Posted September 9th 2014 at 9:29 am by
in People Matter: The Human Impacts of Planned Redevelopment

Reconstructing from Bits and Pieces: A Cape Town Story

District 6

District Six. Photo Credit: District Six Musuem.

District Six is a place in Cape Town, South Africa, that is defined by absence. It is from here that the largest urban displacement in the Cape took place under apartheid. Having been a diverse area which by all accounts thrived on the different orientations of its residents – linguistic, religious, cultural – it became one of the targets of the apartheid government, which needed people to believe that difference was not desirable and could not co-exist. Racial classification laws assigned racialised identities to people in the 1950s and also assigned racially defined areas of residence for each group so classified. District Six was declared a ‘whites only’ area and those not fitting into that category were forcibly removed.

Homes and most of the material traces of the community were destroyed including the street grid. Save for a few buildings blotted on the empty landscape, there was no tangible evidence of the community that once lived and flourished there. The land for the most part remained bare and barren and served as a mocking reminder to former residents of the senseless destruction of their homes. The apartheid government proceeded to build a ‘whites only’ Technikon on a large tract of the land and this building has in a concrete way stood as mocking symbol of pain and exclusion.

Going back to the place where the former district was located was at best, a disorienting experience for former residents as they scoured the land for any material traces that provied that they had indeed had a connection to this place. Natural overgrowth, a bulldozing of the contours of the land and the monstrous Technikon all had the cumulative impact of creating a reconfigured landscape, unfamiliar and disconnecting.

A small fragment of a destroyed street that was once the main artery of the community was found, and became a substitute for the destroyed community of streets. It became a cardinal point for rituals of remembrance, dedication and commitment to rebuilding a new community in a country which, in its new democracy, was guided by the conditions of the Land Restitution Act of 1995. Return and reconnection all seemed wonderfully possible.

Stones were brought by the diaspora from their areas of displacement to build their connectivity. Rituals evolving in both organic and structured ways became the cornerstone around which memorialisation has been built. Wishes and dreams were expressed at this cairn with the placement of each stone, and some were even inscribed with messages of hope. Starting as a humble pile of stones, it has grown to be the keeper of the community’s memory over a period of more than ten years, each one connected to and telling a story.

Fast forward to 2014. It seems almost inconceivable that in this time characterised in South Africa by attempts to strengthen nation-building and transformation, community cohesion and restitution, that the above active and embodied practice has been interrupted, in fact, destroyed. As part of the Technikon’s infrastructural expansion programme, it has proceeded to construct student residences on either side of the road fragment. The cairn of stones is now engulfed by bricks and mortar which have once again re-contoured the landscape and altered its context. The processions, rituals, performances and personal pilgrimages which had buoyed the community desire to return and rebuild, are no longer possible.

What the Technikon had unfortunately not understood, was the cultural practices through which places are rendered meaningful and actively sensed. It has broken all the rules of community engagement, and treated the land which it owns as property only, and not taken into account that relationships to land are not defined by title deed only. A whole body of practice – of which District Six Museum forms part – exists on its doorstep and it had not taken the time to pay attention because it believed that it knew best.

The people who should have been at the centre of engaging with the future of the land have been shoved to the periphery, their practices rendered invisible and meaningless. So what I would propose as a set of formative guidelines would include:

  • Start with the belief that people know and understand things because of their situatedness; that they have much to offer in terms of urban development even if they are not schooled in the disciplines related to urban planning;
  • Learn to listen in ways that go beyond a mere comprehension of words;
  • Acknowledge existing practices and norms, especially those that have evolved out of a community’s meaning-making of its own past and present;
  • Small is sometimes better; large is not always best;
  • Develop consultative processes which are not merely means to ratify or garner support for pre-existing plans;
  • Involve the right people – however that is determined – in processes at the earliest possible stage;
  • Solutions should emerge from an embodied practice, not resolved outside of relationship with people.


For more information see this article on Remembering Hanover Street, the main street of District Six and this article on preserving the heritage of District Six.

Bonita Bennett is Director of the District Six Museum.

This post is part of a series reflecting on re/development practices worldwide. See the other posts in the series here.

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