It was a quiet December evening when 62-year-old Asa Salie decided to break into her house. The home in District Six was finally ready for her return, but bureaucratic delays had prevented her from moving in. After 15 years of waiting, Salie was fed up. Armed with a hammer and chisel, she broke the lock on her door.
She was flanked by two men: one, a locksmith who got nervous at the last minute, and the other, an old friend. They had broken through the fence surrounding the newly developed houses. In a small folder, she had the paperwork confirming that the house had been allocated to her. It was an emotional triumph after Salie was forced to leave the Cape Town suburb in a wave of apartheid-era evictions in 1979. The area had been declared “Whites Only”. Her husband suffered from severe diabetes and longed to return home.
As she crossed the threshold, an official from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform called Salie, pleading with her to wait just a few more days for the administration to be completed. Salie acquiesced. Five days later, she was in her new home in the area in which she grew up.
“I’m happy with the fact that my husband was happy living here,” she said.
That was five years ago and Salie, now 67, is waiting for other claimants to come home. A court order by the land claims court on 18 April compelled Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to appear on 17 May to explain why her office did not comply with a previous order to provide the court with a detailed restitution plan for District Six.
A case is under way at the land claims court, sitting in the Western Cape high court, to compel the ministry to draw up plans and a timeline for when the development of houses in District Six will be completed. It was brought by the District Six Working Committee, which represents some of the claimants from the inner-city suburb.
There are still 960 verified claimants waiting to return home. Many of the original claimants have died and one of them, Sharifa Khan, celebrated her 97th birthday on Thursday 25 April.
Her hope through the years has been to live out her final years in District Six. She is one of the applicants in the case. Her family lost their successful restaurant when they left the area and were under financial strain. Their daughter was forced to drop out of school and Khan’s husband became ill. Her claim was registered in 1996, but to date she has received no compensation for the trauma her family endured, the loss of their home or the loss of their once thriving business.
“I am 96 years of age and I wish to see justice being done before I die. My idea of justice would be having the opportunity to return to District Six,” she said in her affidavit.
Salie knows the lengths to which she had to go to get home. She is a loud and feisty activist in her community, but she knows that not all claimants have the strength to fight as she has done in their old age. While the court case has brought a landmark moment to bear – shedding light on the government’s failure to produce a final plan for District Six – Salie is not sure how much longer it will take before her former neighbours can finally come back.
The case for District Six
Shahied Ajam, the chairperson of the District Six Working Committee, spearheaded the court action against the ministry. Attorneys from international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright are representing the claimants pro bono, while human rights lawyer Geoff Budlender has been appointed as their advocate.
In his founding affidavit, Ajam sought a declaratory order from the court to state that the ministry has violated the Constitution and the Restitution Act for its failure to compensate victims of forced removals in District Six who had lodged land claims by the 1998 deadline. The ministry has opposed Ajam’s application in court.
Ajam has been tirelessly pursuing justice for claimants under the banner of the District Six Working Committee, but the claimants have been embroiled in infighting and distrust.
Some claimants mandated another structure, known as the Reference Group, to work with the government to complete a plan for restitution in the area. In court papers, the department says the District Six Working Committee has added to the confusion over who represents the claimants and their demands.
“Given the complaints regarding representativity, it was always difficult to establish what the claimants actually wanted,” said Leona Archary, the deputy director general of rural infrastructure in the department, in a responding affidavit.
Archary added that claimants’ opposition to four-storey flats as housing and their demand to reduce the size of business and retail blocks has meant the restitution plan is “simply not affordable”. The retail development is meant to help fund the restitution development.
Despite the confusion, Ajam has had one small triumph. In April, the land claims court threatened to find Nkoana-Mashabane in contempt of court and ordered her to appear to explain why she had not yet provided a timeline for District Six.
Department spokesperson Phuti Mabelebele said Mashabane had “noted respectfully the ruling of court and is now consulting on a way forward … The minister remains committed to finding a lasting, peaceful and suitable solution with and for all parties concerned.”
But the claimants who had faith in the democratic government to bring about change have slowly lost hope. Zerina Allie was forced out of District Six when she was in her early 20s in 1980. She can no longer afford to live in Cape Town. She now lives 66km from District Six in Grabouw, where she feels intense isolation from her former community.
“Now we have this court case and everyone is so excited, they say we are going home and they are all old people, and I look at the people and I think many of you are not going to make it. I might not even make it,” Allie says.
Allie’s mother died after struggling with respiratory illness for a number of years. She had bad asthma. Both women thought that when the restitution process began, they would be among the first to get a home because they had lodged their claim early and Allie’s mother was elderly.
But it wasn’t to be. Allie now bitterly regrets the decision the family made to wait for a house, saying that she would have taken the financial compensation if she had known how long the delay would be. The government was offering financial compensation of R17 500, which despite being below market value would have helped the family buy a permanent house.
“My life would’ve taken a very different course,” said Allie.
Taking back the land
In the back of her mind, there is one plan of action that Allie is now contemplating. All around the Western Cape, there have been land occupations. Now, some claimants are flirting with another form of protest that has not yet happened in District Six: taking back the land.
“I’m on the brink of either putting up a hokkie in District Six or actually just buying a Nutec home [prefabricated house kit] and staking my claim and putting it down there. I can’t live here anymore. I just can’t. I can’t take this place anymore,” said Allie.
Abdul Karriem Matthews, whose family was forced out of District Six when he was seven years old, has made a call on Facebook for claimants to occupy land. Tentative plans were being made for a meeting over the Freedom Day weekend to discuss if there should be a mobilisation for a land occupation, but the meeting is yet to be held.
Matthews has his own experience in protest. He was involved in mass protest action against gangsterism on the Cape Flats last year.
“It’s our land and our people must occupy that land. We dare the ANC or the DA to send in either the SAPS or the Metro police, but the people they will be shooting first will be old people and people sitting in their wheelchairs,” said Matthews.
As claimants battle in court for restitution in District Six, Salie and Shahnaz Arnold, the secretary of the District Six Civic Association, are trying to ready their area for the return of its original residents. They’ve seen gentrification sweep through the neighbouring suburb of Woodstock and through Bo-Kaap in the inner city.
Their fear now is that the same will happen in District Six. High-density flats have been proposed as part of the development framework for the newly built area, but residents envision them as a sign of gentrification and an unaffordable cost of living. The government, meanwhile, has said the flats are the most affordable option for the area.
When Salie and Arnold moved into District Six, they found themselves in an ageing community where there are few young people. In vacant fields in the area, drugs are sold and homeless people search for shelter.
The residents have lobbied for a park to be built in which children can play safely. They have painted murals on the walls and created community groups, such as a knitting group, to try and bring the shattered suburb back together.
They do this work to create a community for themselves and in the hopes that the descendants of the original occupiers will take over the work they have begun in rebuilding District Six.
“We may not even be here when they get back, but they can finish the work we started,” said Salie.