Johannesburg - With the issue of land restitution in South Africa making headlines across the world, a powerful new documentary has given a voice to the dispossessed community of District Six in Cape Town, called District Six Rising from the Dust.
Owing to its compelling narrative style, the film has bagged an award of excellence from the Scandinavian Film Festival, where it will be making its world premiere at the festival in Helsinki, Finland, next month.
The film will also be making its international premiere at the Cape Town International Film Market and Festival in October. Film maker Weaam Williams, along with her husband, cinematographer Nafia Kocks, take us through her personal account of how in 1966 the homes and land of her grandparents were declared an all-white area under the oppressive Group Areas Act.
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Her grandfather, who was returning from Mecca, found that four of his five shops had been burnt to the ground after the apartheid government had instituted forced removals of about 60 000 to 80 000 residents that lived and worked in the area. To this day, the reclaiming of this land has been left in the air in what seems like a bitter ongoing battle between the government and the people of District Six.
Williams and her family moved back into District Six in 2013 when a house was restituted to her family, and they have worked on this project for five years.
“I moved from a quiet, pretty neighbourhood in Cape Town, which was quite green and with lots of amenities. It was quite alienating returning to the land because there are still so many elements around us. There was no infrastructure in the neighbourhood in terms of community networks and security, nothing like that,” she said.
Despite returning to a land that feels so different, Williams believes that the story of land is not just about land, but the feelings attached to it.
“Telling the story of displacement and forced removals adds an emotional layer to the story and the broader narrative of land because the conversation around land is not just about land, but the emotions tied to that land. [It’s about] family and the legacies that are connected to these pockets of land.
“For me, as a storyteller, I feel that our people need to tell their story of displacement and look at how that has displaced us inter-generationally, and how the playing fields are not even. So if we look at inter-generation legacies in terms of literacy, in terms of land and access to resources, we will have a broader understanding of the complexities in our country,” Williams said.
With the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) owning 51% of District Six’s land, Williams over the course of filming the documentary tried in vain to secure an interview with the university.
“They’ve subsequently renamed their campus the District Six Campus. However, they’re still taking up a lot of land in District Six. This definitely needs to be evaluated in terms of how many students there are because there are five campuses in Cape Town and their main campus isn’t even District Six. So CPUT’s role needs to be looked at and evaluated from a broad spectrum. There are many people out there wanting to return to the city. We can’t keep the city exclusive because we’re reinforcing structural apartheid,” she said.
Williams believes that District Six should be declared a national heritage site.
“It should be an obligatory thing by the government. The biggest scale of forced removals in this country took place in District Six.”
Bygone era. What was once a bustling street in District Six. (Photo: Cloete Breytenbach)