The pigeon man
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Date: 12 April, 2004


Noor Ebrahim. Photo: Charlotte Haines Lyon
 

'It was a coloured church but whites came in the side door.'

Whilst Charlotte Haines Lyon was looking at books in a museum, a gentle voice said: "That's my book." To Noor Ebrahim's surprise she responded, "You're the pigeon man! You made me cry today." A friendship began and an interview ensued

If you visit Cape Town, chances are you'll come across a strange area of scrubland within easy reach of the seafront, Table Mountain and the city centre.

The only buildings are lonely mosques, churches and synagogues. In one corner of the grassy rubble there is a building site. Welcome to District Six.

Noor Ebrahim works in the District Six Museum in Cape Town, a memorial to the forced removal of people of colour under apartheid.

"A lot of people say District Six was a coloured area," says Noor, an former resident. "I always say 'No it was a colourful area.' There were Jews, blacks, Muslims, Christians. . . ." He reminisces about the family atmosphere; how different faiths turned down their music whilst their friends went to prayers.

For 100 years, District Six was a vibrant multicultural community. In 1966 it was all to change. "We proved that living with difference could work and the government didn't like that. I still believe that is why they declared it was a white area," declares Noor.

Fight

Over the coming years, despite a valiant fight, 60,000 residents were forcibly removed to segregated areas in Cape Town. That is, the whites stayed and the blacks and coloureds were banished to their respective townships, which in most cases were 20 miles away.

The houses in District Six, whilst needing the odd lick of paint, were large and well built. But the residents were moved into small huts and hostels as their homes were demolished. Noor's colleague, Jo Shaffer, describes their minuteness beautifully: "We did not have room to change our mind let alone our clothes."

Forced removals were not simply a case of being evicted from your home and community, but in many cases families were torn apart. "I had a very good friend who was coloured, his wife was Xhosa - they couldn't go together, so he went to Mitchell's Plain and she and the children went to another township," Noor tells me.

However the community did not give in easily, Noor did not move until 1975 and the last removals were in 1981 and 1982. The late dislocations dispel the myth that the government had relaxed apartheid law by then. Due to the continued struggle, the area was never rebuilt into the white area that was envisaged.

For fear of incurring the wrath of international religious institutions, the government decided to leave the churches, mosques and synagogues standing. They naively believed that if they moved the community away, people would stop attending their place of worship.

The fact these sacred buildings still stand is testament to South African courage and determination. They are filled each week by original residents who travel miles to say their prayers. "I still go to the same Mosque that I have attended since I was kicked out in 1975. People still go to the Anglican church from Mitchell's Plain and all over," Noor confirms.

Struggle

The District Six Museum, where Noor now works, is housed in an old Methodist church. He explains that the church was key to the antiapartheid struggle: "There were a lot of political meetings here. People had to sleep over sometimes; otherwise the moment they left, the police would arrest them." Like the community itself, the church resisted segregation: "It was a coloured church but whites came in the side door."

When I read Noor's personal story of removal, ingrained in a wall of the museum, I sat and sobbed for some time. Having spoken to victims of torture it seems that it was the stories of everyday oppression that most shook me in South Africa.

Noor finally moved out to Athlone in 1975. He reckons he was lucky: "We had money so I was able to move to a coloured area where you could buy a house. It was only eight miles from here, which is not so bad." He took his homing pigeons with him and after some time of captivity he let them fly free. However, none returned to his new home.

"The next morning I drove through District Six past where my home once stood in Caledon Street. I saw a sight which shook me to my core: my pigeons. All 50 of them were congregated on the empty plot where our home had stood.

"I walked over to them and they looked into my eyes as if to ask 'Where is our home?' I watched them bulldoze my home but the saddest day was my pigeons."

Noor is keen to emphasise that forced removals happened across the country and millions of people were uprooted from their homes under apartheid.

Stressing the everyday suffering that occurred under the apartheid regime, Noor shares an experience from work: "I used to work for the Readers Digest for 31 years. We were sitting outside on a bench next to a toilet. My friend was sick but he couldn't use the toilet or the lift to go to 'his' toilet nine floors away."

White only ambulance

He then tells a story of a childhood friend being run over. "He was bleeding everywhere. I flagged an ambulance down and they refused to take him, as it was a white only ambulance. Fortunately a so-called non-white ambulance came along soon after."

In true South African style, Noor is magnanimous about his white oppressors. Despite describing ex-President Vorwoerd as evil for forcing apartheid, he complains about the nature of his death. "They stabbed him the same year as declaring District Six as a white area. I don't like the way he died, after all, he was a human being."

As to FW de Klerk, Noor says: "I admire him. He was the only one who released Mandela. I admire him because he knew that if he released Mandela he would no longer be president."

In talking about that first election ten years ago, Noor describes his first realisation of the change: "Four days after the election, we went to Sea Point for the first time - we couldn't go to that beach before, due to segregation.

"Six of us went to a restaurant for coffee. I said 'we can't, it's for whites only'. They said 'no, it's over.' I was stepping so carefully, I couldn't believe I was in a white restaurant." As he regales this tale, he demonstrates his legs quivering on entered the restaurant.

"I believe no country can change in ten years - it will take another ten to twenty years," he replies when I ask about the current state of South Africa. "Of course there are things that I am not happy with: the crime rate is high and there is the drug problem. The most important problem is unemployment, if they sort that out then the crime rate will drop."

As people patiently wait for life to improve under the ANC's impending third term of government, the lives of District Sixers can offer hope to the rest of the nation: four thousand homes are being built on the still empty land for the 10,000 people who want to move back. Noor hopes to return next year.

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