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District Six open for development

The District Six Working Committee has issued a call for developers to help rebuild the area

By Mark van Dijk

, |

District Six open for development

The District Six Working Committee has issued a call for developers to help rebuild the area

By Mark van Dijk

, |

4 min read

Property developers are encouraged to invest in District Six, despite rumours that the historic Cape Town precinct might be declared a National Heritage site. That’s according to Shahied Ajam, chairperson of the District Six Working Committee (D6WC).


Troubled history

 Ajam was responding to confusing and contradictory reports, some of which suggested that District Six was open to development, while others hinted at it being off limits due to its impending Heritage status. ‘Unlike the Bo-Kaap, the whole of District Six will never be declared a Heritage site,’ Ajam insists. ‘That would be committing economic and social suicide, and that’s not what we want. We want the cultural diversity that existed in District Six, 50 or 60 years ago. That must be reignited, and we can only do that with partners.’

District Six has a messy and painful history, dating back to its demolition under the Apartheid-era Group Areas Act and the forced removal of its ‘non-white’ residents (in effect, all of its residents) from the renamed Zonnebloem area throughout the 1970s. Claimants have been fighting for land restitution since the process began in 1995, with no success and widespread frustration.

A judgment by the Land Claims Court in Cape Town in November 2018 ruled that the Department of Rural Affairs and Community Development had to provide a ‘holistic plan’ for the restitution of the neighbourhood to its former owners. ‘The outcome of that protracted court case was as follows,’ says Ajam. ‘Government has to develop 954 apartments in District Six, for which 13 hectares have been allocated in the upper area near the old De Waal Drive. Another 13 hectares have been reserved for people who claimed between 2014 and 2016, and for those who intend to claim when the restitution process reopens again.’

What happens then in terms of development? ‘That’s the million-dollar question,’ says Ajam.


Call for developers

Actually, it’s more like R11 billion: the cost estimate for the development of District Six, as put forward by the then Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in her affidavit to the Land Claims Court.

District Six sits on prime real estate. While the area was intended for redevelopment at the time of the forced removals in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, its political history turned it into what many at the District Six Museum call ‘salted earth’. No developer would touch it. To this day, apart from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, District Six has remained a stretch of empty field right next to Cape Town’s CBD.

Ironically, that prime location means that most of the land claimants cannot afford to live there today. ‘You can’t bring people back into the city, especially when they come from the Cape Flats, and expect them to live in an area where the market-related value of property is between R1 million and R2 million,’ says Ajam. ‘They won’t have the resources or the finances to sustain themselves. We have to create an economy for them. Claimants are going to have to add value. We are already working on that in terms of getting youngsters into tourism programmes, and encouraging claimants who are returning to turn their homes into Airbnbs and so on.’

The way the D6WC sees it, property developers have a crucial role to play in creating that local economy. ‘That is why we are definitely speaking to external partners,’ says Ajam. ‘In fact, we want to develop the space together with developers because we must turn District Six into a modern, vibrant, inclusive city. It must fit in with the culture of the CBD.’

But that cannot happen if the entire area is declared a National Heritage site.

Heritage status

In February 2020 Zonnebloem was officially renamed District Six by the Western Cape provincial geographical names committee. In a statement marking the event, the District Six Museum said: ‘Renaming is a powerful act of restitution, and in the wake of this celebration we are also turning with renewed focus to the campaign to declare District Six a National Heritage site. Dogged by delays, the museum launched a campaign in 2016 to show public support for this declaration. The museum has since collected 8,000 signed tags, which will be delivered to the offices of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, accompanied by a People’s Declaration for District Six as a National Heritage site.’

That was enough to convince many developers that they couldn’t – or shouldn’t – invest in District Six. Ajam is quick to dispel those fears. ‘We learned valuable lessons from what happened in the Bo-Kaap,’ he says. There, in another historic neighbourhood on the opposite side of Cape Town’s CBD, the declaration of 19 National Heritage sites has stifled development while gentrification has priced many former residents out of the market.

‘They committed political suicide, and now they are stuck,’ says Ajam. ‘We won’t go that way. And to clarify: only certain sites in District Six have been nominated for Heritage status. There are about eight of them, and they are all mosques and churches.’

Ajam’s message to developers is clear: ‘You shouldn’t be afraid of anything,’ he says. ‘We will develop that space together and we will make it sustainable and viable. Tell your developers that they must start talking to us. We need partners going forward, and we need to make this the catalyst for change in South Africa. Economic and social transformation can happen in this small enclave we call District Six.’

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