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Tribute to the Past

As I may have mentioned before, we read very little in high school: one novel a year, one play, four poems and a few short stories. I’ve blamed my slow literary education on this very weak introduction, but as I’ve begun to remember the quality of the short stories we read, I’ve realized they aren’t bad - one by Italo Calvino, another by Roald Dahl. I am beginning to think my head was submerged in something all through high school.

We read Lord of the Flies in Matric, senior year. I remember that. Ralph standing on his head. Jack. Piggy. The Conch. The dead parachutist stuck in the tree tops, his parachute eerily billowing around him. Junior year we read a book by South African writer Richard Rive called ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six. By the end of the term, after our essays and multiple choice tests, we were all heartily sick of Buckingham Palace, but recently I’ve been feeling nostalgic and hoping to get a hold of a copy. It’s out of print (of course) and I can’t imagine what Seattle bookstore would carry a copy of a book about a now non-existent slum community in Cape Town in the sixties. I’ve looked all at the local bookstores and on the internet and have come up with nothing. I forgot about it.

Last week, after drinking coffee at Allegro’s, and coming around the corner where Magus Books is (lured in by the Greek Harry Potter in the window), I found it on the shelf. $5 for the exact same edition I had read in high school, published in South Africa with educational notes! It is now in my room.

District Six was a once vital neighborhood at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town: a place where Jews, Muslims, Indians, those of mixed race and unknown origin and low incomes lived side by side. Children played in the streets in front of brightly colored houses, neighborhoods consisted entirely of old friends, dominoes partners, churches, mosques, markets, artisans. In 1966, the apartheid government declared District Six a white-only zone and all current residents were to be evicted. Families and friends were split up in the evacuation; communities that had been constructed over decades were split. The District was razed, intending to be sold to whites to make use of the prime property. It still stands empty today. This has long since been a sacred site to those seeking to understand the devastation of apartheid upon communities. It is a barren place consecrated to memory and to the spirit of a hope that imagined a different world could be created.

The author, Richard Rive, was a scholar and an author of international repute, stabbed to death in his home by a burglar in 1989. It is a cruel and ironic testament to the violent reality of South Africa today. Rive had fought against apartheid, and was murdered, not because of his outspoken political stance, but because of a robbery.

I don’t know if the story meant much to me when I read the novel at seventeen. It seemed hypothetical and removed. Picking it up last week, I was immediately won over by its breezy joie de vivre:

“When I was a boy and chirruping 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 man came home late although they had been paid off early…Saturday mornings Tennant Street, Hanover Street and Castle Bridge heaved and bustled with housewives, peddlers, skollies, urchins, pimps and everybody else…And the apricot warmth of a summer Sunday morning when almost everyone slept late…And I still clearly remember the characters and the incidents.”

It is an episodic novel, a collection of those characters and incidents, people like Zoot September and his happy gang of Jungle Boys; Mary and her girls at the local house of ill-repute, the Casbah; Katzen, the local Jewish merchant; and Last-Knight the barber.

Funny episodes of “local color” rub up against the poignant last days of the District, the inevitable encroachment of the policy of discrimination.

At the end of the novel, before they go in opposite directions, Zoot draws around a fire with his friends Pretty-Boy and Oubaas and says fiercely,

“We knew that District Six was dirty and rotten. Their newspapers told us so often enough. But what they didn’t say was that it was also warm and friendly…That is was never a place – that it was a people. We must tell how they split us apart and scattered us in many directions like the sparks from this fire…We must never forget…”

There is now a museum on the site of District 6, a collection of memories and of artifacts: wedding pictures, street signs, baby clothes, hairdresser’s scissors, and musical instruments. On the floor there is a map of the District carefully replicated street by street. Families have returned to the museum to mark the spot where they once lived, permanently signing their name to a place which was a bedrock of identity and cultural belonging. It is a sad place, but a pace where the sparks from the fire are still warm.

If you find a copy of Richard Rive’s novel, a superb blend of storytelling, language and history, read it.


Francois Moll said…
Oh dear! Still teaching Richard Rives' novel - now to Grade 10s. Present day South African teens need to be educated as to the past. We are 40 years on from the June 16th uprisings.

Like your list of required reading...
Francois Moll said…
Oh dear! Still teaching Richard Rives' novel - now to Grade 10s. Present day South African teens need to be educated as to the past. We are 40 years on from the June 16th uprisings.

Like your list of required reading...

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