A saga of infamy comes to an end

CAPE TOWN, NOV. 27. Even among the many shameful and cruel features of the apartheid regime, the forced removals, arising out of the implementation of the Group Areas Act, occupy a slot of special infamy.

Literally, thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and communities where they had lived for generations and moved into racially designated areas in numerous cities and towns. The really material aspect of this policy, of course, was the appropriation of prime urban areas in city centres which had historically been occupied by the black people and handing them over to the triumphalist whites. Every community in every city and town still cherishes the bitter memories of such forced removals.

District Six in Cape Town, Vrededorp and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, South End in Port Elizabeth, are not merely names of erstwhile municipal areas; they are charged with highly personal and emotional memories for hundreds of thousands of people.

Of these and several others, District Six, so named because it was the sixth of the districts into which the urban area of Cape Town was divided in 1867, has a special place, along with Sophiatown in Johannesburg, in these painful, at the same time also joyous, memories of the majority of South Africans. Home for people of all races and colours living in close, often cloying, proximity with the problems of overcrowding and urban decay and crime unattended by the apartheid regime, the area was declared a ``whites only'' area in February 1966; and despite some strong resistance, most of the people were forcibly moved to the windswept wasteland, what is even now known as Cape Flats.

One cannot even begin to understand the peculiar social pathology of urban violence in Cape Town and the attendant evils, including vigilantist resistance symbolised by Pagad (People against Gangsterism and Drugs), without locating these in the forced removals over 30 years ago.

In the words of Mr. Anwar Nagia, the Chairperson of the District Six Beneficiary and Development trust, this forced re-location of some 66,000 people into the ghettos of Cape Flats had the ``irreversible effects of gangsterism, unemployment and social decay which our people had to live under''.

Lying in the heart of the city under the slopes of the Table Mountain, part of the range of hills that also comprise the Lion's Head and the Devil's Peak, just off east of the city centre between the modern highways of N 2 and M 3, District Six was the home and work place of some of the most outstanding leaders of the Liberation Movement.

Some idea of its vibrancy, and the pain of its demolition can be had from the District Six Museum which has carefully preserved whatever artefacts could be salvaged from the debris of demolition. Despite the efforts of the apartheid regime to create a new urban infrastructure, the area remains remained largely unoccupied. There were also contending claims to residency and ownership by surviving residents and heirs.

The first practical steps in the fulfilment of the commitment of the democratic Government to enable those who once lived in District Six to return and reclaim their lands were taken on Sunday.

In a historic ceremony resonating with joy and laughter and tears as old residents greeted erstwhile neighbours, the President, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, handed over documents formally marking the return of the land of District Six to the people who were its original inhabitants, to the Chairperson of the District Six Beneficiary and Development Trust, Mr. Anwar Nagia, on Sunday afternoon.