District Six in the 1970s: Breytenbach’s Stunning Glimpses into Cape Town’s Lost Neighborhood

Stepping back into the vibrant streets of Cape Town in the 1970s is a journey back in time, a period when District Six, an ethnically diverse neighborhood, was full of life. This thriving locality was brought to life by renowned South African photographer, Cloete Breytenbach, whose powerful black and white photographs documented a slice of South African history that might otherwise have been lost forever.

In his early twenties, Breytenbach started as a journalist for an Afrikaans-language newspaper in Cape Town in 1951. Though he later enjoyed an international career, Cape Town remained his heart’s home. In his series “District Six,” he documented the neighborhood’s everyday life during its critical years of transition.

In the 18th century, District Six was Dutch colonial farmland, but by the 20th century, it had evolved into a bustling part of Cape Town. Populated with a diverse mix of races and ethnicities, it was a lively, working-class neighborhood, albeit mostly owned by absentee white landlords who allowed it to deteriorate. By the 1960s, it was in a state of disrepair, an eyesore to the adjacent “white” Cape Town.

In 1966, under apartheid laws, the city declared District Six a white area, resulting in the forced eviction of nearly the entire population, some relocated far from the city. The government razed the deserted neighborhood to the ground by the late 1970s.

Breytenbach’s photographs capture the spirit of District Six during these turbulent years. Although the buildings were decaying, the community’s spirit was vibrant and very much alive. His camera focused on the ordinary – markets buzzing with trade, religious ceremonies, social events, and intimate domestic interiors.

One of his photographs captures the Cape Minstrels parade. Other reveals children playing in the streets, oblivious to the political turmoil swirling around them. Yet another presents a woman in her home, surrounded by family photographs and trinkets, embodying a sense of personal history and continuity amidst societal upheaval.

While each individual photograph may not be remarkable, the collective power of the series lies in its stark portrayal of the everyday life of this unique community amidst the upheavals of apartheid. The black and white color palette gives the pictures an air of melancholy and nostalgia, while also highlighting the stark realities of the period.

#16 Give a man a guitar and he will entertain anyone who cares to stop and listen, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#17 The old fish market in Hanover Street, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#18 Khalifa is a test of faith in the power of mind over matter, District Six, South Africa. This mysterious ritual is performed on special occasions, among select groups or, by special arrangement, at public functions. The slashing of swords against forearms, or drawn across tongues and stomachs, without any show of blood, will forever mystify the observer.

#20 Interior of a home in District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#22 On Clifton Street, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#23 Some of the street gangs made sure their territories were well marked, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#24 Hawking fresh vegetables, fruit, or fish, was big business in the area, and beyond. When not in use, hawkers’ barrows were stashed along pavements. The wheels were removed to prevent unauthorised use or theft by rivals. District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#25 Using a pavement for a game of fox and geese made for great enjoyment, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#26 Residential neighbourhood of District Six before it was cleared in the late 1960s, Cape Town.

#27 Some of the buildings in the area retained character and sturdiness, and could have been saved. Alas, no reprieve was shown. District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#28 A cultural group, named the Eoan group, was formed among the mainly coloured community. For many years, the organisation entertained the public with ballet performances, operas and plays. Putting one of his tenors through his paces, during a break in building stage props, is director Joseph Manca. District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#30 An old inhabitant of District Six keeps her ailing husband company in a bedroom of her daughter’s house, Cape Town, South Africa.

#31 Residents of District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

#32 Walled in backyards became more prominent once exposed by the demolishing squads, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

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Written by Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark is a historian and writer who is passionate about sharing the stories and significance behind historical photos. He loves to explore hidden histories and cultural contexts behind the images, providing a unique insight into the past.

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