District Six, or “Distrik Ses” in Afrikaans, was a bohemian, mixed neighborhood in every sense of the word. It was crowded with a multiracial blend of working class people, Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, many of whom were descended from freed slaves and immigrants. In the mid–20th century, a population of roughly 60,000 lived there. Unfortunately, District Six was also at the epicenter of apartheid in Cape Town, and still bears its scars.
During the apartheid regime of the 1960s and ’70s, the segregating Group Areas Act saw all the non-white residents of District Six evicted and relocated further outside the city. It was called “slum clearing,” but the true intention was to fill the desirably located neighborhood with white residents and high rises.
District Six became a symbol of apartheid oppression. A group called Hands Off District Six protested the redevelopment of their bulldozed neighborhood. It remained empty. When anti-apartheid legislation came to fruition, reparations were paid to the resettled residents of the district. Some of them, along with their descendants, have been permitted to move back to the area. Others have been given financial compensation, but righting the wrongs is slow and still ongoing.
The excellent and sobering District Six Museum provides context as well as rotating exhibits on the residents who were forcibly removed from their homes. Another highlight is St. Mark’s Anglican Church, built in 1867. The government was unable to bulldoze the historic religious building, and instead offered its clergy a resettlement stipend. They declined, and St. Mark’s continued to host the same community in the original location, now driving from all over Cape Town to attend service.
What’s left of District Six is now part of the Zonnebloem neighborhood. A new generation has begun to rebuild there, but a small patch of land sits empty and deserted, a reminder of the cultural destruction that occurred.