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Is District Six’s past doomed to repeat itself?

A different kind of displacement is taking place in the form of gentrification while the horrors of the District Six forced removals have not yet been addressed. A focus on the past and present to restore human dignity might be the first neccesary step
Thu, May 27, 2021

Address Unknown just scooped the Best Short Film award at the SAFTAs. It captures the trauma of the District Six evictions under the apartheid Group Areas Act laws. The opening scene sees two boys playing hide and seek and running around the neighbourhood like kids tend to do. You also see a Cape Town minstrel playing a tune among the colourful houses. Then, everything fades… into nothing.

The film is directed by Nadine Cloete and set in 1976 at the height of the uprising against apartheid. One of the epicentres of this period was the Bonteheuwel township in Cape Town. This was the township where young people led the struggle with their counterparts in Soweto. It was where students were arrested for protesting, raising their fists and shouting the words “black power!”; it was also where many of the antiapartheid struggle heroes like Ashley Kriel were first recruited to join the underground resistance movements. This is where Joey and his family are being moved to after they have received their eviction letter. This was after District Six was declared a “whites only” area by the apartheid government. His friend Ebie had been forced to close down his family’s butchery and move some time before.

Joey is a postman in District Six who has to deliver letters to houses that have been brutally destroyed after the families are forced to move. One day, he has a letter in his possession that is addressed to a place that is close to his heart; it is the childhood home of his friend. He sits down to take a moment. On the ground, he notices a sign for Hanover Street among the rubble. He decides that he is determined to deliver this letter personally despite his wife’s concerns that if he visits Bonteheuwel, he will end up in jail or killed by the police. When he goes to Bonteheuwel the chaos is in full swing. The streets are filled with sirens and helicopters and true to form, the apartheid police are seen chasing down protesters.

The film is incredibly emotional and tugs at all the strings. What makes the viewing even more saddening is that many of the families who were forced out of District Six are still desperately waiting to return. The restitution process is moving at a snail’s pace and all spheres of government are to blame for this. It also shows how places of heritage are not just about the colourful buildings, but about the people and the memories that are made there. Joey’s search for his childhood friend proves this. There are areas in Cape Town like Bo-Kaap, Salt River and Woodstock that are in danger of repeating these mistakes from the past. This time, it is about greed and economic apartheid in the form of gentrification.

Address Unknown is brilliantly directed and written. It leaves you wanting more but at the same time, you understand why it had to be that length. It is powerful - like a gut-wrenching kick to the stomach. We all know what happened after 1976. Now, we need to learn from the past; we need to ensure that forced evictions like this never happen again. More than that, we are reminded through this that there must be restitution for the families of District Six who were so cruelly forced to leave. To avoid history repeating itself, there must be some form of justice. The film does a good job at serving as that reminder.

  • Address Unknown is available to stream on Showmax