“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” –      Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting


A few months ago, untroubled, the green signboard at the top of the Searle Street off-ramp used to read “Woodstock: left; Zonnebloem: right”. One morning, something was different. In the night, a ghost of the past had pasted over the sign, and it now read “District Six: right”. A few days later, Zonnebloem was back, only to be replaced again later that week by District Six. People in the area and commuters who were aware of the controversy being played out enjoyed the tit for tat, the back and forth. For many, it was exciting to know that someone was taking note of the fading history and the socioeconomic implications for those who have been left behind. The fight is on – resistant remembrance versus persistent change.

The battle for keeping strong the memory of District Six began even before the razing of the houses and the forced removals of its 60 000 inhabitants in the 1960s, before the changing of the name. The battle still rages, but the fierce commercial sprawl over the historically significant land, aligned with lack of action in land restitution, has set off a new wave of repulsion to this eradication of the memory of oppression.

In the East City Precinct, the Fringe, known as a “design” district, has encroached further on to the land of District Six; it’s land that has been promised to be returned to the former residents who were kicked out.

“The Fringe issue is about wiping out a complete memory of the people of District Six,” says Shahied Ajam, who lived in the neighbourhood until he was 18. On the walls of his office in the centre of town are black-and-white A3 prints of what District Six once looked like – pictures of the famous Seven Steps and the fish market. He now heads up a group called the District Six Working Committee, which works with late claimants who applied for a claim to the land after the cut-off date of the 1995 to 1998 window. “There was such a diverse and multicultural environment in District Six. Now they don’t want people to remember where they come from. They want to write that off and tell us you are going to build a few houses and come up with some gentrification to keep us out even more, as the rates and taxes go up and we can’t afford it in a few years’ time.”

It was this diversity that scared the government – the fact that Indians, coloureds, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews were living and working side by side as immigrants, labourers, merchants and slaves. District Six is not the only area that faces this “issue” of the disregard for memory; other areas like the Bo-Kaap are bearing the brunt, too, but in different ways.

District Six is usually the area that is first raised in discussions of memory, likely because of its violent history of systematic exclusion that falls very obviously into the apartheid government’s concept and implementation of racial segregation. It has also been the subject of a tedious and protracted civil and legal battle for land restitution since 1994. The first forced removals from the area were of the black inhabitants in 1901. More than half a century later the infrastructure was destroyed during the 15 years following 1966, when the area was allocated to whites only under the apartheid Group Areas Act. More than 60 000 people were forced out, and most were sent to newly constructed ghettos on the Cape Flats, where they remain today.

Today, discussion continues about the growth of “the Fringe” – the renamed area between Roeland and Darling streets, Buitenkant and Canterbury streets, and connecting land between the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Longmarket and Tenant streets. This area forms a large part of District Six. With the area not yet declared a heritage site, the City of Cape Town has no official means of, or interest in, halting commercial growth.

Another player in this complex game of ‘guess who’s responsible’ is the Cape Town Partnership (CTP), which, according to its website, was initiated by the city in 1999, and formed as a non-profit (section 21) organisation to mobilise and align public, private and social resources towards the urban regeneration of Cape Town’s central city.

“The Fringe brand was born as a way to talk about and market this particular area in order to unlock its economic potential as a design hub. Over time, the Fringe was successfully established as Cape Town’s fledgling ’design and innovation district’, particularly among creative and business stakeholders in the area and beyond.”

The CTP recently acknowledged that there have been controversies and misjudgements regarding the naming of the Fringe. Now, the “placemaking” projects will be incorporated into the work of the CTP, and not as a separate entity. The Fringe website is yet to be updated.

It has been eight years since the District Six Museum applied to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) for District Six to be declared a heritage site. It has not yet been given that title. The Restitution of Land Rights Act was one of the first to be signed into law after the founding of the Constitution, but it has been one of the slowest to be implemented. District Six is now unrecognisable from what it was before its destruction. Locals and visitors who are not familiar with the city’s history (including many South Africans) are likely unaware that what was once part of the designated area is now either a dry, overgrown, empty space along the highway or home to Wembley Square, an apartment block and office park with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and gym, and one-bedroom flats that go for R1.5 million.

According to Ciraj Rassool, director of the University of the Western Cape’s African programme in museum and heritage, and trustee of the District Six Museum, the fact that the area has not yet been declared a heritage site is why it has continued to be freely open to the market.

“The city didn’t understand the history of D6 and now sees it as a playground for designers,” he says. “You cannot impose on the area without taking into account the history of forced removals. You cannot do that to a landscape of war. The experience of violence gives the land certain significance.”

