Gran, 97, holds on for dear land in District Six
Forced removals commemorated ahead of a government deadline for a viable restitution plan
If Subaigha Hendricks lives to be 100 she could find herself returning to the neighbourhood from which she was forcibly removed in the middle of the night 53 years ago.
Hendricks, who turns 97 in July, is one of 3,500 claimants from District Six. As it happens, thanks to a high court order, the government has been given three years to complete construction in District Six for those who were brutally pushed out when the government declared it a “whites only” area in 1966.
She and 300 other former residents met government dignitaries at the Castle of Good Hope on Tuesday to commemorate the traumatic event that ripped the neighbourhood apart.
The government has been asked to produce a viable development plan for the area, along with budgets and timelines, by February 26 2019.
Hendricks, sitting in her wheelchair under the marquee on Tuesday, listened nostalgically to the Cape Malay choir and then told Times Select: “I am happy to be here today. You know, everything there was destroyed. But before that, we were all so close with our neighbours. We would go to to the bioscope together. I can’t remember all their names but we were close-knit like a family. We would walk to the bioscope, we would walk to town to shop. Everything was close by – the butcher, the bakery, everything.”
But the most enduring memory is the truck arriving in the dead of night to take her and her family away.
“I remember how all our stuff got blown off the back of the truck,” she says, recalling the indignity with which the removals unfolded.
While Hendricks might live to see her land returned, others have not been so lucky. One resident reached the ripe old age of 101 but died recently before her dream could come to fruition.
Only a week ago, while asleep in her bed, another one of the eldest claimants passed away. Catherine Wagner was 94 and, although the court ruled in her and the other claimants’ favour for the government to speed up the restitution process, she did not live long enough to see her dream realised in the form of a house in the neighbourhood where she once lived.
But how do the memories get passed on and preserved, and what version of the story passes into the annals of history?
Shahied Ajam, head of the District Six Working Group, said it is up to millennials to “have respect for their forebears” and that they should “be educated about what happened at District Six”.
He urged residents who had been forcibly removed to “tell the world your story while you are still alive to tell it”.
“While we look back into the past, we will also look forward,” he said of the ongoing restitution claim process. “The history books will be rewritten.”
He added: “It took five years for us to build our case, but it took the judge only four hours to find in our favour. Justice comes but it comes slowly. We need to keep on having faith that this will happen before another one of us dies. We owe it to those went before us.”
Cape Town mayor Dan Plato, reflecting on those who had lost their lives before returning to District Six, said: “I am deeply saddened that some claimants have passed away. I want to see people returning to their land. Cape Town is a wonderful city, but I want to see you, the people of District Six, sitting on your stoeps looking at the beautiful mountain, eating koeksusters and samoosas.”
For Tiffany Agulhas, a young candidate attorney at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, which has been working pro bono for the claimants, what began as a professional project soon turned personal.
Her grandparents, like many others who endured the pain of the forced removals, had drawn a veil of silence over their harrowing past. But, when she was asked to assist with the case in her professional capacity, she approached them to share their story.
“My granny described to me what a traumatic experience it was,” she told those gathered at the commemoration. “All had lived in harmony and then the forced removals changed everything.”
As a lawyer now fighting for human rights, she asked her grandmother if she and the other residents had resisted, but the answer she got was haunted by just how helpless the apartheid government had rendered those it sought to squash.
“We were upset, but there was absolutely nothing we could do,” her grandmother told her.
Now, 53 years later, many of those same families are living with poverty, unemployment and gangsterism, said Agulhas.
Ebrahima Jonathan, 76, lived upstairs at 132 Hanover Street in District Six. He feels like his family has been waiting “forever” to get housing.
“Some of the people are dead already,” he said, “but we lived together in harmony. You go down to the market and get what you can for 50c and cook for everyone. It is hard to explain but the way the world is now, it is just deurmekaar. We felt safe in District Six. You could walk anywhere but where we are now, you can’t even stand by a door in Hanover Park or sit in your voorkamer. We are afraid.”