Cape Town's Coloureds Recall Razed District; MAP: Showing Cape Town, DAVE HERRING-STAFF.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE barren, salted land of what used to be District Six lies on the Cape Town landscape, a cruel reminder of apartheid's forced removal of nonwhites.

But a quarter-century after bulldozers flattened one of South Africa's most vibrant multiracial communities, 60,000 former residents scattered miles away are trying to come to terms with the bitter past.

A new memorial museum has opened to ensure history is not erased like their homes, and plans are under way for new houses on the site to re-create the melting pot that once was.

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The expulsions from 1966 to 1981, of mainly mixed-race people from the vibrant multicultural neighborhood near the city center to a bleak outlying area, was one of many mass removals in South Africa's scheme of racial segregation.

District Six became one of the most potent symbols of apartheid social engineering. Much of the tract remained desolate and undeveloped except for a technical school.

Today, under the country's first black majority government, the old community is trying to keep the memory alive in a new museum in the Victorian church that served the community.

''This museum is meant as a symbol of reconciliation and a reminder that such atrocities should never happen again,'' says former resident Pastor Stanley Abrahams.

''There was a history of obliteration, of shattered roots. This memorial can help heal the wounds of the past by ensuring history is not erased,'' he says.

The museum in the Methodist church, which maintained its congregation over the decades and was the center of protests against the removals, acts as a collective scrapbook for the now-scattered community.

On the floor is a huge carpet map of the demolished district, on which former residents are invited to write their names where their homes once were.

Many have donated family photographs and first-hand accounts depicting the rich cultural and street life of the area, which had close links to the port and was originally established as a community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers, and immigrants.

Signs from demolished streets hang strung together like ladders from the balconies. The artifacts of destruction lie in a glass case -- glass shards, broken ceramics, and dolls. The official street registers for the area trace its sad evolution -- from 1867 when the district was first named, to 1901 when the first removal took blacks away, to 1966 when it was declared a whites-only area, to 1981 when the community was effectively eliminated.

The museum has become a meeting place for former residents, who hug and sometimes cry as they rediscover long-lost friends and neighbors.

''The process is very cathartic, people get very emotional,'' says former resident Terence Fredericks, a rector of an educational institution, who grew up in District Six and is now a museum trustee.

''By writing their place on the map they are refinding their roots and place in history,'' he says.

Signings in the guest book bear testimony to his words. ''Brings back good memories,'' wrote P. Ho-Kim. ''What a waste,'' lamented S. Benjamin.

The museum is all the more important as a reminder while plans are under way to redevelop the site for low-income housing, says Mr. Fredericks.

Former residents, who fear they might not be able to buy the new homes, are demanding a say. ''The focus should be on affordability. There is a lot of concern by a lot of people,'' said Mr. Abrahams.

But Peter Marais, the provincial local government minister and an official of the National Party, which orchestrated the original removals, says low-cost housing would contribute to urban decay. Houses for a higher-income bracket would help gentrify the area, which is prime real estate close to the city center, instead.

''My heart bleeds for the people of District Six. But can they afford to come back? I would like to do justice to my people but it never belonged to them. They were tenants. You cannot unscramble a scrambled egg. The best thing would be to change the name to one which does not denote sadness,'' he said.

The District Six Land Trust -- fruit of four years of negotiations between community and local government officials -- drawing up the new housing plan, hopes to reach a solution acceptable to all. It is consulting with former residents before identifying criteria to deal with claims of the residents and their descendants. A lottery system is one option.

''We see it as an opportunity to do it properly this time,'' says Trust official Vernon Joshua. ''We're looking at how to recreate the cultural conditions that characterized District Six and thus put the old heart back into Cape Town.''

But while many ex-residents want to return for sentimental reasons, others say they can not bear relocating again.

Fredericks said he himself would not like to resettle there.

''It is better to talk about the pains of the past -- and then go into a new life,'' he says, absently gazing at some old yellowed photographs.

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