The SEVEN STEPS of District Six as a symbolic tool for understanding Cape identity
To anyone who has had an association with old District Six, the very mention of the ‘Seven Steps’ immortalised in Taliep Petersen’s musical ‘District Six’, stirs up deep emotions. The Seven Steps of stone worn by the thousands who climbed these to work, to home, to school, to play, to bok, to church, to mosque, to shop, to celebrate and to mourn, were part of the great big soul of the district. Today, so many years after its destruction, the Seven Steps stands out as the premier symbol of District Six. The District Six museum has it as an integral part of its brand and logo. There is a reverence at its mention – seven after all is God’s number. Seven is the dobbelaars ‘Lucky Number’.
The Seven Steps of stone worn by the thousands who climbed these to work, to home, to school, to play, to ‘bok’, to church, to mosque, to shop, to celebrate and to mourn, were part of the great big soul of the district.
District Six became Cape Town’s own Harlem. This Cape African Creole district on the edge of the city had its roots as one of the first settlements of freed urban slaves after emancipation. It was also the first home of African dockworkers from the Eastern Cape, sailors who jumped ship and poor European immigrants. The district grew over the years and became the cultural heart and soul of Coloured people. Some 40 000 people were living there. In 1966 the Apartheid regime began a forced removals process after declaring the colourful district as a ‘whites only’ part of the city. The forced removals, accompanied by wholesale demolitions saw the dwellings of the entire district raised to the ground. First Africans and then Coloured people were moved to the Cape Flats. The forced removals finally ended in 1986 when the last of the people were moved out. To add fuel to the fire, the district was renamed Zonnebloem - sunflower.
In the heart of District Six stood the seven stone steps which became one of those symbols of District Six that lives in the hearts of all who lived, loved, played and worked in the ‘District’. The seven steps became a powerful representation of popular memory.
The physical District Six is lost somewhere on the patch of earth and grass that remains like a gash on the body of our city. The District Six Museum is custodian of some of the old blocks of stone, the steps, and some pictures and paintings exist, but the greatest legacy symbolised by the seven steps is etched in our hearts. The spirit of District Six lives on.
There were seven stone steps in the heart of old District Six which holds a special place in the hearts of many and it is a powerful symbol of the heritage of Cape Town. The Seven Steps also speaks of the Seven Roots of identity in the Cape. The Coloured community in particular shares all of these roots of identity. (While some are comfortable with the term ‘Coloured’ many do not accept the term and feel uncomfortable with it, but no universally accepted term for people of mixed origins has ever emerged to find acceptance. I personally do not like the term and express myself as having a Cape Creole African identity as a South African, but I also do not shy away from using the term Coloured as it is more generally understood and used. Creole simply means ‘new creation’ or ‘locally born’).
Most people of the Cape from all population groups share two or more of the Seven roots. There is at least one of these roots in everyone and even the most recent to join us in this city and province has a place in these Seven Steps. Everyone had a place in old District Six and the Seven Steps stands out as a powerful symbol of diversity and inclusivity in the Cape. In applying the symbolism of the Seven Steps to our heritage, each STEP represents a root tributary to Cape identity as follows:
STEP 1: Represents the tributary of the INDIGENES. The people of the Cape have strong African roots. The San, Khoe and amaXhosa in the Cape and the baSotho and baTswana in western and northern reaches of the old demarcated Cape Colony are the first tributary of Cape identity. The Coloured people of the Cape have deep African roots with a number of traditional African communities, sharing ancestors and many elements of cultural heritage. History also shows us that communities such as the amaXhosa of today, share San, Khoe, Asian and European ancestors with Coloured communities. There is a strong cousin-connection across ethno-social boundaries in the Cape.
STEP2: Represents the tributary of the SLAVES. We are the descendents of Slaves from other parts of Africa and Madagascar, from India and from the Indonesian Islands. Over the period 1653 – 1808 over 63 000 slaves were brought to the Cape from these areas. Around 32 500 of these slaves came from Africa and Madagascar, 19 000 from India, and 11 500 from the Indonesian islands. Between 1808 – 1856 a further 8000 mainly African slaves were brought to the Cape as ‘Prize Negro’ slaves captured from slaver vessels by the Royal Navy. The locally born children and successive grandchildren of these slaves were all to lead lives of slavery until emancipation in 1836. For many ‘Prize Slaves’ emancipation only came in dribs and drabs right through to 1870 and the last slaves arrived in 1890.
