District Six Reconciliation Day event

Sheikh Ismail Keraan, Gwynne Robins and Lettice Joemath in conversation in the restored Moravian Church

The film Black Panther ends with the hero saying, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, but the foolish build barriers.” This is a message that the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies takes seriously, even without a crisis.

As our community represents 0.32% of Cape Town’s estimated population of 4.5 million, few are likely to have ever met a Jew outside the TV screen. This means that every opportunity for us to build bridges by participating in an outside event will help break barriers and let the other participants see that we are just like everyone else. No horns. No tails.

One such event took place on Reconciliation Day when Stuart Diamond and Gwynne Robins participated in an interfaith Reconciliation event in District Six focusing on reconciliation and restitution. For the past 20 years the Government has stalled on arranging restitution for the 30000 people who had been forcibly removed from their houses during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. After years of delay the Western Cape High Court in November gave the Government’s Department of Rural Development and Land Reform three months to bring back to court a layout plan for the redevelopment of the area

When Gwynne was invited to a planning meeting for the event, it was as a Jewish representative, as the organisers did not think Jews had ever lived in District Six. She soon put them right, producing a photograph from the Jewish Museum’s District Six Exhibition of her great grandparents’ family with her 12-year old grandfather having a meal in their District Six home c.1902.

On Reconciliation Day, about 300 people gathered in the recently restored Moravian Church, filling the benches and sitting on the floor. After a spirited and noisy introduction by the Moravian brass band, followed by a meditation by a member of the African Traditional religions, a panel consisting of Sheikh Ismail Keraan, Lettice Joemath, wife of the Moravian Bishop and Gwynne spoke on living in District Six. The congregation then set out to walk to the Anglican St Marks Church where they were encouraged to share memories with the people sitting next to them.

Stuart and Gwynne were moved at the depth of pain they were exposed to as people poured out their bitter memories of being forcibly evicted from their homes and moved to the bleak windswept Cape Flats. Then onto the Al Azhar Mosque where Stuart spoke and delivered a prayer on behalf of the Jewish community.

We ended up at the Holy Cross Catholic Church for koeksisters and cool drinks where we were welcomed by the priest, nursing a broken ankle, having fallen after chasing a mugger who had attacked a teacher from the nearby Holy Cross Primary School. Dominee Deon Snyman of the Restitution Foundation led us in reciting a Litany of Restitution and a Muslim lawyer updated us on the slow restitution process and the recent successful court case after so many years.

Both Gwynne and Stuart had family connections to District Six. Gwynne’s great grandfather had been the shochut and ran a butcher shop and boarding house. Stuart’s grandmother had a fish and chips shop while another relative had the shop that sold school uniforms.

The revelation that Stuart and Gwynne had had connections with District Six amazed the audience. How soon people forget. 

Apartheid has erased memories along with houses, leaving a wounded people and, sixty years later, all that remains are empty derelict desolate land full of nostalgia, broken glass, rusty nails and drugged gangsters. 


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