Thursday, February 12, 2004

So good to be back home again 

Standing on top of Table Mountain, you can see a lot of South Africa’s past, and its future too. To the north is the city of Cape Town, with Table Bay in the distance. In the bay sits a low, roughly circular, island, which looks pretty uninteresting until you realise that this is Robben Island – South Africa’s Alcatraz, where Nelson Mandela spent a large chunk of his 27 years in prison. To the south the rocky Cape Peninsular stretches down to Cape Point, and forms the western side of False Bay. False Bay is so called because to a ship approaching the bay, and looking across the Cape Flats, it looks as though you can sail straight through to Table Bay, and that Table Mountain sits on an island. To the north of False Bay are the aforementioned flats, designated as black and coloured areas under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, of which more later. This is where the townships are: Khayelitsha, Guguletu & Crossroads – names that will be familiar to those who remember the news from South Africa in the eighties and early nineties.

Back on top of the mountain, looking down on the city, there is an area that catches the eye. Just below Devil’s Peak there is a lot of open space, dotted with five or six churches. This is District Six. In the early sixties it was a colourful area, not without its problems, but a vibrant community where the same families had lived in close proximity for several generations. On 11th February 1967, the South African government declared District Six to be a white area under the Group Areas Act. It was too close to town, and too valuable a piece of real estate to be left to the coloured and black communities who had made it what it was. The entire population of District Six was forcibly relocated to the ‘coloured’ areas on the Cape Flats. Instead of being moved en masse, the families and friends were broken up, and found themselves spread out all over this sprawling collection of settlements. To match the destruction of the community, the government bulldozers moved in and razed every building in District Six. Everything except the churches was destroyed – even the apartheid thugs could not bring themselves to knock them down, and they were left to stand, empty and unvisited, as lonely reminders of what had been there.

Almost immediately, and probably even before the evacuation had been completed, the people of Cape Town realised the injustice of what was being done. It’s my guess that, even as the bulldozers rolled, the government realised the folly of what they were doing, but like a schoolyard bully had talked themselves to a point where they could not afford to back down. The collective disapproval, though, meant that nobody ever moved into District Six. No new houses were ever built to connect the churches, and the area became a wasteland where the wind stretches plastic bags against the wire fences.

When the democratic government was elected, in 1994, they set about putting right the wrongs of apartheid. Among these restitutions were the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, affirmative action to tilt the economic playing field, and doing something about things like District Six. It took them a while, and the fact that there is an election in nine weeks has nothing to do with it, of course, but yesterday the first two residents of the old, and the new, District Six were presented with the keys to their new homes by Mandela himself.

It’s great to see these things, and it’s all part of the healing process, but there is a difficulty in fixing the old South Africa whilst simultaneously trying to create the new one. At the moment, and probably for the next ten or twenty years, the government is dividing its money and energy between acts of restitution like this, and acts of creation – feeding the next generation into the system with the opportunities their parents were denied. When the creation is dominant, then South Africa will really move on. It is impossible to right the wrongs of apartheid. The thousands killed in the violence of those dark years, and the lives destroyed by decisions like those that flattened District Six are not going to come back. The trick this young democracy needs to pull is to walk the fine line between reinstatement and replenishment. Honour the past but look to the future, as somebody has probably said before.

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