STEP 3: Represents the tributary of the FREE BLACKS. We are descendents of the Free Blacks of the Cape – a category of people that once were poised to be a socio-economic group to be reckoned with in early Cape development, but later for a number of reasons became powerless. Early Mardijkers soldiers from Ambonya in the employ of the VOC, Free Black travellers, soldiers and sailors, the manumitted slaves, and freed black convicts all became part of those referred to as Free Blacks.
STEP 4: Represents the tributary of the EUROPEANS. We are descendents of a range of Europeans who intermarried with, or who had children with Indigenes, Slaves and Free Blacks. In the early founding years of the Cape Settlement the mainly German, Dutch, Swiss, Portuguese, French and Scandanavians were mainly male and took black partners. Many Europeans were also transient and never settled in the colony but left children behind. There were always Europeans, across the centuries, who had children with black partners and this carried on when the English, Irish and Scots arrived in South Africa. The Europeans settled and made their homes in Africa as a local people, but their bloodlines can also be found amongst indigene groups and Coloured communities, as much as indigene and Coloured bloodlines can be found in the descendent European communities.
STEP 5: Represents the tributary of the MAROONS. We are descendents of runaway slaves, Free Black rebels, mixed ‘Baster’ descendents of indigenes and slaves, non-conformists Europeans, escaped convicts, and eccentric missionaries. They became the freedom-trekkers who moved as far away from the reaches of the colonial government, long before the Boer Great Trek, to the long wild territory along the Garieb river in the north west, and to the amaXhosa territory in the east. Here these Drosters or Maroons mixed with Khoe, San, Xhosa and other indigenes and formed new groups such as the Orlams Afrikaners, the Bergenaar Basters, the Springboks, and the Griquas. Others joined the Xhosa armies and resisted both the Boers and later the British.
STEP 6: Represents the tributary of the EXILES & REFUGEES: We are the descendents of outspoken fighters and political leaders who challenged the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish in various territories in Indonesia and Polynesia. Indonesian Muslim resistance leaders were tried and banished into exile at the Cape; Peranakan Chinese from the Chinese resistance after the massacres of Chinese by the Dutch in Batavia; and Philippine refugees from the Phillipine Revolution - the Manillas, landed up at different times in the Cape and integrated into what was later called the Coloured population. In later years, to this day, new exile and refugee groups would continue to trickle into the Cape, make this place their home and integrate with other communities.
STEP 7: Represents the tributary of the INDENTURES & MIGRANTS: We are descendents of a range of people who were brought to the Cape as indentured labourers or who were economic migrants. After slavery was formally ended at the Cape, first the ‘Prize Boys’ were forced to accept indentureship as labourers, then farmers began importing indentured labour from the Congo, Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique. Most of these ‘Indentures’ were settled in the Drakenstein and integrated with both the Coloured communities and the amaXhosa who were working in the district since the late 1700s.
Already many of the freed slaves in the Drakenstein were those from East Africa known locally as the Mosbiekers. The Mosbieker pool grew as indentureship was continually extended over the 19th century.
From the 1840s and increasing in the 1870s right through to 1910 and beyond, large groups of people were brought in as indentured servants from St Helena. The Saints as they were known were also descendents of slaves, Chinese and British settlers on the island of St Helena.
In 1890 the Ormoro North African slaves (Somalia) seized from a slaver ship were brought to the Cape and these also integrated into Coloured and amaXhosa communities.
Also amongst the migrants were West Africans of the Kru tribe who had been employed by the Royal Navy in Simonstown for almost a century (1830 – 1930). These Kroomen as they were locally known also integrated into the Coloured community. Their grave markers can still be seen in Simonstown today. In the late 1800s the Royal Navy began recruiting Siddis and Zanzibaris from displkaced African communities scattered along the African and Indian coasts. Siddis and Zanzibaris like the Kru also integratyed into Cape society.
Migrants and other infusions into the Cape society carry on to this day. Through our sea ports relationships have produced children with Chinese and other seaman of many nations. Economic migrants and refugees from other African countries still arrive daily and take their place among us as they always have. District Six was a key centre that became a microcosm manifestation of the coming together of all of these tributaries and the creolisation of cultures that gave us the rich and diverse locally born Cape African heritage that we celebrate today.