By Sarah Darby
Abubaker Brown, a tour guide at the District Six Museum, has happy memories from growing up in the area. He lived in District Six for more than 20 years of his life, until he and his family were forced from their homes during apartheid. Brown’s great great grandfather was originally from Scotland and settled in Cape Town, where he met and married a Malaysian woman. Under apartheid, Brown and his family were classified as colored and were not allowed to live in the area once it was declared “For Whites Only.”
When did you live in District Six?
All of my life. I lived there 24 years of my life, and then we were asked to go when the apartheid government took over in 1948 and all these laws came into operation. Colored people, so-called Indian people were classified by those people. I remember, long before apartheid, most of our people’s birth certificates said mixed, which was true, and they came along and said ‘There’s no more things like that anymore. You’re not allowed to marry one another. You’re not allowed to do this with one another.’”
Why did you have to leave District Six?
All of us were removed from there, and we never asked for it. We were told to go. If you look at District Six, we had all sorts of people: colored, African, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Chinese, all living together. It was never about your color. It was never about your religion. Your debt was my debt, your mom was my mom. One family, as Nelson Mandela said; “Ubuntu,” caring and sharing. That is the way I remember District Six.
People sometimes ask us, ‘Why are you so passionate about the area? Why do you remember the area so well?’ It’s because it’s the way we grew up. In District Six, we never had fears. You don’t walk on the street and look who’s walking behind you. We could walk anywhere day and night where we wanted to without fearing. That is why we remember the area so well. That is why we’re so passionate about it. We had our fair share of gangs, but gangs were not interested in people. Gangs were interested in gangs. They would say, ‘You’re on that corner, and we’re over here. You mess with our girls, or us, and we fight.’
I don’t remember hearing about robberies, murders, killing people or young girls getting raped. I never heard things like that in my life. There was no call for sophisticated electrical security systems or burglar bars because it was safe.
What was life in District Six during apartheid?
Life was okay. We had a hard time. You know, you were restricted. You couldn’t go anywhere that you wanted to like today.
District Six was very passionate about music and sports. We used to sing in nightclubs. You could sing there, but you couldn’t patronize a nightclub. That is one of the bad things of being so separated. There were separate places for coloreds. There were separate places for whites. People were separated first class whites, second class coloreds and third class, the African people. You couldn’t go to any of the beaches. The best beaches were given to them. We had to go to the beaches with the rocks sticking out. We didn’t have any pools that they had. That was the bad part. But, otherwise, we were comfortable.
We never worried. We were all very humble. Not rich people, or classy people, but very humble. We had our fair share of politicians, musicians, sportsmen, you name it, we had them all.
The other thing about it, everybody who wanted to become something, a musician or whatever, you had to leave the country. You had to leave everything behind. You can imagine, 66,000 people that were moved from the area alone. You can imagine what they can tell. Your family life was broken up, your community life, your sporting life, your church life, everything was broken up.
The sad part of that was, when they moved us out of here, they could have moved us into one township. What they did was split us up into different townships. It took some people about a year to find out where their families were. When we lived in District Six, your grandma stays around the corner here, your uncle will be there, your aunt will be on the next corner and all your friends you grew up with, who you went to school with, they’re all here. Going to the townships was so hard. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. That’s ugly. That’s why I always advise you, if you are in your country and you smell something, stand up.
Where did you move to?
We moved to different townships. We didn’t feel settled wherever we went. Those townships became very very bad after a while. You had to peddle because the transport system wasn’t up to stretch. You took a bus, a two hour bus, and a train to work. There was no straight bus routes.
The last place I settled was Mitchells Plain, which has become “Mitchells complain” at the moment. You know why? Because people complain all day. It’s become the drug capital of Cape Town and of South Africa.
I used to go to high school and three friends of mine used to walk up the road where the gangs hung out. You know what those guys would tell us? ‘Sell drugs, and I’ll kill you. You go to school, you go learn.’ If that’s not honorable, I don’t know what is. That is what we loved the area. I’ll never forget it.
Why has it taken so long for people to move back?
It’s all about politics. Politics and money. Can you imagine from 2004 up until today, only 139 families are back here? There’s still 1,260 validated claims besides the 3,000 late comers. When are they going to do that? Last year, people were promised that 300 families would be moved back by the end of last year. I’m living just below there now, and nothing has been done. The ground hasn’t even been cleared properly yet, and now what’s happening is squatters. They dig holes in the ground and they live underneath there.
Where do you live now?
I am back in District Six. Can you believe it? I moved back 14 months ago. That’s the good part of it. The sad part of it is my family never had the chance to go back. My mom passed on, my dad passed on. I had three sisters, and the last sister, I just buried about three months ago.
Why should people remember District Six’s history?
It’s very important. First of all, to let the youth know to not let it happen again. The other thing is, it’s a beautiful life, and it’s all here. How can people try to forget beautiful things that happened in their life? Most of it was beautiful. We were free. We were safe.