The Real District 9: Cape Town's District Six

Science fiction has always provided the best metaphors for isolation and anomie, and District 9—the two-week-old box-office hit from South African director Neill Blomkamp about a population of alien "workers" from another planet whose ship crash-lands in Johannesburg—is no exception. The government confines the aliens to a quarantined neighborhood called District 9 for several years until, one day, there are too many of them and too little space; they have to be moved. Most of all, though, the film is a morality play: segregation hurts its architects as well as its victims. And, without giving anything away, the most salient fact about aliens isn't their difference, but their likeness. Yet District 9 isn't necessarily the metaphor everyone thinks it is. Of course it's about apartheid and segregation, but to South Africans it's also about Cape Town's now-defunct District Six, and the real-life slums that rose up when it was dismantled. (Story continued below...)

At the turn of the 20th century, District Six (which Blomkamp studied for clues about the effects of social engineering and the resulting community disintegration) was a hive of activity not unlike New Orleans's French Quarter: a warren of clogged streets filled with butcher shops and bakeries, churches and mosques, old Victorian houses, bars and clothing retailers. While it was known primarily as a so-called Colored community, it was also home to a large Jewish population, and it is not a romantic exaggeration to say that Muslims, Christians, blacks, and whites all lived together in relative harmony. Because of its proximity to Cape Town's port, District Six was a frequent stop for the American, British, and Italian sailors whose ships made frequent ports of call there—making it extremely cosmopolitan. "District Six was and is probably the most celebrated piece of land in South Africa," says Anwah Nagia, a longtime resident and former anti-apartheid activist. "It was a microcosm of what modern societies were later to enjoy."

It was not to last. In 1966, South Africa's apartheid regime declared District Six a "whites only" area under the notorious Group Areas Act, a piece of legislation whose sole purpose for three decades was to divide, and then divide some more, until whites controlled every piece of valuable land, and blacks—or natives, as they were then known—were relegated to arid, poverty-stricken Bantustans, there to rot until the end of days. The policy, begun on the very day it was passed, was carried out with shocking clarity of purpose and efficiency; resistance was futile.

One by one, the residents of District Six were kicked out of their homes. First the poor were removed. Black Africans, who weren't allowed to own property at all, were the most disenfranchised of all. Then the government went after property owners like Indians, Chinese, and Malays. In some cases the government "bought" the properties far below market value. If residents refused to leave, they were kicked out and the houses expropriated. Nearly 70,000 people were summarily evicted from the only homes they had ever known. Some 1,800 houses were torn apart. The complete razing of the community took 15 years, a process its engineers drew out at length to further fragment already destabilized areas. "Everything came shattering away from the day we were moved to the townships," wrote Thandi Makhupula, one victim of the removals, on the wall of the District Six Museum. "Everything came to an end. Everything just vanished because of the Group Areas Act. Here we were put together with people we did not even know."

Their future homes were crude structures in encampments like the ones of District 9, located on the barren, windswept plains of the Cape Flats—a vast stretch of lonely nothingness on the outskirts of Cape Town, hidden between city and sea but readily accessible to neither, and prone to all the social ills that come with poverty and alienation. These housing developments of the Cape Flats were designed to contain violent insurrection. There was just one highway in and out so the military could quickly respond. Each dormitory community had one entrance and exit, so as to further contain the inhabitants inside. Houses were small and poorly designed. The sewage system could regulate the waste of no more than 300,000 people, but soon the Flats were home to almost a million. Families were often split up. Long commutes to town for work weren't compensated for by increases in salaries, so poverty began to weigh heavily. Mothers worked instead of caring for children. Drug use and crime begat gangs. "Everything that was community-based was destroyed," says Joe Schaffer, a youthful-looking septuagenarian who works part time at the District Six Museum in downtown Cape Town, one of eight Museums of Conscience scattered around the globe. "They split us up and spread us all over the countryside."

In one such township, Heideveld, I met with Faiza Gain, a 40-year-old jewelry maker who grew up in District Six but moved to the Flats in 1980, when the authorities finally caught up with her. Gain grew up in a drug-abusing family, and her stepmother tried to steer her toward prostitution when she was 13. Now she lives in a two-bedroom home she owns with her husband in the Flats—but in her backyard are three squatter families with nowhere to go. Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, she still feels the Balkanization wrought by her expulsion from District Six almost 30 years ago. "The government should put all the people together." she laments. The lingering accouterments of apartheid compound that feeling: on the road to the townships of Langa and Gugulethu, where most of the residents are black African, road signs still indicate the turnoffs as NY1 and NY2, apartheid-era terms meaning Native Yard One and Native Yard Two.

Today the old dormitories are still enclosed by single entrances, and the sewage system is only at half the necessary capacity. Even now, with all the political freedoms that came about in the 1990s, Gain says she and other residents still feel contained. The residents of the Flats are subject to radical forms of urban violence and menace—gang rape, murder, and robbery—in a far more persistent and monotonous rhythm than anywhere else in South Africa. And inhabitants may technically be allowed to leave, but without the money to do so they're often unable to escape. Here in the Flats the old communities of District Six were fragmented and broken. Louisa Smit, now 78, remembers the day she was forced out 27 years ago. "I cried the whole time," she told me. "I didn't want to go, but what choice did I have?"

What happened to District Six after it turned all white? If the landscape is anything to go by, it is in a sort of undead hibernation: most of the 91 hectares on this historic plot are empty—just grassy hillside. Anywhere else, such a tract might make a nice park. Instead, history makes it an eyesore. But it's consistent with the takeaway from the District Six Museum, which is that the legacy of apartheid takes a long time to overcome. For some people, like Gain, that is a fool's errand. "We will never get our inheritance back," she says. "For me, it's the past." But the government has finally decided to right this wrong.

After 15 years of political and bureaucratic wrangling, South Africa's politicians have finally begun the work of restoring District Six to the point where it can begin to live again. Thirty-six thousand people have submitted claims to houses there. (This week staff members at the District Six Museum have set up tables where people removed from their ancestral lands, some half a century ago, are able to come to demand reparation.) The government intends to begin with 4,000 houses for nearly 6,000 families. It expects about 30,000 people back within three years. "When we create Disctrict Six again, I won't allow it to be done in a selfish way," says Anwah Nagia, who is spearheading some of the development projects currently underway. "We're trying to fuse the design so that we're not going to hold the past to ransom. The city should not be alien to foreigners." Or, perhaps one day long in the future, foreign to aliens, either.