South African neighborhood rises again

District Six, demolished by the apartheid government, is being rebuilt. But new squatters ask, 'What about us?'

Some day very soon, 96-year-old Abdurahman Cassiem will prove that you can go home again.

Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Cassiem was thrown off his land, and his house was demolished. He, his wife, and eight children were among the 60,000 South Africans forcibly removed by the apartheid government from District Six, a once-vibrant neighborhood in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town's iconic plateau.

Now a new home awaits him.

The long journey back to District Six first required the end of apartheid - South Africa's system of racial segregation under which only whites could live there; residents were expelled beginning in 1966. Then Cassiem and the others endured years of waiting while the new democratic government, elected in 1994, determined how best to bring them back home.

Under a land-restitution program, 24 homes have been built and 140 more are under construction. But ironically, in order to keep building, the government will have to evict the squatters who have been living on the land. The dilemma illustrates one of the most pressing issues in modern-day South Africa, more than a decade after the end of apartheid: how a government with limited resources can right the wrongs of the past while still quickly addressing the economic disparities of the present.

These days, District Six is a massive, overgrown field just outside Cape Town's central business district. A few wide streets cut through the tall grass. The apartheid government ordered bulldozers to knock down nearly every building, a job they completed in 1984. Only the churches and mosques were spared.

Cassiem, evicted in 1979, remembers the neighborhood as magical: a place where even a beggar on the street would offer a passerby a bite to eat if he looked hungry. It was filled with musicians and movie halls, parades and parties, where nonwhites found respite from the strictures of state-sponsored racism.

"All those familiar places are broken down," he says. "All the people have started over somewhere else."

Despite declaring District Six a place for whites only, the government never rebuilt on most of the land it had ordered cleared. Now a development group run by former District Six residents has begun building new homes in the empty fields, selling them for 60,000 to 75,000 rand ($9,000 to $11,200) - well below market prices. The initial group of houses are duplexes containing three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The first 24 homes were set aside for the oldest surviving residents of District Six. Fifteen of the duplexes were completed in June, and Cassiem was formally handed the keys on his 96th birthday. (He's still finalizing the move from his current house, 30 minutes away.) Construction on the next 140 units - of an eventual 4,000 - began in mid-June and will be completed next February.

Some former residents have elected to take cash compensation of up to $6,000, thinking that the homes would take too long to build. Their skepticism is justified - it's been 11 years since a land restitution act was passed, and seven since the redevelopment corporation took over the job of processing the land claims and building the new homes.

The construction of the new homes will eventually mean that a new group of residents in District Six - squatters living in ramshackle one-room huts hidden in the tall grass - will have to be removed from the neighborhood.

Many of the squatters are recent arrivals to Cape Town, and their homes are constructed largely from plastic sheets and the odd two-by-four. The roofs are secured against the strong Cape winds by rocks. They cook over open fires and fetch water from a nearby main 10 feet underground.

Crouched over a cooking fire amid the tall weeds, Gabriel Whitby acknowledges that the long-ago eviction of the District Six residents was bad. But, he says, the former residents of District Six aren't the people who most need homes. The evictions happened "a long time ago," he says. "We also need houses, and they've got everything they need now."

At the ceremony where Cassiem and the other occupants of the 15 new units were given their keys, a housing representative named Saths Moodley gave one hint as to how the government is attempting to address the needs of the squatters. He announced that 500 units would be built in District Six for people who had no familial connection to the removals decades ago.

The pronouncement was greeted by jeers from men on the edges of the audience. Some were former District Six residents who had elected to take the cash compensation.

Seeing the new duplexes, they had changed their minds. They wanted to live there, too.

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