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The way we lived. 34. (Part 2) The Group Areas Act.

Updated: May 31, 2023

I always liken the Cape Peninsula to a slightly flexed, and mountain-knobbed index finger sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean from Africa’s south-western corner. The smaller Table Bay lies to the north and the larger False Bay to the south of the base of the finger. In between the two Bays is the Cape Flats, apartheid’s dumping ground. The Flats is in sharp contrast to Sir Francis Drake’s much hackneyed “fairest Cape in the world.”

This recent Google satellite image of Weltevreden Valley shows how close many shanties are compared with the ownership houses just south of them. The grey roofs of the shanties are normally a multicoloured mix depending on the degree of rusted sheets versus the ubiquitous tarpaulin covers. Imagine yourself living here in the middle of this complex and a fire breaks out with the infamous strong Cape Town southeasterly wind fanning horizontal tongues of fiery flames to the surrounding closely packed houses, many of which have tarpaulin or plastic sheets for rain-proofing the leaky structures. An absence of fire hydrants in an area housing over a hundred thousand people adds to the potential for destruction and death. As well, more central fire engine access is impossible.

This shot on the ground gives an idea of the proximity of the shanty homes with maybe a metre or less separating the flimsy structures.

On my GP calls, some alley ways were even tighter than this one.

The more destitute structure below is a mishmash of bits of scrap wood and metal with no windows. No doubt this home was still someone’s castle!

Apparently there was no door to the home and the inhabitants had a hole to crawl through as an entrance.

At one stage during one of Cape Town’s worst episodes of State-directed terror against the Crossroads and KTC squatters, Government-backed Contra forces burnt down thousands of homes in a conflagration that left over 60,000 people homeless with around 100 dead. The fire became an intimidating weapon of oppression; the episode is now referred to as the Fires of 1986.

Five people died in a fire like this one in Cape Town which destroyed hundreds of shacks leaving thousands homeless.

As a consequence of Group Areas displacements, many people of colour ended up in these single storeyed council houses below.

Note the informal add-on structures, the absence of streets and paving, and the squalor of a municipality built slum.

Four-storeyed barrack-like flats in Elsies River served as infill housing which stood across the road from the housing above.

Barely visible on the right are swings and seesaws with no seats on a stony gravel surface. Often, even alongside busy roads, children’s play parks lacked higher fences like this one.

These township areas were fertile ground as the incubators of disease, criminal gangs and violence. In the 1970s, one of the Cape Town daily newspapers referred to the Mother City by the tragic name of Rape Town. More recently, Cape Town has been named Gang Town – yes, democracy has not been able to stop the avalanche it inherited from 46 years of segregationist National Party rule.

Housing with views like this were the preserve of Whites which extended for tens of kilometres along Table Bay past the full length of the majestic Twelve Apostles mountain range with Lions Head in the distance. The same Whites only vistas were not shared along the length of False Bay, Cape Town’s other major bay of similar length.

In Black townships pavements were often non-existent; with single-laned concrete strips for streets with loose sand on the sides to bog down the unwary trying to navigate their way past another vehicle. There was often no stormwater drainage which proved to be a major problem during the wintry storms when the north-westerlies dumped loads of water onto Cape Town. I remember a house call in winter where I had to examine a patient while I balanced on bricks inside a shanty whose floor was covered in ten centimetres of water. It was no surprise the man had a lung abscess, the result of an advanced pneumonia.

The bucket toilet system of informal housing could not cope with the numbers and only weekly collections took place.

Crude DIY toilets have now been replaced by City Council portaloos and permanent structures with rows of water-flushing toilets in the large residual areas of informal housing. No doubt these are some of the tangible benefits of a more democratic environment.

For those who could afford their own homes, there were neat pockets like the one where we built our first family home on a plot alongside where Zonjia, my wife, was born in Riverton Crescent, Elsies River. This was about ten blocks away from the infill housing above. My father-in law, CB and I, established the garden which used to be magnificent. With many fruit trees at the back, a rose garden occupied the partly hidden garden on the right. The left hand patch was always a sandy graveyard for plants. At least the frangipani survived the last 30+ years.

I recall quite vividly what 44 Dale Street Lansdowne was like where I grew up. Most houses were made of breeze block with a metal or asbestos roof like ours. 70 years after being built, the original roof is still on though, by the looks of it, the front gutter needs replacing. The round drain cover was our wicket for street cricket or kennetjie – see separate blogs on both subjects.

A block away from us was a complex of shanties on one half of the block with old brick and well-built iron houses opposite them.

Dorothy Fisher, an early longest surviving heart transplant recipient lived in one of the iron houses. She survived twelve years without anti-rejection medication which only came later; this critical success was pivotal to the revolutionary procedure becoming accepted in later years. Her son was a tough soccer player with whom one did not mess around.

Our residential block had a mix of solid homes with a four-tenement wood and iron structure directly opposite us. The last in the row of tiny terrace homes was a shebeen – an illicit liquor supply house which was regularly raided by the police. Yes, my wife says I came from a posh area in Lansdowne! Everything’s relative, I suppose.

Newer housing was brick and tile and our part of the street also had a larger rather ramshackle structure where our koesiesta vendor lived – the cinnamon-flavoured little rounded doughnut, smothered in coconut, was our Sunday morning breakfast treat as it was for many in the neighbourhood.

In later years the shanty complex was replaced by modern houses in one of which lived the Robben Island detainee Leslie van der Heyden, a teacher of mine at Livingstone High School. His brother-in-law, Basil February was one of South Africa’s first brave sons to die on the South African border in the fight against apartheid. Leslie and his colleague, Dr Neville Alexander were betrayed by another teacher who also lived in Dale Street. Dale street had added interest as a road which housed a future political exile, Allie Fataar, my father. Furthermore the street spawned four doctors and a host of artisans, teachers and a couple of nurses – few township roads could lay claim to such a line-up of personalities.

These people were a testimony of how free-spirited people with a belief in freedom and human rights could rise above the extremes of their much-deprived environments to excel and join in the fight for a democratic South Africa. The many separatist and segregationist laws, including the despised Group Areas Act, could not suppress this drive for equity in a depraved system of fascist extremism, of social engineering gone seriously wrong. Apartheid had to rank as one of the worst examples of the legislated alienation of societies along lines of race/colour.

It was right-wing extremism at its worst. It should never be repeated – millions would agree with this even as South Africa struggles to find its ubuntu – its true soul of humanity to others. “I am because we are” needs to be rediscovered. It is a spirit which prevailed in established communities before Group Areas displacements tore apart the glue of too many people’s worlds. The best example of this loss of a greater self was the experiences of Cape Town’s displaced from District 6 where a bond of greater sharing connected its citizens. Read the regular posts of Facebook’s District 6 and laugh and cry with people’s memories now nearly 60 years after tens of thousands of them were forcefully evicted from their long established community. [Also see my blogs 28-30: District 6 – a stab through 60,000+ hearts.] Most moving of all are Alvie January’s poems – the bard of District 6 mixes the atmosphere of ubuntu with the pain of a shattered community painfully evicted from their homes.

From a thriving, bustling connected society, D6 was transformed to the wasteland seen below which still awaits final resolution nearly 50 years later. Visit District 6 on Facebook and share the stories of the joy of earlier days and the sorrow of destruction of so many lives – it is a truly heart-breaking story.

So, which law was the worst? Pass laws, group areas, job reservation, sexual apartheid, political representation, indefinite detention without trial, … You be the judge if you can. I rate the Pass Laws as the worst; without a doubt, the Group Areas Act was second.



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