Richard Rive was born in 1931 in District Six. He studied as a teacher, and also wrote for magazines like Drum and Fighting Talk. In the 1960s and 1970s he went on to study in the USA and England, and became an internationally recognised writer and professor. He was murdered in his home in Cape Town in 1989.
District Six was a part of Cape Town. It was home to a mixed population, mostly people the Apartheid government called ‘Coloured’. This included Muslims and Christians who were descendants of Malay slaves, Khoi, Africans and white settlers. There were also some Indians and newer white immigrants, like Jews and Italians. Most Black Africans had already been forcibly removed further away from Cape Town. Most residents were working class and the area was poor. In 1966 it was declared a white Group Area and in 1968 demolitions began, with about 60 000 people removed to the Cape Flats.
The following extract comes from Rive’s novel ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six. In it he uses his own memories of growing up there as a springboard to write a fictional story. The story does romanticise some parts of life in District Six, making it seem happier or easier than it was. This is partly because it is written from memories of childhood, and partly because of what came afterwards: the much harder life that awaited people on the Cape Flats. Nonetheless, while life in District Six was difficult in many ways, it allowed for freedom that was not possible later, and was home to a tightly knit, strong community which was ripped apart by forced removals.
Author: Richard Rive
those who used to live in District Six, those who lived in Caledon Street and Clifton Hill and busy Hanover Street. There are those of us who still remember the ripe, ripe Fully grown or matured; ready for eating or gathering. At their peak. warm days. Some of us still romanticise and regret when our eyes travel beyond the dead bricks and split tree stumps and wind-tossed sand.
When I was a boy and chirruping chirruping Speaking in a high-pitched voice (like a bird) – before his voice had broken. ten, a decade after the end of the Second World War, when I was Tarzan and Batman and could sing ‘Rainbow on the River’ like Bobby Breen – in those red-white-and-blue days I remember especially the weekends, which began with the bustle of Friday evenings when the women came home early from the factories and the men came home late although they had been paid off early – and the feeling of well-being and plenty in our house on the upper left hand side of Caledon Street near St Mark’s Church. We lived in the fourth in a row of five mouldy cottages called ‘Buckingham Palace’ by the locals. The first, 201, the one fartherest from the church as if by design, was a bluepainted House of Pleasure House of Pleasure Brothel. called the ‘Casbah’. In it lived Mary and The Girls. Next to them at 203, painted bright pink, was ‘Winsor Park’ (spelt like that), which was occupied by Zoot and The Boys. Then came 205, the cottage of The Jungles, then ours, then at 209 that of Last-Knight the barber, his wife and three daughters. A sprawling sprawling Spread out irregularly over a large area. open field overgrown with weeds and rusty tin cans separated Buckingham Palace from the church.
Friday evenings were warm and relaxed.
We felt mellow mellow Calm, friendly, and relaxed. because it was the week-end and payday. While my sister got dressed to go to the Star or National Bioscope Bioscope Cinema. south-easter The south-easter is a name for wind that blows from that direction, south-east. This is a very common kind of wind in Cape Town. with her boyfriend, since there was no time for her to cook I was sent to Millard’s Fish and Chips shop beyond Tennant Street to get the evening’s supper. I raced with the south-easter and then forced my way into the shop crowded with customers, the air thick with the smell of stale sawdust, boiling fish oil and sweaty bodies as steam rose from the frying-pans. When I had wriggled my way through the forest of grown-up legs and torsos, I found myself jammed against the counter, always just too late to order from the last batch of fish and chips, and then had to wait, fighting to prevent the breath from being squeezed out of my body, until the next batch of gleaming stockfish and thick fingers of potato chips were hoisted, dripping oil, and spewed out onto the warmers. On the way home I raced to keep the parcels hot, but not so fast that I could not pierce a small hole in the packet and remove a few chips. But this was finally detected by my hawkeyed mother, who knew what was happening in spite of my denials.
Saturdays and Sundays were different.
Saturday mornings were brisk, for some men must work and all women must shop. And Hanover Street was crowded and the bazaars and fish-market did a roaring brisk Busy or quick. roaring Fast-paced or highly successful. trade. There were groceries to buy on the book and clothes on hire-purchase.
emporium A large retail store, especially one selling a great variety of items. bric-a-brac Small decorations, antiques, etc. tankards Large cups. crepe-de-chine Fabric used for dresses. gramophones Record players.
