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S.Africa Neighborhood To Be Rebuilt

October 10, 1998

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ More than 20 years after he watched apartheid’s bulldozers demolish his house, Noor Ebrahim believes he is going home again.

Ebrahim, 54, was forced out when the vibrant, racially mixed Cape Town neighborhood of District Six was declared a ``whites only″ area _ a practice that ousted millions of people from their homes as the British colonial administration and then the apartheid government took the best land for whites.

Now the government hopes rebuilding District Six and bringing back its former residents will kick-start efforts to reverse the state’s policy of forced removals.

When white rule ended after all-race elections in 1994, the government drafted laws to give the land back. More than 26,000 claims involving individuals and communities representing hundreds of thousands of people have applied to get their land back.

But progress has been painfully slow because of legal complexities and lost or destroyed records.

Only 19 claims _ covering 37,800 acres of land and 27,738 people _ have been approved. Land Affairs Minister Derek Hanekom has ordered an inquiry to look at ways of speeding things up.

Government officials believe the District Six project may provide the boost that land reform needs, while also healing the wound left by one of the most notorious of forced removals.

``If District Six gets off the ground it will be a huge boost for the reconciliation process in the whole country,″ said Terence Fife, land affairs director for the Western Cape province.

With a national election looming next year, a high-profile effort to rebuild District Six may also deflect criticism by rival parties that the African National Congress has not done enough to restore land to its former owners.

Rebuilding District Six finally got the green light after a deal was signed in September among former residents, the Cape Town City Council and the Department of Land Affairs.

District Six’s fame lay in the fact that many whites, blacks and Indians lived there, even though it was predominantly a ``colored″ neighborhood, meaning people of mixed race lived there.

``Color didn’t mean anything in District Six,″ Ebrahim, education officer at the District Six museum, said proudly.

``We were poor, but when we had no food each one of us would go to any house _ Jew, African or white _ and people would give us something to eat. We just grew up like that.″

This tolerant atmosphere made it a target for planners advocating a system of racial segregation. The first removals started in 1966 and were completed 15 years later.

Now gray-haired, Ebrahim he was a young father of two in 1974 when he was told to leave the neighborhood his family had lived in for generations. Like other people of mixed race, Ebrahim was forced to move into a specially built township far from the center of town.

Just before his home was pulled down, he ran into the building and grabbed the number plate. The rusty plaque from long-gone Caledon Street, bearing the numerals ``247,″ is all that remains of his house.

Despite occupying a prime city center site, much of District Six is still wasteland. Its razing caused such an outcry that private developers were never found.

Today most of the area is grassy and desolate, dotted by churches and mosques that were the only buildings left untouched by the bulldozers. Piles of rubble poke out of the weeds.

More than 6,000 families _ some 30,000 people _ say they owned or rented houses in District Six and want to be resettled in the new project, expected to cost $84 million in a mix of state funds and cash from private developers.

Construction will start once all parties decide what type of housing should be built and who qualifies for resettlement. Ebrahim believes he may be able to move back late next year.

Given the pressure on space, all parties agree that apartment buildings three or four stories high will have to be built instead of the old-style, two-story houses.

``It will not be possible to recreate the atmosphere of District Six in the 1950s,″ said Terence Fredericks, vice-chairman of the District Six Beneficiary Trust.

``That will have to be in peoples’ memories and their souls.″

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