Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town's crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012. At least 11 people have died at the hands of vigilantes in the township since January as angry residents, tired of poor policing, take the law into their own hands. Picture taken July 9, 2012. To match Feature SAFRICA-CRIME/ REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTR34VDA

District Six lies at the heart of Cape Town, along the flank of Table Mountain, and just south of the city centre. It was so-called because it was the sixth municipal district in Cape Town. In it lived freed slaves and immigrants, labourers and artisans. It was a rundown area, overcrowded, many houses without running water or sewage. But District Six was also Cape Town’s cosmopolitan heart. In a nation defined by ‘aparthood’ it was an area in which blacks and coloureds and Cape Malays – and a few whites – lived and worked together. It came to be celebrated for its musicians and artists and writers. The great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim was born there, as was the novelist Alex La Guma. ‘Hanover Street runs though the heart of District Six, and along it one can feel the pulse-beats of society’, La Guma wrote in 1955. ‘It is the main artery of the local world of haves and have-nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling, and the idle, the weak and the strong. Its colour is in the bright enamel signs, the neon lights, the shop-fronts, the littered gutters and draped washing.’

Then, in February 1966, the South African government declared it a ‘white group area’ and ordered the forced removal of all non-white residents. Over the space of some 15 years, more than 60,000 people – around 10 per cent of the city’s population at the time – were evicted from their homes. The bulldozers moved in and leveled the area. All that remained were religious buildings – a couple of churches and mosques.

But virtually nothing new was built in the emptied-out District Six. It was left to rot as wasteland. It was almost as if District Six was leveled merely because its cosmopolitanism was an affront to the apartheid authorities.

One of the churches left standing – the Central Methodist Mission Church – has now been turned into a museum, to tell the story of District Six and through it the story of apartheid. It is one of the most moving museums I have visited. On the floor of the museum is a giant street map of the old District Six on which former residents have written their names and some of their thoughts. The museum is built around the experiences and stories of the people who once lived in the area. Without ever sentimentalizing those experiences or making the stories mawkish, the museum gives a powerful sense both of what it was like to live in District Six and of the lived experience of apartheid. It is a monument as much to the robustness of the human spirit and of the spirit of resistance as it is to the horrors of apartheid.

To where were the evicted residents of District Six forced to relocate? Mainly to the ‘Cape Flats’, the vast expanse of wretched townships on the outskirts of the city. Apartheid urban planners constructed cities according to a strict plan to recreate physically the ideology of aparthood. And of all the major South African cities, Cape Town is probably the one whose social geography remains most shaped by apartheid. It was, observes Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, ‘conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces to the east, each hemmed in by highways and rail lines, rivers and valleys, and separated from the affluent white suburbs by protective buffer zones of scrubland’. Not only were blacks separated from whites, they were deliberately separated, too, from their places of work. Between Cape Flats and the city’s Centre for Business Development (CBD) lay a power plant, a sewage works, a series of hills and valleys and a six-lane highway.

What is most striking about Cape Town today is that they still do. Twenty years on from the fall of apartheid, the social geography of apartheid still holds hard. Driving out of the international airport what greets you is not the majesty of Table Mountain or the swankiness of the V&A Waterfront but the misery of Cape Flats, and the shack settlements that stretch out from the N2 highway almost to the horizon. The bustling CBD, the striking university campus, the gorgeous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, the swanky V&A Waterfront, the beautiful villas of the white areas such as Rondebosch and Camps Bay – all exist in a different city to the shacks, the two separated no longer by an apartheid ideology but still by the physical structure of the city.

apartheid planning

When the ANC came to power in 1994, Nelson Mandela told the nation in his inaugural presidential speech that ‘The time to build is upon us’. More than 3 million homes have been built over the past 20 years under the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

Yet the conditions for most blacks have barely improved. If anything they have deteriorated. Khayelitsha is the largest township in the Cape Flats, the second largest in South Africa after Johannesburg’s Soweto. It was first established in 1983 by the apartheid regime to house 200,000 black workers. According to the 2011 census it now holds 329,000  (though other estimates suggest a much higher figure).  Almost two-thirds of Khayelitsha inhabitants, the census tells us, live in ‘informal housing’ – shacks, in other words, mainly built out of corrugated iron and cardbord. 51 per cent are unemployed – a figure 10 per cent higher than when the ANC first came to power; 72 per cent have an income below the official Household  Subsistence Level. Just 47 per cent of households in Khayelitsha have piped water – less than in 1996, when the first post-apartheid census took place. More than a quarter of households have no toilets, again a higher figure than in 1996. 24 per cent have no access to electricity.  Apartheid may have gone. But apartheid still lives on.

