Happy New Year, District Six

My career in Cape Town began in District Six. My father's assistant priest had met the priest of St Mark's, Father John Oliver, and put me in touch at the age of 18, when I was floundering in my search for belonging and purpose. He introduced me to the lovely Revd Rachel Mash, and I soon found myself working with her in the Anglican Church's offices at the edge of District Six.

An image I took of District Six when I was twenty-three.

An image I took of District Six when I was twenty-three.

I would catch the taxi (a small public bus) from Lansdowne to Claremont, then from Claremont to Woodstock, and walk up the steep hill of Searle Street. Walking up that street always felt like a lottery. You know how on Google Maps density of traffic is marked in red, orange and green? Anyone walking in Cape Town on regular routes could make you a similar map showing the danger zones, the grey zones, and the safe zones. Searle Street had all three. These days there is a fancy office block half way, with a fancy Spar to match! Back then it was just a corner store where I would stop to buy airtime. I would allow myself one sms/text message a day to my mum. The managers of Spar seem to have realised that their greatest security threat comes from the adjacent footbridge across the freeway, so there is frequently a guard posted there. When I used to walk that was the scariest part. Most pedestrians in Cape Town will tell you that footbridges are where people of ill intent will often lurk. Once I was over that bridge, it was past the house where the man with the nice border collie lived, and up into my office.

For a while before that job I lived in University Estate, adjacent to District Six. I would walk into town sometimes, if I was feeling brave. The Apartheid government had decimated District Six, , beginning in 1966 when it was declared a 'whites only area' under the Group Areas Act, eventually forcefully removing more than 60,000 people. It had been a vibrant, multi-racial community. For decades now it has been a wasteland of weeds and rubble, with only a few of the long promised houses being rebuilt. It is a fitting reminder of the wasteful cruelty of Apartheid. 

My career moved me away from District Six, out into Khayelitsha, Observatory, Athlone, Newlands, even as far as Westlake. I was away for years. Two years ago, I began the search for new studio space. We had loved being in Newlands, but the long climb up the hill for our disabled employees, the mordor-like weather, and the lack of privacy of a studio open to the public meant that we felt it was time for a new workplace.

'Anywhere but Woodstock' I said. This was for two reasons. Woodstock was the only place that I had been robbed at knife point, which as I'm sure you can imagine, is rather off-putting. More importantly, Woodstock is Cape Town's 'up and coming' area. In other words, it is undergoing a ruthless gentrification, using white capital and the power of property law, instead of the Group Areas Act, to yet again destroy communities and drive poorer people further out of the city. As is often the case, the creative industries came first. They brought with them the demand, quickly met, for fancy coffee shops, bicycle lanes, renovated yet characterful property, and an increased private security presence, and lent the area an aura of accessible 'authenticity'. This inevitably led in turn to press coverage and a 'buzz' which excited city planners and property developers, and terrified residents who have lived here for generations.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found the perfect studio on the border of Woodstock and District Six! This had not been my plan or intention. The studio is in a very old industrial building (built in 1934), and nearby residences seem unthreatened by its presence. It's also within walking distance for three of our staff, and accessible by public transport for everyone else. I hope we made the right choice.

Now my office window looks right out to Searle Street and the barren land of District Six beyond. I find myself looking at that land, dreaming of it once again being a place where working people could afford to live.

There are a couple of favourite pieces of art that I'm particularly obsessed with in relation to District Six at the moment.

It took me a while to realise that the first piece was indeed a work of art, it is so genius. The Apartheid government, as part of the erasure of peoples' history, had renamed the area 'Zonnebloem', Afrikaans for 'sunflower'. This hadn't been rectified for twenty years, so Haroon Gunn-Salie took it upon himself to do that work. When I first saw it I thought 'oh good, the City finally fixed it'! It wasn't them, of course, but they haven't dared change it back. You can watch the video here:

The second piece is a music video I've written about before. It's by local band Freshlyground. The imagery of South Africa and South Africans within it is just glorious. The scenes of a fire being put out are of District Six.

If you aren't from Cape Town, or if you are and have never been, I would highly recommend the District Six Museum. It's a beautiful, contemplative space, and deeply informative. There are also some great audio tours of Woodstock on Voicemap. "Changing Neighbourhoods: Walmer Estate and Upper Woodstock" is one I'll be doing myself soon.

Belated happy new year Beloved friends, and happy new year, District Six.