South Africa: Book Review | Memories and Images of District Six

A Cape Town architect photographed the buildings and people of District Six at the height of forced removals. His work is finally available to a much wider audience, thanks to his nephew.

The book District Six: Memories, Thoughts and Images is a collection of memoirs and poems of 63 people, the majority of whom are former residents of District Six. The labour of love, which took the book’s editor Martin Greshoff six years to complete, came about through his interest in the photographs his uncle Jan Greshoff took in District Six from the early to mid 1970s.

“When we grew up, we were very aware of his love for taking photographs,” says Martin. Jan, however, was reluctant to show his photographs.

“I think in his lifetime I only saw maybe about a handful of his prints and that was under a lot of asking him and asking him and asking him,” says Martin.

Jan, a Cape Town-based architect, was friends with another architect, Jansje Wissema, who was commissioned to photograph District Six by the South African Institute of Architects. Martin speculates that his uncle’s interest in photographing District Six may have been enhanced or sparked by the project Wissema was commissioned to undertake.

The photographs of District Six predominantly feature architecture. There are a few that include adults, but most of the photographs that do include people are photographs of children posing for the camera.

In 1996, Jan donated 800 prints to the District Six Museum, but none of the photographs were published while he was alive.

After his uncle’s death in 2007, Martin found albums filled with negatives of his uncle’s photographs. “The first thing I did was, I basically went through them all. And I scanned them all at a very low resolution, to look and see what was there. And then I went back and scanned them in much higher resolution,” he says. The process took him about nine months.

In 2014, he started a Facebook group to allow former residents to see the photographs. While the photographs themselves fail to capture the spirit of District Six and leave the viewers with little more than a visual idea of how the buildings and streets looked, the discussions that arose in the Facebook group did.

“It was through discussions with ex-District Six resident Cecilé-Ann Pearce that the idea of recording these stories in more depth came about … The idea was to give those who may not have thought about telling their stories an opportunity to do so and create a tangible record for future generations,” says Martin.

Personal narratives

One of those people was Jennifer Daniels. She always felt that she had a story to tell. But her four-decades long teaching career was demanding and she never got around to writing anything down until she was approached by Martin, who asked her to contribute to the book.

Daniels’ life in District Six was both sheltered and vibrant. Her father, who was born in District Six, worked in the Shiloh Baptist Church. It was a two-storey building, with the family living on the top floor and the church operating at the bottom.

Her home being close to the various Christian communities in “the District” meant that she had a rich social life. The family had a relationship with congregants from other churches. “It wasn’t just our congregants that belonged to the Baptist Church. It was the congregants who belonged to the Moravian Church, which is just a stone’s throw down the road; it was Saint Marks, it was a Methodist Church. It was all of that community. That’s the way I experienced it,” says Daniels.

Daniels says that the forced removal upended her social life so much that she never married nor had any children. When her family moved to Belhar there were no churches in the area. In the end they began attending a Baptist church in Hanover Park. “We just decided that we [would] go to Hanover park with people we knew from District Six and that’s what we did… right up into today,” she says.

“[My sister and I], we don’t have children. We’re not married. There are lots of cousins and cousins’ children and great grandchildren wanting to know something about the history. And that brought me to writing… I just felt it was an important part of the story of District Six,” says Daniels.

By contrast, Dino Isaacs, another contributor, had a different experience of “the Six”, as he calls it. “I was a little gangster,” he says. Isaacs has an encyclopedic knowledge of the street gangs of District Six. He was part of the Forty Thieves, which later became the Seven Steps gang, and he characterises his life in “the Six” as one of mischief and adventure.

“People will talk about the Seven Steps but they never lived it. The furthest they [ever reached] was two steps,” he says. “[One person] was smuggling wine, another was selling opium, and another was selling dagga. We laugh now but that was how we lived,” says Isaacs.

Isaacs was about 16 years old when his family moved to Parkwood Estate. “I couldn’t handle it. I stole some clothes … and walked from Parkwood Estate to District Six”. He stayed with his aunt until she too was forced to move, years later.

Isaacs’ contribution to the book is a chapter on the Klopse, or Cape minstrels, as that was Martin’s request. However, the process of contributing to the book sparked his interest in writing a book of his own. He says it will chronicle his exploits as a “little gangster” in District Six and the ubiquitous spirit of kanala or generosity that permeated the community. “If you had no food, you could eat at your neighbour’s home,” Isaacs says.

His book will also draw on his own extensive archive of photographs and betamax videos that he has assembled across his lifetime. It is material he has never found the time to use or display.

Book helps District Six museum

“What is powerful about the book is that people tell their own stories. At that moment, they create their own historical narratives. And it’s very interesting that when you read through the stories within the stories themselves, there are these layers of memory. So people have experienced District Six at very particular moments, and whose experiences are not similar. The landmarks are similar, but their connection to District Six comes [through clearly] and it’s very personal,” says acting director of the District Six Museum Chrischene Julius.

The museum’s work has, recently, been under threat because it has been struggling financially. “In terms of income generation, the loss of feet through the doors has been a reality,” says Julius. However, all the proceeds of the book are being donated to the museum. “The income from the book is literally keeping the doors open. [It’s paying for] rates, electricity, all those things,” says the acting director.