Cape Town makes District Six a number-one priority, plus five things Beirut gets right.
Cape Town’s District Six was once a vibrant, mixed-race, culturally diverse neighbourhood in the heart of the ocean-side city a short distance from parliament. In the 1960s this made it a challenge to the white rulers of apartheid-era South Africa and so District Six was wiped off the map.
In 1966 the government designated it “whites-only”, beginning the process of eviction and demolition. Its residents were evicted to the unplanned squalid sprawl of the Cape Flats – a vast slum area known as apartheid’s dumping ground that became notorious for gangsters and crime – and their homes demolished. For decades afterwards all that remained of District Six was a rubble-strewn wasteland dotted with the churches, mosques and schools that were left standing. The 2009 allegorical sci-fi film District 9 was inspired by the trauma and brutality of events at District Six. But now the neighbourhood is slowly coming back together.
“District Six was one of those places that demonstrated that difference could create a vibrant, strong community,” says Bonita Bennett, director of Cape Town’s District Six Museum. “Apartheid needed people to believe that difference was something to be avoided and feared, so as part of their ideology they targeted District Six.”
Now Bennett says there are hopes that the neighbourhood’s long overdue resurrection might capture some of that old spirit, rebuilding “a community that is a model for what new South African communities could be”.
The process has been fraught, with wrangling over restitution for former residents and lengthy debate over the extent of commercial development that should be allowed, yet hundreds of houses have already been built on the 42-hectare site with more in the pipeline.
Other nearby parts of the city have enjoyed dramatic physical redevelopment and cultural revival in recent years – including neighbouring Woodstock and East City – helping cement Cape Town’s reputation for arts, culture, design and leisure. District Six is set to be an integral part of this ongoing change, linking the city’s past and future.
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, is a collection of five shanty towns in the Kenyan desert housing 351,000 mostly Somali refugees. In 2016 it will be 25 years old.
Dadaab is comparable in size to New Orleans or Zürich. Are there similarities between administering a refugee camp and running a city?
Just like any municipality, you have to provide basic services: the UN supports 18 clinics and hospitals in Dadaab and 42 schools. We have to provide clean water from boreholes, police and fire services. But, unlike other cities, the residents cannot work and cannot leave, so we have to feed everyone, too: the refugees collect their rations every two weeks. They depend on the UN for everything so in some ways it’s less like a city and more like a city-state.
What challenges are you facing at the moment?
After the massacre by the extremist group al-Shabaab of 150 students at the nearby Garissa university in April, the Kenyan authorities blamed the refugees for harbouring terrorists and called for the camp to be closed within three months. How can you relocate a city in three months? It would be a humanitarian catastrophe: Somalia is not safe yet. Thankfully, since then Kenya has had a change of heart and we have agreed to beef up security.
You’re leaving Dadaab, what will be your legacy there?
We have made improvements in education that I am quite proud of. Every secondary school student now has a tablet; the world comes to them. And in my final weeks I am hoping to finalise plans for the construction of a courthouse in Dadaab to bring the administration of justice closer to the people.
Smart housing tradition
In 2008, South African developer Propertuity triggered a return to the downtown of Johannesburg with Maboneng, a project that turned a stretch of old offices in the city’s deserted CBD into a precinct of studios, restaurants and retail spaces. As more businesses have pitched up, new-found desirability is bringing people back to Johannesburg’s city centre – and there’s not a gated community in sight. Last year, Propertuity’s model saw Durban’s renamed Rivertown become home to a growing community of businesses and residents.
Lessons from the region
The Lebanese capital may not win on metrics and have numerous problems but, from food to culture, the city delivers on quality of life.
- If the city cannot afford to keep its sands pristine, encourage a world of private beach and hotel clubs.
- When the state is not robust your city can still tick on if your residents have the entrepreneurial gene.
- A few derelict corners and bombed-out buildings are not an impediment to a flourishing city.
- Smoking everywhere can indicate a liberal urban vibe.
- A legacy of untouched modernist architecture is a great thing.
Bright idea to be copied
The historic city of Mopti in Mali used to be as famous for its stunning earthen mosque as for the litter around it. So in 2007 a scheme started for waste plastic to be melted and mixed with sand to create bricks to pave the streets of the city centre. The scheme was suspended last year because of toxic fumes but efforts are underway to find a solution.