Katzen, who was the landlord of Buckingham Palace, had his emporium on the corner of Hanover and Tennant Streets. His shop windows were cluttered with bric-a-brac such as celluloid dolls, huge glass tankards still celebrating the Coronation, rolls of crepe-de-chine, gramophones and framed and mounted prints of a violently pink-faced King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. After his premises had been broken into six times in so many weeks, Katzen displayed a notice outside his shop, ‘Although Katzen has been burgled again, Katzen will never burgle you!’ We all knew that there was no chance of the small, Jewish shopkeeper with his walrus moustache and large feet ever climbing through our back windows to steal our radios, but we also felt that he could rob us in other ways. The thieves always seemed to steal his gramophones and crepe-de-chine and patriotically left the prints of King George VI and his queen.
Saturday mornings Tennant Street, Hanover Street and Castle Bridge heaved and bustled with housewives, peddlers, peddlers People who sell door-to-door or on the street. skollies, skollies Gangsters. urchins, urchins Street children. pimps and everybody else. Everybody bought everything on lay-bye and it was all written down in exercise books; Moodley, the Indian general dealer in Caledon Street, scribbled it on the back of brown paper-bags which he lost when he absent-mindedly used them as containers for sugarbeans or rice. Everyone also knew they would have to pay in the end, even those who owed Moodley, although when that end was, was extremely flexible and it could be next week or next year or next never.
Near Seven Steps Mr Angelo Baptiste owned a dark Italian shop from the ceiling of which hung strings of garlic. His shop also smelt of macaroni and olive oil. We would tease him in order to hear him swearing volubly volubly Loudly, fluently and continuously. in his native language.
On Saturday afternoons I went to Star Bioscope with Estelle, Manne and Broertjie to see that week’s exciting episode of ‘Zorro Rides Again’ in black and white. We could not stand in any queue to get in because the idea of queues had not yet reached District Six. So we pushed and tugged and sweated to slip through the narrow opening in the iron gates which would allow us into the foyer where we could purchase tickets. Estelle, who never feared anyone, simply climbed onto the nearest pair of shoulders at the back of the heaving mass and then crawled over heads. Once through the gates, we bought our tickets to sit on the hard seats downstairs, where ushers in soiled, soiled Dirty. clouted Hit or smacked. sadistic Enjoying inflicting pain on others. resplendent Beautifully or impressively dressed; shining brilliantly; gleaming; splendid. strident Forceful, harsh or shrill. prison-warder khaki, shouted loudly and forced us to share seats with whomever they shoved down beside us. If you raised any objections you were meanly clouted. (One sadistic usher took to riding up and down the aisle on a bicycle, lashing out with his belt at any unfortunate urchin who provoked his displeasure.)
When Estelle, resplendent in his cowboy shirt, three-quarter pants and high-heeled boots arrived late and stood in the lighted entrance, he would cup his hands to his mouth and blow a loud strident whistle which only he could blow. It rose above the packed and heaving auditorium to Manne, who sat in the farthermost corner tight between his girl and the one he was keeping for Estelle. Manne, heeding the whistle of his leader, would throw lighted matches into the air, regardless of anyone on whom it landed, like a ship sending up distress flares. And then Estelle minion Servant. would wade over seats and frightened urchins in a straight line to his minion and the girl reserved for him.
We sat goggle-eyed in the thick, cigarette-smoke dark, watching Zorro carve out Z’s with his whip on the foreheads of those crooks stupid enough to challenge his dexterity dexterity Skill, especially with the hands. with inferior inferior Lesser, worse. weapons like six-guns. We munched our way through half-loaves of split-open brown bread that had whole pieces of fried fish placed in between. Estelle, who was a successful pickpocket, always paid for the refreshments. When they played the movie of Hamlet, Estelle whistled and shouted derisively derisively Expressing mockery or disrespect. that it was a lot of balls, and Alfie, who was in Junior Certificate at Trafalgar High and a budding critic, said the outjie outjie Man. spoke far too much and who ever saw a ghost that looked like that.
