About District Six

Donor: Stan Abrahams

The area known as District Six got its name from having been the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867. Its earlier unofficial name was Kanaldorp, a name supposedly derived from the the series of canals running across the city, some of which had to be crossed in order to reach the District (kanaal is the Afrikaans for ‘canal’.) Over time, some people called District Six Kanaladorp, (kanala being derived from the Indonesian word for ‘please’), and its likely that the name stems from a fusion of the two meanings.

District Six before its destruction under Apartheid, was a community representative of diversity on a number of levels – language, religion, economic class, geographical area of origin – and became a living example of how diversity could a be a strengthening characteristic of a community and need not be feared. It was a vibrant community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants, with close links to the city and the port.  It represented the polar opposite of what the Apartheid government, inaugurated by the National Party coming into power in 1948, needed people to believe and internalise.

District Six thus became one of the main urban targets for destruction in the city of Cape Town.

On 11 February 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, and by 1982, the life of the community was over. More than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.

District Six Museum believes that that the best tool available for protecting the District Six land is the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, which makes allowance for the protection of sites of national significance, through declaration.

District Six as a National Heritage site

District Six Museum believes that that the best tool available for protecting the District Six land is the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 [LINK TO NHRA], which makes allowance for the protection of sites of national significance, through declaration. This tool should be mobilised hand-in-hand with the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994 to ensure that comprehensive restitution is attained. Although the two are separate processes, they are inevitably interlinked in the common goal of securing the rights of people as enshrined in the country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

District Six has been celebrated in literature by writers such as Richard Rive, Alex la Guma and Bessie Head; in the paintings of Gerard Sekoto, Tyrone Appollis, Kenny Baker and Sandra McGregor; in the photography of Jackie Heyns, Wilfred Paulse and George Hallett. It is known for having provided a creative home for musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Mervyn Africa, Trevor Jones and Robert Sithole. The site’s past and present is used as a symbolic lens through which to learn about and understand experiences of so many other communities in South Africa such as South End, Sophiatown, Marabastad, Cato Manor, Fietas, Malay Camp and Protea Village.

Provision is made in the National Heritage Resources Act No. 25 of 1999, for grading and protection of places regarded as being part of the country’s rich heritage resources. In its preamble, the Act declares that: ‘This legislation aims to promote good management of the national estate, and to enable and encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations…. Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others. It facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution and it promotes new and previously neglected research into our rich oral traditions and customs’. (NHRA No. 25, 1999: Preamble)

The process of land restitution provides several opportunities for developing the area as an ongoing cultural heritage site integrated with the process of urban regeneration in the city. One of the major challenges lies in the need to ensure that the process of restitution serves as a place for ongoing reflection on transformation, and on citizenship education. The heritage of the area needs management in ways that are consistent with the integrity of the community, and with the emerging legislative frameworks for heritage and tourism management in South Africa. Significant elements of the landscape should be integrated into an interpretive strategy which retains the ‘sense of place’, an element which makes the area so vital in the memories and lives of people. The programmatic challenge is to enhance the remembered past by creating tangible forms of the spirit of the community so that when people return – either to live or to visit – they can experience elements of the profound history of District Six.

The concept of ‘conservation’ in the context of a destroyed urban landscape is an incongruous one. The Heritage Impact Assessment submitted prior to the redevelopment process points to the irony of such requirement: most of the area had been destroyed as part of the previous legislative actions, and”(u)nder these circumstances what is ‘physical and material’ is by a strange contradiction largely the ‘intangible’ – the empty remaining space and the memories that the people of Cape Town have of the former area.” (Le Grange 2003: 4) Herein lies the challenge for the development of the Conservation Management Plan (required by the National Heritage Site declaration process): what are the salient elements of the District Six site through which issues of national significance might be interpreted, and how can this be translated into a plan which is manageable, and which is owned by those who people the site in many different ways: as returnees, new and old residents, ex-residents, first-time visitors, or the next generations affected by the forced removals?