the best South African documentary at the International Film Fair and Cape Town Festival.

As a director, Weaam Williams considers storytelling to be her strongest point, but since she calls her film a journey, she probably also acts as a guide who takes the viewer through the space and time of District Six. The director says that her movie is none else than a “story about scars,” which shows you  In stories like the one in Weaam’s movie you can clearly see the line between the government and the people.

On the one hand, this is a family saga with close ties to the place where they lived: careful scrutiny of old pictures, conversations with the older generation, their neighbors or friends. At the same time, this saga has much in common with the stories of immigrants from any other country: you can feel the boundary between experiences that the older generation can share with the younger one, and ones which are difficult to share with anyone. The film walks this fine line, which is present in nearly every frame.

 The narrator guides us from the most precious memories to the pain. Her mother becomes the first person she asks about District Six. This woman’s story is about a happy childhood with a sense of security tangible through family, community and local culture. The mother carefully lists the street games of her peers, taking the viewers into a world which knew no oppression; she speaks about freedom, ethnic diversity, and joyful feelings, making it clear that the story of this family, whose five generations owned land, real estate and business, is far from unique.

 Thanks to the stories of other relatives and neighbors, the viewer begins to understand this space and its people from within. Streets as a place for children to play, the Malay Choir consisting of people of various ethnicities, neighbors who had no reasons to fight—all of this speaks to the harmony of the multicultural community. The details that appear at the beginning of the film suddenly seem to fade when the dramatic part of the story starts all of a sudden.

There are but mere moments between stories of harmony, creativity, safety, and images of an excavator destroying all of this. Here, we see an entirely different District Six: trucks, demolished walls, children’s cries, fears of travelling into the unknown. This is the part of life “beyond” that is usually left untold at homes—suffering which leaves behind the scars highlighted in the movie.

The trampled justice of the once-happy community is reflected in questions that remain unanswered: why are we punished? What did we do wrong? And many others: why am I being evicted from my own home? Why are they moving me far from the place where several generations of my ancestors lived? Why is my newly renovated house being destroyed? why are we separated, perhaps forever?

Many of District Six residents, who used to feel like a tight-knit community, never met again.

The heroine’s story feels as sharp as the blade of her grandfather’s tailor’s scissors which he used in his shop in District Six. It is a ruthlessly truthful blade cutting the life into “before” and “after.” At the same time, we can imagine District Six Rising from the Dust as a needle of the same tailor, sewing together the experiences of joy and pain alike.

Weaam Williams, director of “District Six Rising from the Dust”

“This Is Not a Place Where I Would Want to Raise Children”

The film raises many questions. At the beginning, Weaam Williams acts as an interviewer talking to the witnesses of rise and fall of District Six, but in the second part of the movie, she mostly asks questions to herself, the most acute one being whether she should stay there, in the place where she feels a strong family connection.

Not surprisingly, this issue is of concern now that IDPs and their children finally have the opportunity to return and take root. Prior to working on the film, 6 years ago, Weaam and her family moved to what she described as a land of “loss and pain,” receiving housing as a result of a restitution policy. However, she inherited the trauma which remains a deep scar even after generations.

Before the conversation about the return, a metaphorical collage appears, conveying the pain of demolishing a still breathing home: washed laundry is hung out to dry, everyday life can be seen through the windows only to be reduced to dust and ruins in a moment. Viewers can see how much suffering those who dare to return here after everything and agreed to live next to their traumatic past have to overcome. Here it is, the courage of former residents as they stand on the site of ruined walls, remembering the location of long-gone houses and the voices of their neighbors, remembering what their streets once were like—despite this baggage, they need to move on. And so they do.

An important layer of the story is the present day in the district, its updated design and restitution process. The new identity of this area is formed through culture: theater, coffee places, restored and “lively” New Hanover Street, the annual carnival and festivals, the creation of a tourist area. It is a culture that grows alongside memory, combining past and future.

But the present of District Six is just as much about its homelessness and insecurity. That is why Weaam talks to local weirdos who would rather live in a mine or under a bridge than in a house, since the street may be the best home for someone.

The director tries to understand who owns this land today, considering the “political chessboard” of the last 30 years, but the development of the area and title to land leave this question with no response. Bunks in underground tunnels next to affluent neighborhoods—this is District Six of today when middle-income families cannot afford housing in downtown Cape Town due to its rising cost. Weaam considers this and hesitates whether she should come back to this land at all—an expensive place where crime rates make life unsafe. The final decision to leave this place is cemented by a robbers’ attack on her family—the feeling of being victimized and the need to protect her children. However, Weaam needed to postpone her next move until the movie was done, so that her story could work from within, as an interpretation of loss that she inherited from the older generation.

The result is brutally honest: the sense of unity that has always been present here does not seem to be enough to overcome today’s difficulties. “This is not a place where I would want to raise my children,” says the author. And the viewer can see, clear as crystal, the contrast between the freedom and safety of District Six in the past and the numerous risks of the present.


“Everything I Wanted to Draw Is Ruined”

In the best of times, District Six was a place of remarkable artists, and its hardships became part of the global culture. Among those asked about these experiences by Weaam Williams is artist Sandra McGregor, who spent 18 years producing authentic local work: portraits of local residents and their surroundings. She gained a special connection with the district when, after receiving a professional education at European art academies, she returned home and lost her family’s financial support. Since 1962, when the artist first came here to paint, she has had all the advantages of an insider, primarily due to the many friends she had here, Muslims and gangsters alike, which allowed her to create many unique works. Sandra witnessed that “crying time for everybody,” when everything she wanted to draw was ruined, but she does not regret staying in this place as long as she did.

The district is believed to have carved its place in literature via the novel A Walk in the Night by South African writer Alex la Guma, published in 1962. The evictions and the destruction of homes became the subject of Richard Rive‘s novel Buckingham Palace, District Six (1986), which chronicles the life of the community before and during the eviction. The novel has made the local school curriculum. Rosa’s District 6 by Rozena Maart is a cycle of five touching short stories that merit special attention. They are narrated via the voice of a child who sees the changes in people and their lives due to the policies of segregation and eviction yet cannot comprehend them.

We should also mention that the famous science fiction action movie District 9 by Neil Blomkamp, produced in 2009 and taking place in Johannesburg, was actually inspired by the tragic events in District Six of Cape Town.

When we speak about the pain enshrined in the memory of this place, we cannot help mentioning the District Six Museum located in the building of the former Methodist Church in its very heart. This institution serves for more than narrativization of history. First and foremost, the museum works with memory, helping people to heal from injury and uniting the community around its pain. Part of its work is the Homecoming Center, established for returning families, which is also involved in education.

The perception of the District Six tragedy in the South African culture is an example of multifaceted response to collective trauma, when society has a vision of its own future, which is impossible without healing. The pain embedded in the history of the District Six community could not be overcome in one generation and will have to be delegated to the next one. For example, Kaapse Klopse, a festival of South African people of color that dates all the way back to the 19th century, is annually held on January 2 and maintains the conversation about the trauma of the colonial past, spoofing interracial conflicts. Yet, the scars remaining in people’s memory do not seem to be going anywhere.