55 years after forced removals, hope is blooming for District Six claimants

After one of the most callous dispossessions of apartheid, more than 100 District Six claimants will soon be able to return to the place they once called home.

Gamza and Hajir Sydow are among the District Six claimants hoping to be able to return home soon. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - It seems there’s a glimmer of hope for resolution for some of the families dispossessed in District Six.

Today marks 55 years since the vibrant neighbourhood was declared a "whites only" area under the Apartheid Group Areas Act.

The declaration marked the beginning of one of the most callous dispossessions of apartheid, and a complete obliteration of a vibrant, cosmopolitan neighbourhood.

A display at the District Six Museum. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

A display at the District Six Museum. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

For years District Six, which was renamed Zonnebloem, lay empty, a stark reminder for anyone driving into Cape Town.

READ MORE: Renaming of Zonnebloem area to District Six approved

Post-democracy, there were high hopes that those so violently dispossessed would finally be able to return home.

But years later and after many court battles, thousands of people are still waiting to reclaim the neighbourhood that was stolen from them.

The process has been long and drawn out. The first claims window closed in 1998 and 975 validated claimants from back then are still waiting for their homes to be built.

HAUNTED BY MEMORIES

Gawa Wilkinson was a young girl when the bulldozers rolled into District Six, but she remembers it like it was yesterday. The violence of her family’s removal from their home still haunts her.

READ: District 6: Failed by government again

Gawa came home from school that day to find her whole life turned upside down.

“When they threw us out in D6 I would say like dogs. They just come and throw your stuff and you must go to Manenberg.

“While you move out they break your place off, you can’t move back to that place.”

Gawa and Yuusuf Wilkinson. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

Gawa and Yuusuf Wilkinson. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

She and her family were moved to Manenberg, an area about 20km away where they knew no one and where everything was unfamiliar.

“It was sad because why, you’re used to your neighbours, you used to everything, there was nothing, there wasn’t even a mosque, there wasn’t even a shop… nothing.”

She added her name to the restitution list in the second tranche of applications in 1996.

“We were supposed to get a place in 2010.”

She has since lost both her legs and is wheelchair-bound. All she wants to do is go home.

“I don’t know what is going on, the government don’t take note of us. I want to go back to D6 and a downstairs place.”

Her husband Yuusuf said the wait was painful.

“The saddest part is, there my wife is in a wheelchair, she’s still waiting.”

The trauma of the dislocation is still fresh for Gamza and Hajir Sydow, who were moved to Lentegeur in Mitchells Plain.

Gamza and Hajir Sydow. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

Gamza and Hajir Sydow. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

“You think back man, the hurt. The hurt man, it's there. Restituting the people now... a lot of us are dying. I lost my parents, she lost her parents all here in Mitchells Plain and their wish was to die there,” said Gamza.

DELAYS AND LEGAL BATTLES

In 2018, the District Six working committee took government to court over the delay and in 2019, Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza committed to a plan to have those claimants return home by 2023.

But soon, more than 100 claimants will be able to return to the place they once called home.

ALSO READ: Dan Plato assures District Six claimants they will be relocated

Deep in the area, a new development has sprung up. The site is full of activity and swarming with construction workers

One hundred and eight claimants will eventually move in here and are part of the first batch of 975 claimants who applied for restitution in the late 1990s.

“Those people are supposed to move in, in April but due to COVID there might be a delay because everything was delayed due to COVID. But that is the date when they supposed to move into 108 units,” said District Six working committee co-chair Zahra Nordien.

Nordien said this would reduce the total number of outstanding claims to be settled, with the Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Department compelled to return the first claimants to District Six by 2023.

But Nordien said it was still not clear exactly which claimants would get to move into the new development, and with many of them sick and ageing, time was running out for them to realise their dream of coming home.

The District Six working committee has written to Didiza asking to be included in discussions on the area’s redevelopment.

“We did send a mail to the Minister Thoko Didiza to ask for a meeting. We want to be part of who is going to move into those 108 units. And we would also like to see the list of who is going to move in,” said Nordien.

She added that the uncertainty around who would get these units was causing anxiety among claimants, with many of them worried they would die before they got to go home.

There’s also the matter of 3,500 other claimants who applied for restitution in the second window period between 2014 and 2018 - that process has been mired in red tape and delays.

District Six became a symbol of the cruelty of apartheid policies and laws and the callous disregard its agents had for basic human dignity, but it’s also achieved the status of legend.

The stories, the music, the seemingly seamless mixing of culture and race.

And those are the memories that claimants cling to.

Tina Smith of the District Six Museum. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

Tina Smith of the District Six Museum. Picture: Graig-Lee Smith/Eyewitness News.

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