THE origins of the hardcover book, District Six – Memories, Thoughts and Images, which MARTIN GRESHOFF edited, goes back to a series of photographs, taken by his late uncle, Jan Greshoff, in the early and mid-1970s.
MY uncle, Jan Greshoff, was an architect who worked in Cape Town during the 60s to the 80s. He was a private and modest man, and didn’t talk much about his photography. Jan had no children and it was only after he died and his wife passed his archive of negatives on to us, his nephews and niece, that we discovered the full extent of his archive. His photographs covered many areas around Cape Town, including District Six.
In common with many architects, Jan was always a keen photographer and his profession certainly informed his work and his interest in his environment. He was a very close friend of Jansje Wissema, who was commissioned to photograph District Six for the South African Institute of Architects at roughly the same time that Jan was photographing the area. Their projects fed off each other to some extent.
Ben and Helen Kies, both teachers at District Six schools, namely, Trafalgar High School and Harold Cressy High School, respectively, were also friends of Jan, and this may also have had an impact on his photographs of District Six, in particular. Aside from this, he was aware that Cape Town was changing and certainly wanted to document this change.
In his lifetime, he did not publish or use his photographs, and it was only in 1996 that he donated some 800 images to the then newly-founded District Six Museum. They were exhibited by the museum in the same year. Jan died in 2007.
My interest in the District Six and Bo Kaap community was sparked by Jan’s photographs. Just prior to leaving South Africa, in 1980, and inspired by Jan, I took a number of photos of Bo-Kaap. The forced removals of the diverse population of District Six, and the demolition of most of the area had taken place by then.
Later, I began reading books on District Six and continue to do so. However, it is the first-hand accounts of life in the area that are the most powerful. In 2014, I started a Facebook page so his photographs could be seen by the communities which he photographed – https://www.facebook.com/Jan.Greshoffs.Photographs . It was through responses and comments made about the photos on this forum that it became clear that Jan’s District Six images provoked many memories and emotions.
Jan’s District Six photographs in particular stirred strong feelings and memories. Many comments related to the way of living, a cohesive, multi-ethnic society, the ‘spirit’ of District Six, memories of District Six characters, childhood games, physical places, such as the shops, bioscopes and streets.
Feelings of anger were also expressed in relation to the Group Areas Act and subsequent forced removals from District Six. Feelings of frustration and anger were also expressed in relation to the painfully slow restitution process.
It was through these comments made in response to the photographs and a discussion with an ex-District Six resident that the idea of recording these stories in more depth came about. It felt important that these memories of an area no longer in existence were captured and preserved for the future, that what happened to District Six was not forgotten and the memory of District Six was kept alive.
I am aware that the District Six Museum is very involved in recording oral histories and working with the memories of ex-residents, which is important and vital work. 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.
Initially, there was some discussion whether this should be an online publication opposed to a printed book. I felt strongly that a printed version would be more accessible to the older generation without computer skills. I placed a notice in various District Six groups on social media and approached ex-residents who had commented on photographs, and enquired whether they would like to write a piece.
On the whole, the response was very positive. Guidelines were drawn up and a deadline set for submissions. Jan’s photographs would be mainly used to illustrate the memoirs plus a few offered by another photographer, Rudolf Ryser, but it was the stories and memoirs, which I feel are the main focus.
As the deadline approached, it soon became clear that most people would not meet it and I decided to abandon the idea of deadlines – it would take as long as it takes. During this time, many people who were initially interested in submitting stories dropped out for various reasons. I had a target of 50 contributors in mind so the writers involved and I worked hard to find replacement writers for those who had dropped out.
In the end, 63 ex-District Six residents and those who had a connection to District Six but may not have lived there submitted memoirs and poetry. Obviously, the stories which have been submitted are but a small fraction of the stories to be told. The foreword was written by Bonita Bennett, the former director of the District Six Museum, and Professor Crain Soudien contributed a piece on the history of District Six. Sadly, four of the contributors have passed away since the project started.
In April 2016, I visited Cape Town to do some work with a small group of ex- residents on identifying some of the unknown District Six locations featured in Jan’s District Six photographs so that they could be matched to stories. The District Six Museum was supportive in providing a venue for the identification meetings and providing access to the images Jan had donated to the museum.
The museum organised a workshop with some on those involved with the project while I was in Cape Town. This was an opportunity to meet some of those who had submitted stories. I was struck by the warmth and the bond that existed between the ex-District Six residents I met even though they had not necessarily met before. This bond is also very evident through comments made in the District Six groups on social media. Some of the contributors commented that writing their stories helped with processing the pain and anger of being forcibly removed from District Six.
The editing process has been done in a collaborative way with each of the contributors. The stories are theirs and it felt important that they were a part of this process. I received assistance from my subeditor, Marge Clouts, for which I am very grateful. Besides the personal memoirs there are also a number of poems featured in the book.
My brother-in-law, Charles Abbott, who is based in Cape Town, has done a great job of designing the book and co-ordinating the printing. Everyone involved with producing the book has given their time freely, without expecting to benefit financially from the project. The printing was funded by generous donations from The Simon van der Stel Foundation, The Historical Society of Cape Town, ABC Press as well as many individuals. The book will have a limited print run.
All the money generated from the sales of this book will be donated to the District Six Museum to support their valuable work in preserving, archiving the history, memories and forced removals from District Six and other areas.
The whole process of producing a book was new to me and I have learnt a lot. It has taken far longer than I anticipated as I have worked on it for the past six years and I had no idea that it would dominate my life and be so time-consuming. Sadly, as mentioned earlier, four of the contributors have passed away since the start of the project.
In terms of this book, I don’t feel that my background is relevant as it is the memoirs that have been submitted which are the important part of this project. But by way of a short biography, I was born in Cape Town, grew up in Rondebosch and attended Westerford High School. I was very aware of District Six while growing up in Cape Town although I never visited the area.
I left South Africa in 1980 to avoid doing compulsory military service, where I would be fighting for, supporting and upholding the apartheid government. I moved to the United Kingdom, where I studied furniture design and making. I also work in the mental health services and currently live in South London.
After reading and editing the memoirs, it is very clear that District Six, its vibrancy, mix of cultures and religions are very meaningful and important to the contributors as well as the wider District Six community. Many contributors recall happy times and childhood games but at the same time there is a constant reminder of the impact that the apartheid government’s cruel and unjust policy of forced removals had on the residents and communities of District Six as well as other areas. Many also talk about the trauma of forced removals and the demolition of District Six.
The intention is that this book will complement the important work being done by the District Six Museum as well as raise funds for the museum. I continue to attempt to keep the memory of District Six alive in my active role of administrator of a District Six group on social media.
The book is available from the District Six Museum (25a Buitenkant Street), Timbuktu Books (19 Golf Course Rd, Sybrand Park), Select Books (56 Surrey Street, Claremont), Clarkes (199 Long Street), The Book Lounge (71 Roeland Street) and Bokmakiri Books (Swellendam).
Featured image: The cover image of the latest book on District Six which features photographs of the area during the 1970s with poems and memories of people who lived there or were connected to District Six. (Image SUPPLIED)