District Six: Thanks for the memories
Review: John Harvey
First-person accounts are not always ideal for historical purposes, but there are those where narrators are so ingrained in the tapestries of the world around them, that few aspersions could ever be cast.
This offering by Rashaad Jattiem, a former news reporter at the Golden City Post and lecturer at the then Peninsula Technikon, recounts his days growing up in District Six, and the customs and traditions that made it such a bustling community before the apartheid state’s bulldozers moved in.
Many of the experiences he describes have been shared in other books on District Six, and some readers might feel that another story about Hanover Street’s cinemas and fish shop is further glorifying the neighbourhood, overlooking the atrocity that came later.
The appeal of Jattiem’s work, however, lies in the detail, and the questions he raises about historical aspects of District Six. For instance, he painstakingly tackles the issue of the Seven Steps, pondering why the famous granite landmark was given this moniker when there were, in fact, eight steps in total.
He recalls: “Then one of my friends informed us about the gamblers’ abhorrence for the number eight. In Fafi gambling, the number eight represents a pig, and people who are into Fafi gambling avoid the number eight as though it were a curse or a prophecy of doom. Maybe that’s why people ignore the eighth step.”
Jattiem also makes the useful distinction between the gangs and skollies of District Six. Where gangs – Avalon Rangers, the Kasbas, Globe Gang, the Seven Steps, the Stalag 17 and the Mongrels – would fight each other over turf; skollies were “more unruly individuals who misbehaved and now and then broke the law”.
It would be interesting to know what became of these gangs once forced removals took hold, and whether any formed the kernel of today’s Cape Flats gangs.
The relationship the people of District Six enjoyed with their animals is covered in a particularly moving chapter. Horses were essential to the hawking business, and, as such, the hard-working stallions and mares were treated as part of the family.
The loss of the family horse, Allen, to chronic infections dealt a crippling blow to the Jattiem family, only surpassed by the mysterious death of Allen’s foal two years later.
The book does fall short in explaining how people felt about the looming threat of eviction, but in the epilogue Jattiem does state: “The romantics among us remember only the good old days and very little of the troubled days that some of our fellow ‘District Sixes’ had lived and experienced.”
Sala Kahle, District Six
Review: John Harvey
While coloured people formed the majority in District Six, the area was also well known for the black African families who lived among them.
Indeed, it was often the wonderful relationship between the two races that made District Six such a vibrant part of Cape Town. The fascination with one another’s cultures and traditions would see men, women and children invited to share the experiences of the other, forging bonds that would outlast the demolition of the precinct and tragedy of forced removals.
Memoirs of the black community’s time in District Six are not as prevalent as those of their coloured neighbours, so this offering from Nomvuyo Ngcelwane, who in later life became a circuit manager for the Western Cape Education Department, is a most welcome addition to the discourse.
As a young girl, her “gang” comprised both black and coloured children, and she vividly recalls the games they played on some of the district’s most famous streets and alleyways. Such fond recollections serve to prove how ridiculous segregation would seem to the mind of a child, yet effectively, she never addresses this directly.
Rather, she simply describes her journey to womanhood, and the now unfathomable events that unfolded along the way.
The Methodist church hall in Chapel Street served as a junior primary school for District Six’s black children. On completion of Standard 2 (Grade 4), all African children had to attend a township school, and so it was that the author, then aged 9 or 10, was required to make the daunting weekday trip to Langa.
Though some friends drifted away for reasons such as family illness, one cannot help feel that the educational schism played a significant part as well.
The lived experience of District Six’s black people is brought home by their run-ins with the apartheid police. Constantly hassled by the bigots lurking in their patrol vans, more often than not demanding the “dompas”, blacks were almost always addressed as “k*****” by the sinister men in blue.
However, they also had irreverent ways of dealing with their “crime-fighting” oppressors.
Ngcelwane recounts a story told by resident Solomon Mpazi, who was on his way back from Bo-Kaap with friend Ernest Makupula one Sunday afternoon when they were targeted by the police.
A gathering crowd of Solomon and Ernest’s coloured neighbours made the police uneasy, and they eventually left the scene.
In 1950s and 60s District Six, cheeky retorts were the best form of protest, as anything more was liable to land black people in prison for extended periods, or worse.
Ngcelwane also describes the wonderful camaraderie that existed among black families and the trust that bound them together. If community members stepped out of line, say for not sending money home to their wives and children in the Eastern Cape, the elders in District Six would stage an intervention.
Conversely, if people did well, such as the Busy Bee Rugby Club winning the cup, everyone would gather to celebrate.
Ngcelwane has an endearing wit, which comes through strongly in these written memories. However, she also doesn’t fall victim to nostalgic digressions, which can often take away from historical value.
There were good times, certainly, but she also doesn’t shy away from moments of hardship. An account that is an important piece of the puzzle that was District Six.