He says that the city started realising very late that it was dealing with something “untenable”. But hopefully the city and the CTP have realised that this is unacceptable, he says. He says the first thing Sahra needs to do is create a map that describes what D6 actually is. “One of the failures of land restitution is that it is treated as a problem of housing when it’s a problem of memory. When you return people to land, you don’t just put up houses willy-nilly – you do so within a framework of memory.” Rassool says that in order to safeguard D6 from “inappropriate development”, there needs to be a management plan that will “preserve the history of survival”. “You wouldn’t put up casinos and hotels on Robben Island,” he points out.

Ajam feels that the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, which is built over 50% of the land that has now been renamed Zonnebloem, needs to return much of that land to the city. Initially called the Cape Technikon, it was built for white students during apartheid, and the area was to be a new residence for white people. But this anticipated influx didn’t happen.

“It’s not just buildings,” he says. “It’s making people remember, putting up a memorial to the fish market or the famous Star Cinema in Hanover Street – not forgetting something because it has been covered for a building that aimed to educate white children.”

But it is also about recognising that many of the people the city does not want spoiling the scenery – the homeless – were displaced from the city centre during apartheid and have not yet been given the houses many of them were promised. The removal of homeless people from the city centre is a topic that has been prevalent in the media in the past few years, as the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID) became increasingly notorious among activists and NGOs for its enthusiastic and unrelenting effort to pick homeless people up off the streets and drop them off either somewhere far out of the city or at the municipal court. In a darkly humorous way, it is amusing that every time this happens, these people are back in town two or three days later.

This culture of removals of the unsightly and unwanted began with blatant unashamedness in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup. A few hundred homeless were relocated to the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, better known as Blikkiesdorp, which lies 30km from the central business district. They still remain there. What locals and activists have termed a “concentration camp” is made up of 1 300 3mx6m corrugated iron structures, fenced in by barbed wire. City councillor JP Smith said at the time that most of the people had volunteered to move there after three years of counselling, even though residents claimed that it was unsafe, dirty and drug-ridden, according to the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign.

Another example of this culture of sweeping things under the carpet also occurred soon before the World Cup, when the residents of Joe Slovo informal settlement, a 10-minute drive from the CBD, who had lived on the land for more than 10 years, were sent packing to Delft, on Cape Town’s furthest peripheries, where many of them still live. The land had been allocated for “low-cost housing” – apartment blocks that none of the informal settlers could afford. Joe Slovo was directly along the route that tourists take from the airport to the city centre and the prettier parts of the southern suburbs, such as Newlands and Constantia.

One person who’s been removed from the city centre more times than he can remember is Elias Edwards. He’s 62 in October, he thinks, and was evicted from District Six in the mid-70s, after which he moved to Lavender Hill, on the Cape Flats. The ghettos of the Cape Flats were created upon destruction of D6 and given names like Grassy Park and Sea Winds. Elias’ father died when he was 16 and his mother disappeared a few months later. He dropped out of school in grade 10 and began working in a bakery in Woodstock. It was too expensive for him to travel to and from Lavender Hill, so he began sleeping at work. This soon led to a life of migration between the street, the Cape Flats and the CBD. Work was few and far between, and now, because of his age, years of too much alcohol and a number of accidents that have left him with a largely broken body, he stays in and around the Fringe.

“I used to live here, and now they won’t even let me stand here,” he says. “These people in these yellow bibs come and take what I have and put it in a truck and then I never see it again. Last time they took my ID book.” He has been removed several times by the CCID, which is mandated by the city and co-funded by property owners in the area. It’s become a cruel joke for him.

While some have compared the expulsion of the homeless with the forced removals during apartheid, these actions are also contrary to the Constitution and the law. According to constitutional lawyer Pierre de Vos, section 26(3) of the Constitution limits property rights by prohibiting anyone – including a municipality – from evicting someone from their home or having their home demolished without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances.

“The Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE) gives effect to this right, but extends the right to protect all those who unlawfully occupy not only homes but also land. An unlawful occupier protected by PIE (and who can therefore not be evicted from either land or home without a court order) is defined as ‘a person who occupies land without the express or tacit consent of the owner or person in charge, or without any other right in law to occupy such land’. In South Africa, only a court can order the eviction of any human being from either land or from a home.”

