Next week I begin volunteering at The Shine Centre in Zonnebloem, part of Cape Town inner-city District Six in City Bowl. District Six is a residential area which includes Walmer Estate, Zonnebloem, and Lower Vrede. Its interesting history began in the 1800s.
In 1838 during the British Era after the release of slaves, African families needed inexpensive housing in Cape Town. To meet the needs of laborers, former slave owners turned ‘slumlords’ developed areas where they rented low-cost housing.
There were no building restrictions in Cape Town until the 1860s. As a result, much of the housing in lower Cape Town and District Six was in cramped spaces between narrow alleyways without running water or plumbing.
Home of Cape Jazz
In spite of poor, overcrowded housing conditions, District Six became a vibrant multi-racial working-class community and cultural centre. Those who lived there were supportive, tolerant, and enjoyed lively entertainment. As the heartbeat of Cape Town, District Six became the home of Cape jazz.
The eclectic community included former slaves, artisans, merchants, Portuguese and Irish sailors, Xhosas, Cape Malay, Jewish and other immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, Muslims, and people brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company. There were fewer Afrikaners, whites, and Indians.
Today, Capetonians think that in spite of poverty, District Six was “rich in spirituality and community character”.
1930s and WWII
During the 1930s, District Six began a dramatic transformation. By the beginning of WWII, developers had built thousands of new homes in the area. Sadly, most existing residents couldn’t afford higher rents for the new housing.
1950-60s Government Redevelopment
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Cape Times ran a series of articles challenging District Six’s reputation as a “dirty infested place full of gangs and brothels”. Many saw redevelopment as a government scheme to introduce racial segregation. A series of articles in the Cape Times emphasized District Six’s positive aspects and fought back against forces pushing for destruction of the area because it was considered “crime-ridden, unsightly, and full of vice”.
In 1966, South Africa’s National Party declared District Six a “White Group Area”. As part of a “slum clearance” redevelopment project, they destroyed all except religious buildings. Politicians claimed District Six was “squalid and dangerous”. During redevelopment, the government proceeded with “forced removal of about 150,000 people from unplanned residential areas“.
In 1970, the government renamed District Six Zonnebloem (Dutch for sunflower), after the area’s original Dutch farm, Zonnebloem Farming Estate. They wanted developers to transform the area, but activist organizations were successful discouraging further building in Zonnebloem.
1980s Oriental Plaza and Cape Technikon
By the 1980s, Zonnebloem population was mostly middle-income Afrikaans-speaking whites. There was no new building in Zonnebloem other than Oriental Plaza developed by Indian traders. The South African government built Cape Technikon, aka Cape Peninsula University of Technology, including accommodation for its staff.
1990s Fall of Apartheid
Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, District Six is still largely barren. Schools, churches, and mosques are all that remain of the original buildings. Today, Capetonians think that in spite of poverty, District Six was extremely “rich in spirituality and community character”.
Many consider District Six a symbol of “what apartheid did to families and communities”. The South African government recognized the claims of former District Six residents, pledging its support for rebuilding in the area.