And in the evenings we would stand in hushed doorways and tell stories about the legendary figures of District Six, Zoot, Pretty-Boy and Mary, or show off about our prowess prowess Skill or courage. with the local girls, or just talk about the ways of white folks and how Cissie Gool Cissie Gool Anti-Apartheid activist from District Six. was fighting for us and showing the white people a thing or two. And how wonderful it was to live in America and talk like Charles Starrett and sing like Gene Autry. The young men went to parties or bioscope, and the older men played dominoes and klawerjas on the stoeps, holding the huge boards between them on their laps, and when they banged down the dominoes or the cards, hordes of flies would spin up and then settle down again. The young girls waited for the men to fetch them, all coy, demure coy, demure Pretending to be shy and modest. and made up in the latest fashions. The older housewives came out with their wooden benches and sat apart from the men on the stoep and gossiped the mild evening away.
And the apricot warmth of a summer Sunday morning when almost everyone slept late and mouldy cocks kept in postage stamp, asphalt asphalt Tar. yards crowed their confined calls to wake no-one in particular. Then the sun rose over-ripe although it was barely six o’clock and the whole District was snoring and blowing away the fumes of Saturday evening. The gaiety gaiety State of happiness. and sheer abandonment of the previous night had given way to the exhausted sleep of Sunday morning.
I would be sent to buy koeksisters for breakfast at a house next to Bernstein’s Bottle Store, where three unmarried Muslim sisters lived. Their house always smelt of aniseed and rose water. I would stand in the dark passage awaiting my turn, watching them fry the light dough until it was golden brown, then dip it hot and sugary into coconut. They had taken a liking to me and always gave me an extra one wrapped separately which I ate on the way back.
When the first people had woken from their smoke-filled sleep, the more righteous washed themselves in zinc tubs in their yards or kitchens (with the curtains drawn), then put on their Sunday best and searched for hymnbooks and bibles neglected during the rest of the week. They put on tight patent-leather shoes, had a hurried breakfast of hot coffee and koeksisters, and walked wincingly wincingly Being able to move only slightly because of pain. up Caledon Street to attend the morning service at St Mark’s. Those less virtuous tossed dreamlessly, fading out the monotony monotony Sameness, repetition and routine. of the week before at the same job in the same factory for the same wages which were never enough for groceries and rent and a bit of booze and maybe an evening with the girls at Mary’s.
At midday we were served with the heaviest meal of the week. We sat around the dining-room table stiff and uncomfortable in our navy-blue best. After a long drawn-out grace we started with curry and yellow rice rich with raisins and cinnamon. The curry was pale and anaemic anaemic Weak or thin. smothered To cover thickly with. because my aunt, who always lunched with us on Sundays, claimed to suffer from acid winds. But after that we had thick slices of roast and potatoes smothered in gravy, and red beetroot salad. And finally jelly and custard and sometimes bread or rice pudding.
In the afternoon, when the adults were snoring heavily, we children would roam the streets, always careful not to soil soil To make unclean or dirty. our Sunday suits. On rare occasions we ventured downtown to the Museum to see the models of Bushmen with big bums or furtively glance at the nude statues in the Art Galleries. What a wicked and enjoyable place the world was. What goings-on. And then we walked back through the Botanical Gardens whooping and shouting and raising havoc deliberately to frighten fragile little white ladies sitting on quiet benches, who would then complain to the attendants about those rude slum children.
Back home the darkness descended from Table Mountain and the streetlamps flickered to life at the tops of their stalks, leaving pools of light at their bases in which we played our games till called inside because it was school tomorrow. It was always school tomorrow on Sunday evenings when we were enjoying ourselves, even when we knew it was vacation time. The hush hush Silence or quiet, especially after noise. crept over the District as one by one the lights were switched off or paraffin lamps blown out until there was only the basin of darkness at the foot of the mountain illumined illumined Lit up by rows of lamp-post stalks. The streets would empty until in the small hours there were only stray dogs, prowling cats, solitary drunks and hawkers’ carts leaning awkwardly with their long shafts against the walls.
And I still clearly remember the characters and the incidents.
- In the story, what are the different ways the people in District Six make a living?
- What class would you say these people fit into? How wealthy are they?
- Not all of the occupations are legal. What are some of the illegal ways of making a living?
- Does the writer criticise the people who survive like this? Compare this to how you think the authorities would have seen them, and by association District Six.
- Would you say that the young boy had a happy childhood? How can you tell?
- How was life in District Six at odds with the principles of Apartheid? Look for examples in the story.
- Memories of life in District Six stand in contrast to what came afterwards: forced removals to townships.
- Look at the description of District Six. What parts of this life would not be possible in an Apartheid township? How would life be different there?
- In what ways was life already hard in District Six?