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  • Roxanne Noor

Remember District Six?


Apartheid had ended, but the stench of it refused to leave Cape Town. Everything changed, but somehow nothing had changed. Things were as bad as they were ten years prior. Iminathi and her family had lost their home, and they were never going to get it back. Nothing returns the way it began.


District Six was a working-class community. It was a place of freed slaves, immigrants, and artists. This melting pot was home, a delicious soup of the people. It was proof that South Africans of contrasting faiths could live side by side and thrive. Iminathi had a Muslim family of day laborers next door and a Jewish jazz musician down the alley. At night, she fell asleep to Arabic banter and the smooth call of the saxophone.


Some of the oldest sports clubs in the country were situated in her neighborhood. Iminathi played tennis at the first public courts established for colored people. The court was in the heart of the city with a view of Lion’s Head. When Iminathi looked at the crouching feline mountains, she felt larger inside.   


Iminathi walked through District Six each morning, and an electricity of possibility permeated the air. These were people with little doing the most. Artists who could not afford acrylic paint and canvas, drew with chalk on the asphalt, creating worlds within the world. Before the sun sank into the horizon, poets sat outside around a wooden table exchanging notes. They shared cigarettes and drank hot Rooibos in between the scribble of their pens. 


Iminathi’s father was a figure of authority in the community, a respected businessman who planned and strategized. He infected their people with belief. Apartheid couldn’t weaken their bonds or divide them. He was right and he was wrong.


Their neighborhood was an offense to those who propagated colonial rhetoric, because these people, her people, refused to be categorized. There were Lithuanians, Caribbeans, Philopenas, and mixed people. To label them would be to reduce them. To label them would be a lie because they were not fully black or white. The term ‘colored’ itself was an idiotic simplification.


The community’s plan to resist apartheid collapsed in the face of bulldozers. Iminathi’s father refused to leave their house until they were going to be squashed to a pulp for it. At age thirteen, Iminathi watched the forced removal of 60,000 people from District Six. 

Her family stood outside their house, watching the place where they had prayed, eaten, fought, and loved turn to rubble. This refuge of archrival memory, their territory of joy, was gone. Then the white people came. By age thirteen, Iminathi knew what it was to hate.


The family was moved to a township an hour outside of the city, far from work and opportunity. Imanathi watched the omnipotent figure that was her father turn into a menial submissive man. He couldn’t work in his prior company because he was classified as black, and blacks were prohibited from working with whites. 

Her father did whatever honest work he could, sometimes sweeping floors or teaching Algebra at the local school. Money was scarce. Dinners of hot mutton, potatoes, and braai turned to small portions of rice and peas.


By age fifteen, Imanathi became familiar with hunger. She’d never known a pain like this before. It haunted her. At school, during History class, she dreamt of salted biltong and malva pudding. Her stomach wailed and begged. It kicked her from the inside. It was an inner protest to her outside life. 


Imanathi became smaller in size, she was thinning, and metaphysically too. Poverty was not just the tin house in the townships, it was the loss of faith. It was a diminishment of self. Living became about the day. When she was a child she wanted to be a writer. Now she just wanted to eat.


Still, Imanathi attempted to keep District Six alive through her words. She wrote about her childhood memories and the people who touched her life and left some marks. Most of them had been displaced into different regions. Places where cars could barely pass through the roads because the infrastructure was so bad. 

She didn’t know where her priest was or where he worshipped now. She didn’t know where her girlfriends from choir had been moved off to and if they still sang for the love of God. Imanathi couldn’t believe any God would let this happen. It was too cruel to think a holy man could allow so many people to go hungry because of their skin.


Sometimes, Imanathi wanted to scrub the black off of her. Other times, she wanted to kill the white man. But more than taking revenge, she wanted to go back home. Still, some fragments of District Six remained. Her old District Six friend Amari, a dark boy a few years her senior was her pillar of hope. He was a reminder of her past, and that the past had a way of carrying itself into the present. 

Amari had managed to make some money, and sometimes he’d take Imanathi out for dinner. In the city, most restaurants had ‘whites only’ signs outside their doors. The black restaurants had poor quality meats, and tasteless vegetables but the meals were hot and amapiano music was playing. Their people still managed to dance.


Imanathi wanted to make money. She wanted to be like Amari. He supported his family. He could buy books to study, and he’d get out of the township soon enough. Imanathi pressed him about his work. Amari was vague and made general statements about fulfilling a high demand with his supply. Supply of what? Amari sold dope.


Imanathi had never done dope. She was raised with a strong sense of morality and piousness. But the demands of life had changed, and her morals stood at a crossroads. She chose the money. Cash meant food and food meant sustenance and sustenance meant focus and to focus meant the chance of university and university meant getting out.


