Not much of District 6 was left when the apartheid regime forced the residents out onto the grassless Cape Flats and razed their homes. What remained, ultimately, were the churches, mosques, the schools and the odd building here and there.
Two of those buildings defined my life and shaped my future – Trafalgar High School in cobbled Burchington Street near de Waal Drive, and the six-storey Orange House where Hanover Street started at Castlebridge.
I attended Trafalgar High from 1962 until I matriculated in 1966, and early in 1967 I began my working career as a cadet journalist with the Cape Post newspaper that operated out of Orange House.
Fifty years on since the dreaded announcement on February 11 that District 6 was to be a whites only area, both buildings remain.
Orange House, by far the tallest building in District 6, still stands, as it always did, like beacon as you drove up Hanover Street. That famous bit of graffiti near the Seven Steps could easily have been scrawled across Orange House’s walls – “You are Now Entering Fairyland”. Today it looks bleak, deserted . . . but it is still there.
Trafalgar High, on the other hand, is anything but bleak and deserted. It, more than anything else, has stood steadfast against the Nationalist government and the ravages of time.
Trafalgar celebrated their 100th anniversary four years ago. Today hundreds of learners – students back in the day – fill its corridors with a cacophony of sound just like they did in my day.
I am only too aware of the history that goes with Trafalgar: its opposition to apartheid, the student protests, our legendary teachers with their strong Unity Movement links. All that has been well documented. I have another tale.
Some of the students of my time came from as far afield as Somerset West, Stellenbosch, Knysna and even Johannesburg to attend the premier “coloured” school. But it was still, quintessentially, a District 6 institution.
Unlike the majority of my peers, I had no birth link to District 6, but both my parents were born there. I was born in Newlands and I came to Trafalgar by accident, although the apartheid regime had a role in it.
Being a Newlands boy, I fully expected, in 1961, to go to Livingstone High. That was, until, the Group Areas Act kicked in and my family was booted out and I ended up in Wynberg.
For a few months Wittebome High was where I was going get my high school education. But no, the Group Areas moved quickly and we were booted out again.
I moved to Goodwood and, serendipitously, ended up at Trafs. For the record, we were kicked out of Goodwood as well, but I was firmly ensconced in Trafs by then.
For five years I trudged to classes, laden with books, either up Tennant Street, or up Constitution Ave past Bloemhof Flats, or up Roeland Street, past Harold Cressy [that for some strange reason, never enjoyed the same status a District 6 institution].
In the mornings, getting to school involved the usual anxiety – did I have my Latin homework, am I ready for my oral presentation?
Getting home in the afternoons involved a whole lot of other trepidation. How do I – and my friends – get past the “locals” who were quite ready to relieve us of whatever we had in our pockets.
It did not matter which route we took, “they” were always there. In the park on the way to Roland Street, sitting on the wall at Bloemhof Flats, or on the corner of Caledon and Tennant. Damn, I was traumatised, scared shitless.
But the benefits of learning at the feet of the likes of Ernie Steenveld, Solly Edross, Polly Slingers, Hassan Bavasah and there rest of the teachers, far outweighed the gamut that I ran in the afternoons.
I got to know District 6 a whole lot better when I went to work at The Post – but I still felt ill-at ease in certain areas.
The area around The Post was my comfort zone. I could hang around with the local “babbie”, Ramjee, across the road, wander into Meteor Records up the road and chat to Mr Moskowitz who must have recorded every vocal group in District 6, or wander up Mount Street to Peninsula Hospital to see if there were any young nurses a young reporter could chat up. I could even manage a quick walk past the Rose & Crown to get to my bus stop at Castlebridge. On the other hand, taking a stroll up Hanover Street, past the public baths, the fish market and The Star Bioscope? I don’t think so. The Globe Gang of the Fifties might have been receding into history, but there were still quite a few young up-and-comers who could smell an “out-of-towner” and do a stock-take of your pockets.
I once incurred the wrath of the legendary Sakkie vannie Star (Sakkie Small, the kingpin at the Star Bioscope) because I had reported on his court case that had involved an assault. He walked past The Post as I stood outside and dragged his finger across his throat. My blood turned cold.
Yet, there were many who had a slightly different take on District 6. This was their home. Where they were born. Where they schooled. Where they hung out on street corners to croon the latest Platters songs.
It was where people dropped in unannounced for a chat, where young love turned to marriage; where it bustled on a hot December night because everyone knew everyone as they sat outside on their stoeps.
I knew so many of them who left a piece of their hearts when they were thrown out. Entertainers Chico Levy, Leslie Kleinsmith and Elspeth Davis. There were also the Hearns and the Hesses of Bloemhof Flats.
There are many who would argue that much of District 6 was a slum and that those who hankered after it were romanticising it all. That may be. However, the answer was not a mass eviction and reserving it for one section of the community. Had the authorities not heard of urban renewal? But I suppose that was not in the Afrikaner government’s vocabulary.
For me, outsider that I was, Trafalgar High, The Post and District 6, was and is, part of the “soundtrack” of my life. Fifty years after that scandalous decision that scarred the landscape and left it almost barren, the memories remain strong.