Rashaad Jattiem was just 18 years old when he and his family moved from District Six to live in Athlone. It took more than 40 years to pen his memories of the neighbourhood where he was born in 1942.
In all those years, they never faded and his vivid descriptions of growing up in the area which just a few years later saw one of the worst examples of forced removals under the notorious Group Areas Act, are compellingly colourful and real, as painted in his self-published book.
As a young man Jattiem moved to Port Elizabeth from where his wife hailed. A chance encounter with his landlord provided the impetus to write a book on his childhood stomping ground.
"I was invited for tea and we started talking about District Six and my host, Boeta Allie Shaboodien, asked if I had ever written my memoirs. When I answered no, he responded, 'it may be lost to future generations'," says Jattiem.
He recalls that while he often thought and mulled over converting his memories into the written word, the seed remained a seed until 2004, when he retired and started
having more time at his disposal. Slowly, but surely, with intensive research, chatting to former residents and recreating memories with his family, he started putting down his many stories of the place which was more than just a home.
Jattiem grew up in Chatham Street, the part of District Six commonly referred to as the Dry Docks - about 100 metres from De Waal Drive, which in those days was known as die nuwe pad (new road).
Jattiem describes how close to Devil's Peak was the home he shared with his brothers and sisters and Mommy and Buya (his father).
"From our bedroom window, we had a clear view of the mountain range comprising Devil's Peak and the internationally recognisable and justifiably famous Table Mountain," he writes, adding, "for us boys, the mountains were more than just natural beauties. Indeed they were our playgrounds, providing us with exciting and challenging opportunities for adventure and enjoyment."
With urban sprawl still a thing of the future, the author and his friends spent hours out in the midst of nature, exploring disused quarries and mountain caves, hiking during school holidays and cooling off in the clear mountain streams.
The late 1940s and the early fifties were the heyday of the Union Castle liners and Jattiem fondly reminisces how, as guests of his auntie and cousin setting sail on the Athlone Castle ship bound for Mecca, "we enjoyed exploring the many decks and gangways and the crew members did not seem to mind our romping around on the ship".
In a characteristically humble yet charming style, Jattiem writes that as he grew older, there were many things around him that he and his cronies began to take for granted because they were there.
To this end he writes it was almost as if Table Mountain "ceased to exist" as they grew used to its majestic presence, even though it overshadowed the neighbourhoods down below.
In the days he grew up, a large open field was used for the grazing of his father's horses and the grocery shop diagonally across the road from his home was used to get daily supplies — a "sixpence worth of butter" and, for a tickey, one could get four Marie biscuits. Jattiem poignantly remembers how in days gone by teachers were an integral part of the community and maintained a close relationship with pupils where even for "bright boys" like the young Jattiem, the rod was not spared when he was out of line.
The closeness and support of neighbours and friends — across the colour bar and religions is repeatedly alluded to. A melting pot of cultures and sub-cultures existed and interdependence between clients and self-made entrepreneurs and small time businessmen was the rule of the day.
Muslims, Christians and Jews, say Jattiem, all co-existed - the family doctor was one Joel Tobias and an offer for the family's property was made by then property mogul Louis Fine of R60 000 for four plots with seven houses (a considerable amount in 1961) but, as Jattiem recalls, the sale was blocked by the Group Areas Board as they were poised to re-zone the land.
When we chat, and as evidenced in the book, there is a remarkable lack of bitterness on Jattiem's side about the terrible events that displaced and dispersed people and changed the face of the area forever as houses were bulldozed and veteran residents were shunted off to places which had nothing much more than sand and wind . His is overall a gentle and charming book made up of largely happy memories even in the face of hard economic times.
For example, Jattiem's father couldn't work as a builder as he had planned, as he was afraid of heights, so he worked in the docks and then as a hawker selling fruit and vegetables. One room accommodated all his brothers and sisters and while the skollies |(gangsters) were not the gangsters they are today, there were dangerous times when he and his teenage friends ran home to safety when the skollies were on the prowl late at night. But it seems there was always food on the table and plenty of it, shared and shared alike. And always, a little money set aside for the movies.
In a chapter dedicated entirely to the "bioscopes" (movie) of the day, Jattiem describes frequent visits to the Avalon, where Boeta Noor was in charge — an imposing man with a towering build who would subdue the trouble makers and, in a separate chapter on the skollies, he describes how Noor didn't allow the audience out on the streets one early evening in order to protect them from a threatening crowd of rampaging gangsters just outside.
There are also fascinating chapters on the peddlers and hawkers including Jattiem's own father; on the minstrel troupes; home remedies and koesiesters for Sunday breakfast — a tradition that is still fastidiously adhered to in the nearby Bo-Kaap. They all make for fascinating reading, evoking the nostalgia of a bygone and forcibly lost era and neighbourhood.
Over the years there have been many books published about District Six — Jattiem's fresh new evocation is a very valid and worthy addition.