A neat, yet somewhat tired-looking lounge suite is surrounded by black-and-white images of the District Six of yesteryear: maps of the area and posters proclaiming “People Before Profits” in the sparsely furnished old St Philip’s Church – the new home of the District Six Working Committee (D6WC).
It is from this erstwhile church – built in 1898 – that, with little more than an assistant and two laptops, Shahied Ajam, the committee’s chairperson, conducts the organisation’s work in helping to finalise the restitution claims of thousands of former District Six residents.
It was 50 years ago today, February 11, that the apartheid government declared District Six a whites-only area. It was this declaration that, in one fell swoop, saw thousands of families forcefully evicted and made to settle across what has become known as the Cape Flats.
The advent of democratic rule, however, saw a land-restitution programme being initiated through the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994. The purpose of the programme, according the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development’s website, is “to provide equitable redress to victims of racially motivated land dispossession”.
The programme’s objective, the website adds, is “to resolve restitution claims within the target period, through negotiated settlements that restore land rights, or award alternative forms of equitable redress to claimants”.
More than two decades later, however, many former District Six residents are still waiting for their claims to be finalised and approved, allowing them to resettle back in the area nestled at the foot of Table Mountain they once called home.
According to Vuyani Nkasayi, head of communications at the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform of the Western Cape, of the 2 670 claimants, 139 have thus far been resettled in District Six.
It is this slow pace at which the restitution process is moving for District Six claimants that has Mr Ajam saying: “It is unjust, unbalanced and, most of all, inequitable. True restitution, in terms of District Six, is not being played out. Restitution, in terms of that act, was meant to be transformational and the start of a healing process – but this is not the case for the people of District Six.”
Mariam Mosoval is one of these “people of District Six”. When asked when she first put in her claim to have her home in District Six returned, Ms Mosoval laughs wryly: “Oh, I can’t remember… It was donkey years ago.”
Commenting on some of the challenges faced by the department in dealing expeditiously with these claims, Mr Nkasayi says: “There were various reasons causing delays. These include negotiations, setting up appropriate structures through which the claimants were to be engaged, various legislative approvals by all three spheres of government and other administrative processes.”
At 99 years old (“I’ll be 100 in June,” she says proudly), Ms Mosoval still recalls clearly her life in District Six: “Oh, we were very happy there. It was a lekker house.”
Now a Grassy Park resident, Ms Mosoval, however, has no illusions of returning to the District Six she once knew. “It’s changed altogether,” she says, “but I want to go back. I am happy here with my family, but, if I am allowed – and still alive – I want to go back. Even if it is just for a few years or even months, I want to go back. Who knows how long I have left,” she says, trailing off.
Mr Ajam adds: “We’ll never be able to recreate the old District Six. We are only interested in the restitution of people’s dignity and social justice. District Six then wasn’t heaven – but it was a haven, in a way, because it brought together people of all colours and creeds.
“That’s what these claimants want – to live in a place that represented that harmony before they die.”
Despite the fact the many of the claimants are elderly, Mr Nkasayi couldn’s say when the department hoped to finalise all outstanding claims are.
“We are redeveloping District Six in phases,” is all he would say.
Able to expand only marginally more, Linda Page, spokesperson for the national department, says: “It really is impossible to say. The new claims process opened in 2014, so it could go on until 2019. By then, we might have 80 percent or 90 percent of claims finalised, but not all of them.”
Asked what the department is doing to speed things up, Mr Nkasayi says: “The past 14 years have seen many challenges confronted, and lots of hard work done.
“The re-structuring of the redevelopment process by the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform has seen the formation of many committees tasked with steering the restoration of land efficiently and effectively.
“These platforms have driven the redevelopment process effectively and have achieved significant milestones during their time of operation.”
Welcome as these initiatives may be, it is most certainly little comfort to the thousands, who, like Ms Mosoval, wait to return.
Walking out of the sparsely furnished church, the neat, eerily empty lounge suite catches my eye again as Mr Ajam says: “If I could tell the Department one thing it would be ‘get your house in order.’ That’s what I would say. ‘Get your house in order, speak to the affected parties and let us all try and map the way forward’.”