Imanathi sold dope. She couldn’t believe how easy the money was and how many people did dope. How badly people needed it, needed her, and needed to not feel. Her clientele was a zombified people. At first, she was scared of them, but over time she felt badly for them. They were mostly people who looked like her, but also white people, and Indians too. Everyone in Cape Town seemed to be suffering. Thousands had something they were escaping through the pipe.


Imanathi stuffed the cash into her pillowcase. She slept with her money under her head. In her dreams, she was a rich plump woman. She was a woman who traveled to Berlin and New York and stayed at five-star hotels eating caviar in the claw-footed bathtub. She was a woman who was published in the New York Times and called “spectacular” by critics. She was a woman of intellect and grace from a prestigious university like Oxford or Harvard. She was a woman her father could be proud of.


Waking up always hurt. The reality was that she was a drug-dealing teenager living in the ghetto was so far from her dreams. After school, Imanathi did a few drop-offs. One of her clients had become schizophrenic, when she entered his apartment he was speaking to the walls.

Imanathi didn’t use drugs but was afraid of going mad, insane from the lividity caged in her chest. Walking around with money was a risk so after her drop-offs she made her way back to the township. She went into the shared bedroom to count her stash and stuff it into her yellowing pillowcase.


It was flat. All the money was gone. Imanathi’s heart pounded with such violence she could hear it like a gong in her ears. She clenched her teeth with force so as not to scream. She was scared she would pulverize them into a fine dust. Her insides turned and flipped like a dying fish.


Imanathi was going to find and kill the motherfucker who took her money. She was going to borrow Amari’s gun and make things right. She left her bedroom and stormed through the kitchen in a fury, nearly knocking over her father. He stood in front of the door.


“Where do you think you’re going?”


“To meet a friend. It’s an emergency, there’s some trouble. Someone robbed me.”


“Oh the money in your pillow, is it?”


“Baba, you took my money?”


“Where did you get it?”


Imanathi froze. She could not lie to her father. He saw her face and he knew. He was ashamed. Imanathi stuttered.


“We have nearly nothing. We need to invent a new way of living, but you won’t. So I did. I did what I had to. I want to go to university. I want to leave this place. There’s no choice. They gave us no choice.”


Her father looked at her with grief and love. There was a specific shade of tenderness in the room that only a parent could have towards their child.  


“My girl, there’s always a choice. This way of living, it’s not truth. They can take our money, they can take our land. Let them have it. But if they take our character, our soul, our virtues, they’ve stripped us of our humanity. Then, you let them steal what matters. Imanathi, if you ever bring dirty money to this house again you won’t live here. Get off those streets. God is on our side. Things will change, slowly, slowly. Hold onto your sense of dignity, my meisie.”


Imanathi was not sure what her father did with the ‘dirty money’. She assumed he didn’t keep it because they continued to eat rice and live in that tin house. Imanathi stopped dealing dope because she could lose her dignity, but she couldn’t lose her father.


She got a job as a waitress in a lively restaurant in Woodstock. She wore pressed pants and tied her hair back in a tight bun. During her breaks, she scribbled essays on napkins at the front counter. She served bobotie for lunch and listened to her customer's stories. Everyone had something to say. Everyone needed someone to listen. Since Imanathi was a writer she was also a listener. At the restaurant, she didn’t make much money, but it was clean money. She got to write every day and that’s what counted.


Life unfolded slowly. She published her work in a few literary magazines and wrote many newspaper articles. It was progress, and it was honest steady work. Her faith in God was restoring itself. Something invisible and larger than her misery was at play. It couldn’t be explained, and it couldn’t be denied. 



Two years passed. Apartheid ended. Mandela was released. Imanathi was still in the dusty township. On a windy July day, a mailman came to her neighborhood calling her surname through the alleys. She ran towards her name and took the white letter like a folded dove in his black hand. She rarely got mail. Imanathi sat on the floor and pried the letter open.  


It was from the city of Cape Town. It was a check for 1800 Rand. It was financial compensation for being displaced from District Six all those years ago. The check was the equivalent of $95.


Imanathi received $95 for having her childhood home bulldozed. $95 for not getting to play tennis at the courts under the Lion’s Head. $95 for listening to the sounds of traffic, no more jazz or Arabic music. $95 for watching a sharp businessman of a father turn into a janitor. $95 to the teenage girl who wanted to be a writer abroad, but pushed drugs to people who looked like her. $95 for the years of hunger in a tin shack. $95 for the erasure of her history.


District Six was now a vacant lot. This government check was the dirtiest money Imanathi had ever received.

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