I will write more on these issues in the coming weeks. In the meantime, three sets of photos. The first is of District Six Museum, the second of the Cape Flats. The third set of photos is of West Bank, a suburb of the Eastern Cape city of East London (my thanks to Russell Grinker [‪@grinker1‪] for showing me round)‬. West Bank (so-named because it was built on the west bank of the Buffalo River that runs through East London) was established in the 1850s as one of the first white settlements in the city, consisting mainly of workers employed on the newly created docks and associated industries. These have long since gone and West Bank carries the stench of permanent decay. There is no comparison between the suffering of blacks under apartheid and the situation of white workers. Even now, East London is peppered with black townships in which conditions are far worse than in West Bank. And yet, West Bank should remind us that the apartheid politics of divide and rule may have been designed to oppress and subjugate and humiliate blacks, but they served to enchain white workers, too.


(The top photo of Khayelitsha is by Mike Hutchings/Reuters; the diagram of the ideal apartheid city is from an unpublished paper by M Schoonraad, found in Dave Kay’s ebook South African City Planning; all other photos are mine.)


District Six Museum

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Cape Flats

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township 4

township 3


West Bank, East London

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  1. District Six was the cultural beating heart of downtown Cape Town, itself an anomaly in an otherwise completely segregated South Africa. Your post reminds me of a statement of a friend of mine. To him and his colored community of the Cape, apartheid was a holocaust. When I left SA in ’73, the relocation programs were just beginning to gather steam.

    The narrow cobble stone streets lined by small buildings, many hundreds of years old, reminded one of a souk. Seeing what was left after the bulldozers did their job was sickening. The soul of Cape Town had been surgically removed so as to assuage the racist fears of the Afrikaner minority. The ultimate and saddest of all ironies is that most of the inhabitants of the District also spoke Afrikaans (~Dutch) – perhaps they were culturally too close for comfort and stood as a direct contradiction of the philosophical foundations of ‘separate but equal’ based on color.

    The Afrikaners, of course, had their own good reasons for being paranoid: They had been pursued and persecuted by the British Empire, especially after the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. It is said that the concentration camp was invented by the British during the Boer War (1899 – 1902) in order to control the population. Almost 30,000 civilians died in these camps of disease and starvation during the three year war. The Nationalist Party came to power after World War II, apparently animated by the survival of the Afrikaner Volk. The coloreds were removed from the voter rolls, and the doctrine of apartheid was formalized. They were very aware of ‘the black danger’ gathering in Africa.

    Ignorance is a widespread and deadly condition, indeed.

  2. An excellent piece and pertinent comment. I have a childhood memory of having visiting someone in District 6 with my parents as a 5- or 6-year-old in the early 1950s. Vividly remember the hustle and bustle of the place that Sunday evening — entirely alive with activity and so unlike the ‘white’ suburbs.

  3. damon

    I spent a few months in South Africa ten years ago, and came to the conclusion that the country was doomed. Or the ”Rainbow Nation” idea of it was anyway.
    I also visited that District Six museum. Even walking around Cape Town is something you can’t do in a normal way. You can walk around bits of it, but locals will tell you you just can’t walk further than this point or that point. You can be in a racially mixed bar in the evening, and stand outside and smoke or whatever, but can not safely walk fifty yards down the street to get a bus quite often.
    So many issues seem to be almost insurmountable.
    You’re in a shopping mall which is like any in Europe or the West one minute, and across the road there are glue-sniffing street children walking around and no one’s doing anything about it.

  4. Tom

    I’m a student in the UK and currently writing an essay on the standards of post-apartheid RDP housing, and I was hoping you could answer a few of my questions on some of the specifics behind sub-standard housing quality:
    so far I have not been able to find any specific examples of contractors along with their locations and/or dates that provided sub-standard (relative to recent RDP houses) conditions, such as the ones mentioned in the 2011 Khayelitsha census. If you have a spare moment my email is, I’d appreciate any further help massively. Thanks for the great article.

  5. Suzanne Sharland

    One of my earliest memories is of being a passenger in a car driving along De Waal Drive in Cape Town in the direction of ‘town’. (I was born in Cape Town in November 1966). I looked out of the window on the left, and saw the most magical, interesting place I will ever see. It was a complicated place, very ‘deurmekaar’ but also so beautiful, lively and one of the most fascinating sights I have ever seen. I mentioned this to my family, but they made some disparaging remark about it being a slum that was going to be torn down. What can I say? They were white South Africans…

  6. I used to tune the organ in St. Mark’s church District Six in the 1990’s and the drive up from the N1 to the church was always the most gut wrenching, depressing thing I can remember at short notice… then, entering the church through the lover level and going upstairs to the main space one was confronted with the congregation’s past… in pictures, items and furniture. On occasion it left me physically ill to the point of having to go outside for fresh air before I started to work. The fes remaining streeds that curve and basically go nowhere are all that remains of that place besides the few religious bouldings still standing. Testament to the pure evil that was the cause…

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