But trying to find out who is responsible for these forced removals is not easy. The CCID’s response to questions about the legality of their actions is: “The CCID – as with all 26 City Improvement Districts – falls under the mandate of the City of Cape Town. We do not conduct any operations of this nature on our own, but rather under instruction to assist from either the city’s law-enforcement department (or the SAPS), and in conjunction with the city’s department of social development and its displaced peoples unit.”

Priya Reddy, the city’s media manager, says, regarding the forced removals: “The city does not engage in any forced removals (unless a by-law has been contravened) and so cannot comment on any such comparison.”

The city’s official line regarding the homeless is that “the ultimate goal is to reintegrate street people into their communities of origin. However, in cases where this is not possible, clients will be referred to one of the city’s care facility partners. Where clients have an addiction, they will be referred to the city’s rehabilitation centre partners.”

Advocate Paul Hoffman is the director of the Institute for Accountability in South Africa. “The problem with this approach is that there is no incentive for or aspiration on the part of the homeless to return to their ‘communities of origin’,” he says. “All too often, the dysfunction there is what drove them to homelessness in the first place. Why they would want to return to the site of that dysfunction – the grinding poverty, joblessness and the bottom end of the scale of inequality – is difficult to fathom.”

But this, it seems, is not taken into account when orders are given to evict the homeless. The CCID budget for the city centre is made up of taxes and levies paid by property owners. It is those paying who then decide how the budget is allocated. In the past year, the CCID spent 50% of its budget on safety and security. It employs 250 safety and security personnel, including eight members of the SAPS. It employs three social workers and 352 urban management personnel, who undertake tasks such as street sweeping, graffiti removal and rodent baiting. But surely if there were more social workers and urban management employees, there would be fewer homeless people on the streets?

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana is the chief executive of the CTP. She says that although the CTP’s mandate is limited to initiating dialogue, she hopes that stakeholders – government, the private sector and NGOs – will come together to create a joint vision for the area. But she also acknowledges and understands the desire of the private sector in the Fringe to spend half of its CCID budget on security.

The rates and levies businesses pay are collected and transferred into the CCID budget. “I dare you to go to any other commercial entities and their primary interest will be to let their building be able to make money first. That is the nature of business,” she says. “And then, of course, if there is someone outside my door who is homeless, I would like to take a little bit of my money and help him, but it’s not my primary responsibility to ensure that. My primary responsibility is that when I open my doors, I should feel safe to be able to come in and make my transactions. But I’m still putting a little of my money into the city’s budget to resolve the issues of homelessness.”

Also, it should be noted – and this usually goes over the heads of the people creating these structures and systems – that most of the homeless on the streets of the city came from the city centre before the forced removals under the Group Areas Act. It is because they were removed, and District Six is now unmarked land, that these business owners, who pay these taxes to the CCID, are there at all, and can then decide who comes in and out of their neighbourhood.

In this case, design and the Fringe are working to the detriment of these people. They are being sent straight back to the Cape Flats, to ganglands that were allocated to them through apartheid ‘design’, and their children and grandchildren will likely be there 30 years from now.

Urban researcher Ismail Farouk explains the issues with the Fringe very clearly. Very basically, he says that the Fringe proposes to alter the built fabric of this part of the city through the use of urban design and landscaping techniques in the establishment of a design precinct. This is as the flagship project for the World Design Capital (WDC) 2014, which proposes to use design as a tool for social transformation and to deal with structural inequality.

The World Design Capital 2014 sprang from this proposition. The CTP spent R6 million just to apply. The initiative has been met with excitement by most quarters, but few people actually understand what its point is, and even fewer people had heard about it before its alleged awesomeness was thrust down their throats. “The central theme behind the city’s successful bid – ‘Live Design. Transform Life’ – focuses on the role that design can play in social transformation. This theme sets the tone for the programme of design-inspired events and projects,” claims the website. Whatever that means, it is not happening.

“In this moment, the central city remains divorced from the Cape Flats and the sprawling informal settlements, both discursively and materially,” Farouk says. “The discourse of creative cities promotes this segregated imagery, and the current branding of the city maintains the status quo of the central city as divorced from the rest of Cape Town. When the notion of ‘world class’ is being used, it is not in reference to Bonteheuwel.”

This statement is backed up by a drive through Bonteheuwel, Langa, Valhalla Park and Nooitgedacht (and that barely makes up 10% of the Cape Flats) – it clearly shows that the benefits of the Fringe and the WDC are not going much further beyond the city. Regardless of “job creation” – which comprises sweeping streets and cleaning toilets – those affected by this history of Cape Town’s geographical apartheid design still have to pay R100 a week to get into the city using public transport. The MyCiTi bus doesn’t go as far as the Cape Flats, and Metrorail is a no-go after dark, even on the rare occasions it runs on time

Rasool explains clearly: “The city thinks of District Six as a koeksister and samosa place, a land restitution theme park. It has no clue that D6 begins and ends within certain boundaries. The Fringe is part of the way the market has balkanised the history of D6.”

