Cape Town’s historic Hanover Street is at the centre of a row between the District Six Museum and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, which has expanded on to the land by building campus residences. The street was the heart of District Six before the area was demolished. Rebecca Jackman walks down memory lane and discovers that for former residents, history is still very much alive.
“It’s just Hanover Street, where old friends would like to meet. We’d love to wander back one day.”
Abubakar Brown believes that Nat King Cole’s song A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet resonates with how he feels about Hanover Street – where he used to live. So when he sings it, he sings about his home.
“To you it may look old and sort of tumbled down, but it sure meant a lot to folks from my home town,” he sang.
“Although you’re rich or poor, you can always be sure, that you’ll be welcomed as the flowers in May.”
Brown moved back to District Six in November, but before that he spent more than 40 years feeling like he was not home.
“I was all over the show. I couldn’t settle,” he said.
When he lived in Hanover Street, he said it was “full of life” and all about music, sport and humour.
“That’s District Six. Not a day went by without a joke,” Brown said.
At night in District Six groups of men used to stand on the corners and sing.
Brown said his father taught him that if you have talent, you must share your skills and expertise with other people. And that, he believes, was the way of all people who lived in District Six.
Brown takes groups of people on walking tours from the District Six Museum around the area, explaining what used to be there and the ins-and-outs of life in the area. He explains that 66 000 people were removed from District Six to the Cape Flats under the Group Areas Act. And that of 100 hectares of land, only 43 remain.
“What happened to the rest? It just seeps away,” he said.
He points to parking lots and asks: “Can you imagine how many houses were here?”
He said in 1994 Nelson Mandela said the land belongs to the people of District Six and only now people are slowly starting to return.
Patience Watlington was born around the corner from Hanover Street. It was a long road, she said, leading right into the city centre. It was the main road of the area, with little shops with people living above and houses in-between.
You could acquire anything and everything in Hanover Street, she explained. With a fish market, wash house, two cinemas, shops and a church and school nearby, Hanover Street was where everybody went for their daily business.
“It was a very busy road. And then you must know on New Year’s Day the coons (minstrels) would parade right down the street.”
And she said you couldn’t go there without knocking into everyday regulars or people you hadn’t seen for a while.
“Every day was a busy day,” she said.
It was always buzzing, she added, with an atmosphere of family and friendship – where everyone spoke to everyone and greeted each other in the street.
Esther Cottle lived near Hanover Street and was one of the last people to move out of the area, even when her home was crumbling around her because the houses on either side had been bulldozed.
“I hated the sound of those bulldozers,” she said.
Cottle grew up in District Six, married there, had children there and was sure she’d spend the rest of her life there. When she was told the area was being demolished, she put up a fight until everyone around her had moved to the Cape Flats and she was the last person left in her street.
“When I used to look out my window it was desolate, it was demolished,” she said.
Being one of the last in the area, she said she recalls walking to church through a quiet and empty demolished Hanover Street and remembering how it was once vibrant and alive.
“There was no noise. There was no music. There was nothing, and it was creepy,” she said.
She finally moved to Lentegeur because her house was falling in. Her mother died four days before they were due to move.
“They were glad to get rid of me after all the problems I gave (the department of) Community Development,” she said.
She was “very sad” to leave and, during the 40 years she spent away, she started a new life – but never saw any of her former friends and neighbours.
“We were too scattered across the Cape Flats,” she explained.
“We just had to bear it. There was nothing we could do about it.”
She continued to travel from Lentegeur to her church, St Mark’s in District Six. And in 1994 she was told that there was a chance former residents could return home. She grabbed the opportunity and filled out the necessary paperwork, but it was 18 years before she was given a home in the area.
“I’m very happy to be a part of the city again,” she said.
* Rebecca Jackman is a Cape Times staff writer.