Exploring Cape Town's District Six

portrait of nelson mandella in district six

Portland Seminary/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1867, the South African city of Cape Town was divided into twelve Municipal Districts. Of these, District Six was one of the inner city's most colorful areas. It was renowned for its eclectic population, which comprised merchants and artisans, freed slaves and laborers, musicians and artists, immigrants and native Africans. While the majority of District Six residents were working-class Cape Coloureds, whites, blacks, Indians, and Jews all lived here side-by-side, together representing approximately one-tenth of Cape Town's total population.

The Decline of a District

However, as the city center grew more prosperous, wealthier residents started to perceive District Six as an unwanted eyesore. In 1901, an outbreak of the plague gave city officials the excuse they needed to forcibly relocate black Africans away from District Six to a township on the edge of the city. The excuse for doing so was that unsanitary conditions in poor areas like District Six were causing the spread of disease and that the new townships would serve as a quarantine for those most at risk. Around the same time, Cape Town's wealthier residents began to gravitate away from the center towards the greener suburbs. Consequently, a vacuum was created in District Six, and the area began to slide downhill into abject poverty.

The Apartheid Evictions

However, despite this shift, District Six retained its heritage of racial diversity until the dawn of the apartheid era. In 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed, forbidding the cohabitation of different races within a single area. In 1966, District Six was designated as a whites-only zone, and an era of forced evictions began two years later. At the time, the government justified the evictions by declaring that District Six had become a slum; a hotbed of immoral and illegal activity including drinking, gambling, and prostitution. In reality, it is likely that the area's proximity to the city center and the harbor made it an attractive prospect for future redevelopment.

Between 1966 and 1982, more than 60,000 District Six residents were forcibly relocated to informal settlements constructed 15.5 miles/ 25 kilometers away at Cape Flats. Because the area was declared unfit for habitation, bulldozers moved in to flatten the existing houses, and people who had spent their entire lives in District Six suddenly found themselves displaced, their possessions reduced to what they could carry from their homes. Only places of worship were spared so that District Six effectively became a dustbowl. Today, many of its former residents still live in Cape Flats, where the effects of apartheid-perpetuated poverty are still very much in evidence.

District Six Museum & The Fugard Theatre

In the years immediately after the removals, District Six became symbolic for non-white South Africans of the damage inflicted during the apartheid era. When apartheid came to an end in 1994, the District Six Museum was established in an old Methodist church - one of the few buildings to survive the arrival of the bulldozers. Today, it serves as a community focus for former district residents. It is dedicated to preserving the unique culture of pre-apartheid District Six, and to providing an insight into the trauma caused by the forced relocations that took place all over South Africa.

The central hall has a vast hand-painted map of the district signed by former residents. Many of the area's street signs were rescued and hang on the walls; while other displays recreate homes and shops. Sound booths give personal accounts of life in the District, and photos show how it looked in its prime. An excellent shop is dedicated to considerable art, music, and literature inspired by the area and its history. In February 2010, the church hall of the now vanished Congregational Church in Buitenkant Street reopened its doors at The Fugard Theatre. Named after South African playwright Athol Fugard, the theatre specializes in thought-provoking political plays.

The Future of District Six

Today, the area once known as District Six overlaps the modern Capetonian suburbs of Walmer Estate, Zonnebloem, and Lower Vrede. Much of the old district remains abandoned, although the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust have since been set up to help those that were displaced to reclaim their land. Some of these claims have been successful and new houses have been built. The process of restitution is convoluted and slow, but it is hoped that as more and more people return to District Six, the area will find resurrection - and become known once more for racial tolerance and diverse creativity. Areas of District Six feature in many of Cape Town's township tours

This article was updated and rewritten in part by Jessica Macdonald.

Was this page helpful?