In a paper by Bonita Bennett, director of the District Six Museum, she says that the “idea to define this part of District Six as the Fringe, and to include the Cape Peninsula University of Technology campus and not the area of return, smacks of apartheid thinking: a bantustan approach to the mapping of spaces. Key sites that should become important spaces for innovation and design are located in the area that is being cut off from the city centre symbolically and geographically.”

For example, the celebration of the famous Charly’s Bakery (Oprah had cake there) as innovation when in fact it stands on the site of a Jewish bookshop, Beinkenstadt, is part of the Fringe’s modelling to obliterate this, and other, memories.

Makalima-Ngewana says she recognises the difficulties and issues that have come with the Fringe project. “Let me put it this way: success always comes with intended consequences,” she says.  “What we can commit to is that every time an unintended consequence has been identified, we hope we can address it. The Fringe is exclusionary – that is what has been said. District Six was the whole of the Fringe, including Woodstock. Why would you take down the space and call it ‘the Fringe’? That’s the question being asked. We need to go back and address that. So we can always continue to have dialogue with people who are able to give us feedback and are able to indicate where there are consequences that we didn’t intend.”

But her power can go only so far. Although the CTP initiates dialogue between all stakeholders, no one is doing much to dismantle a system in which the disempowered are exploited to the point of the loss of livelihood and dignity.

Her job is not easy. “We are not ineffective and we have not given up hope, because who else plays this kind of role?” she asks. “But are we being lambasted from both sides – of course we are. No one is ever able to take initiative without at one stage all the partners pointing at the mediator, saying ‘we need to do something faster’.”

The hard question is: What if D6 is declared a heritage site? How can we be sure something different will happen? It is an imperfect comparison, but once Bo-Kaap was declared a heritage site, the area became extremely sexy, and while there are benefits to this, mostly for traders, it comes at the expense of many of the original inhabitants who made the space what it is. The rates in Bo-Kaap have gone up dramatically in the past few years, as the property value has risen. Its location on the mountain, a five-minute walk to the city centre and an eight-minute drive down to the beaches of Clifton, as well as its breathtaking view, makes it highly desirable for both property owners and tenants alike. The rates in Bo-Kaap are now comparable with those in Camps Bay, and with this comes inflated rent. Heritage is hot. Young middle class newbies to the area speak of the “diversity” in the “multicultural” neighbourhood as an advantage of living here. And there’s an element of risk as a point of pride (lots of coloured people, you know).

The personification of this influx is the writer of a blog called The Only Blonde in Bo Kaap, who published a post a few months ago about her brother coming to visit from Johannesburg. She is afraid he might not appreciate the “more shabby than chic appearance my street’s going for”.

“I wouldn’t blame him. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had a somewhat dramatic reaction to our ’hood. On the contrary, we’ve had a few. In fact, most people think they’ve taken a wrong turn when they arrive on our street. It’s an endless source of entertainment and one of the reasons I love living here. “To be fair, though, most people who come to our house are nervous about parking their cars on our street. They use the view from our balcony (we have a pretty decent view) as an excuse to glance over and check if their humble steeds are still awaiting them. Fortunately for our social lives, all of them have been. Touch wood.”

Other neighbourhoods in the city centre are not known for their risk and danger. She wouldn’t have written about it in Oranjezicht, Tamboerskloof or Green Point, all direct neighbours of Bo-Kaap.

Many members of the historic community of Malay and coloured residents have made the great trek to the other side of the mountain. Some in the area believe that the city saw this coming and let it happen, and even encouraged it. Khadija Isaacs lives in the council flats at the highest point of the neighbourhood, at the top of the steep hills. She doesn’t even notice the tour buses anymore. At least 20 of them drive through the neighbourhood every day, slowly, with their lightly tinted windows. The flocking tourists are clearly fascinated by the attached houses, the turquoise next to the green next to the fuchsia. With their cameras in hand and proudly wearing their hiking boots in the city, the tourists have become something for the neighbourhood locals to snort and shake their heads at. They come, they click, they leave, and they write about the “Malay quarter” on their blogs. But they never really come further than the top of Wale Street. They never get to where 70-year-old Isaacs’ home is, an area marked by the pink-beige colour of all of Cape Town’s council flats. Isaacs bought her flat from the city council for R8 500 in 1999,  unaware that she would then have to pay rates and levies of R795 a month on a flat that is now worth R590 000.

