How do we collectively reverse the legacies of land dispossession of which the dispossession of memory forms such an integral part? asks the writer. Photo: Matthew Jordaan
How do we collectively reverse the legacies of land dispossession of which the dispossession of memory forms such an integral part? asks the writer. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

Preserving heritage of District Six

By Bonita Bennett Time of article published Aug 19, 2014

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The request for a pause moment to engage with those whose memories and stones lie in the heart of District Six has fallen on deaf ears, writes Bonita Bennett.

“Res Clamant’: the earth cries out! From Castle Bridge to Shephard Street, Hanover Street runs through the heart of District Six, and along it one can feel the pulse-beats of society. It is the main artery of the local world of haves and have nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling and the idle, the weak and the strong. Its colour is in the bright enamel signs, the neon lights, the shop-fronts, the littered gutters and draped washing. Pepsi Cola, Commando Cigarettes. Sale Now On. Its life blood is the hawkers bawling their wares above the jazz of the music shops,” wrote Alex la Guma (New Age) in 1956.

This is the bustling Hanover Street as remembered by the former residents of District Six: noisy, alive and vibrantly real. A place-making symbol as it was in the past, and containing the essence of what is desired in the future.

Its last remnant is in the process of being reconfigured in the face of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) construction of student residences on either side of it. You have to believe that places hold no memory in order to believe that such reframing is not significant.

You have to believe that those who feel and advocate the “power of place” – the genus loci of sites of trauma – are wrong, to continue with the obliteration of this memory.

The past few weeks have borne witness to an intense period of reflections, discussions and pronouncements about the CPUT development of student residences on either side of the only remaining part of the old Hanover Street.

Members of the District Six Museum’s Seven Steps ex-residents’ club and other members of the public have spent time pondering over what might be a rational response to a development that has severely troubled them.

They have thought about how to reconcile CPUT’s need to accommodate students with their own need to protect the memory of District Six, especially as symbolised by Hanover Street. The years of investment in ensuring agreement had been achieved about the significance of the site was in danger of being rendered futile, and the need to take a stand for memory to be honoured in the face of obliteration held sway.

Overtures to the management structures of CPUT for an opportunity to make a case, together with an awareness-raising public poster picket have been the main features of the campaign. And an invitation to participate in a high-level meeting with CPUT management has now been secured.

But how does the fragility of memory stand up to the rock-hard solidity of bricks and mortar?

How does the assertion of ownership of the land based on prior use and relationship stand up to the hard evidence of the one who holds the solid title deed?

How do we collectively reverse the legacies of land dispossession of which the dispossession of memory forms such an integral part?

For the land on which the residences are being built, we are reminded, belongs to CPUT. They hold the title deed to the land. Remembering the circumstances under which it became one of the largest landowners of the District under apartheid at the expense of people’s homes, is surely worth noting at this point. In addition, CPUT has shown goodwill by handing over a different portion of land to be developed as Phase 3 of the restitution housing development.

What recourse then do those who claim memorial ownership have to claim any rights to land to which they do not have the title deed?

The oft-quoted late Vincent Kolbe, sage of our city, spoke strongly about the powerful role of memory in rebuilding what people had lost. In an interview with him which I often reflect on and quote from, conducted in the early 2000s he reminded me that “the Land Restitution Act has made allowance for people who were thrown out of their homes to claim what they lost; what act will make allowance for people who were thrown out of their souls?”

Bernadette Atuahene in her recently published book We want what’s ours: learning from South Africa’s land restitution programme, speaks of “dignity takings” being part of the loss of home and land; “dignity restoration” thus needs to be an essential part of the return of home and land, and memory is a key component of this.

The site in question has not been randomly nor recently identified for protection. Acknowledging that the whole of the destroyed District Six is a sensitive site but cannot be conserved in its entirety, scores of oral history interviews, mapping workshops, documentary research and public engagements conducted over the past 10 years at least, have informed the identification of four sites for special memorialisation and protection.

The last part of the old Hanover Street is one of those.

In building the significance, various acts of remembrance have taken place on this special fragment. It has been the starting and end point for many walks of remembrance done over the past 20 years; it is the place which houses a memorial cairn of stones intended to signify the setting apart of this place.

All of this was not done in isolation from the broader restitution process: Hanover Street was identified in the Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) of 2003 as a place for specific memorialisation. This was taken up again in the Conservation Management Plan of 2006 prepared ahead of the proposed declaration of District Six as a National Heritage Site and more recently it was confirmed in the Development Framework of 2012.

The framework identifies it as a “site of community engagement over many years and a community memorial has organically evolved over the years”.

It also proposes that because of its significance, “Site archaeologists assist with identifying fabric of remaining street and environs as well as traces of more recent memorials.”

The questions being posed to CPUT is not about whether they have a right to develop student residences or not; it is a given that they do. It is about whether agreed upon processes have been followed, and what informed their selection of this specific site in the light of all the steps that have been taken to protect it? Was a specific HIA conducted for this site?

My understanding is that Section 38 of the National Heritage Resources Act requires this. If it was done, why was District Six Museum as a confirmed commenting special interest group never invited to provide such comment?

Is there a reason why CPUT is precluded from following agreed upon frameworks? If so, the basis for such exemption should be made public.

It is not enough to be told that the memorial cairn of stones has been cordoned off and protected, and that Hanover Street has been protected with an archivally sound covering for the duration of the building.

The request for a pause moment, late in the process as it is, to engage in conversations with those whose memories and stones lie in the heart of the cairn has fallen on deaf ears, and has contributed towards a strong perception that dignity restoration is not part of CPUT’s agenda.

How else is one to understand the way this process has unfolded, where a community and one of its custodial institutions, the District Six Museum, have invested years of work to understand the legislative frameworks and the processes needed for protection, followed the steps, and yet have not been considered as an organically interested and affected party?

This does not augur well for CPUT’s attempts to integrate itself more firmly into the community and to rename its campus as a District Six campus – a right which it needs to invest in and earn.

* Bennett is Director of the District Six Museum.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times

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