“My pension is R1 200,” she says, sitting on her floral couch, next to her 90-year-old mother, Ayesha. Every space in the small lounge is covered in artificial flowers, framed photographs of the weddings of daughters, nephews, grandchildren, and on the walls hang   an image of the Kaaba in Mecca and framed Arabic script. “But I’m not going to sell this place because it is my home since 1958. Everything is here – there are mosques around us, I can walk to town. But now these new people sit with bottles of alcohol on their stoep and I have to see this when I walk down to the mosque.”

The term “Cape Malay” is insulting, says Osman Shaboodien, head of the Bo-Kaap residents’ association, sitting in the legendary Bismiellah Restaurant. It was a classification made by the apartheid government under the Group Areas Act. The slaves who were brought to Cape Town by Dutch colonisers in the 1700s and who lived in Bo-Kaap were mostly from Malaysian, Indonesian and other South Asian countries.

“Since the 1990s, when the act was abolished, it has been an uphill battle for us,” says Shaboodien. “Property owners are now paying the same rates as those in Camps Bay. Of course people want to live here,” he says, “this place is a gem. But we will do our damnedest to stop this gentrification.”

But, ultimately, Shaboodien and others who feel the same way in this community have little power to stop these changes, as the city’s willing buyer-willing seller principle, a fundamental of the capitalist system, doesn’t make room for historical significance and empathy in its policy.

Anton Groenewald, executive director of tourism, events and marketing at the City of Cape Town, says the city met with the association twice in the past two years when the association approached the city about the issue of new residents.

“Concerns were raised that traditional ‘Malay’ families that have stayed in the Bo-Kaap have left. It transpired in all those instances that families that have had an association with the Bo-Kaap for generations have opted to sell willingly to external buyers. In most (actually in all) instances, the other buyers were generally not ‘Malay’ or of Muslim origin. It also transpired that these families sold at very high prices relative to the size of the house or plot.

“The consequent financial impact is that the city continues to have a home owner who pays rates and complies with the heritage status of the property … Admittedly, the property market for residential housing in the city centre has seen very high prices being reached. However, the private property market is not regulated to ensure that ownership is restricted to one racial or ethnic or historic grouping.”

City of Cape Town media manager Reddy says that properties are valued at “market value”, which is defined by law as “the amount the property would have realised if sold on the date of valuation in the open market by a willing seller to a willing buyer”. She adds that property owners are provided with the opportunity to object to the property values as published in the valuation roll during the official objection period. “If the property owner has financial circumstances that make it difficult to pay the rates, they are encouraged to contact the city’s revenue department to make the appropriate arrangements.”

Makalima-Ngewana says she is aware of the difficulties facing the people of Cape Town. But her sway only reaches so far. “We are not ineffective and we have not given up hope, because who else plays this kind of role?”

A discussion on all of these issues – the Fringe, District Six, Bo-Kaap, gentrification – leads to passing bucks and shifting blame. The CTP refers questions to the CCID, which refers questions to the City of Cape Town, which in turn refers questions to the Fringe and to Sahra. And nobody answers them. Everyone has a different “mandate”. And it’s easy to maintain this lack of accountability when the structure of the city and its partners and projects is highly complex and bureaucratic; some are partly funded by the city, some are fully funded and partly fund others. Dialogue, capitalist system, market, improvement, vision – it’s all rhetoric for justifying the further whitewashing of city.

If District Six and Bo-Kaap’s heritage were given the respect and clarity they deserve, these current illegal forced removals, once again making sure that the poor black and coloured populations are hidden behind the mountain, would perhaps be not as harshly offensive as they are. If this were the case, the city and the CTP would not be able to use design as leverage to whitewash the city’s failure to mend the broken back of its racist landscape.

Recreating history and erasing memory when it is convenient is not going unnoticed. But it’s usually the economically disempowered, who were also those directly affected by this history, who feel most strongly about it. There are structures and financial interests in place within the city, often through its joint structures with the private sector, which make synergy between stakeholders very difficult.

The disadvantaged and dislocated are shouting at the top of their lungs for the city to pay attention to them, to spend money on toilets in the townships rather than the R6 million it spent on applying and being named World Design Capital 2014.

’Design’ has ensured their voices are too far to hear, just like it did in 1966.

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