Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Demolitions and forced evictions; Palestine and South Africa

Pre-demolition District Six
The District Six Museum memorializes a diverse Cape Town neighborhood that was demolished by the apartheid government. District Six, renamed Zonnebloem by the apartheid government, was a diverse neighborhood that housed “a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants.”      

In 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. By the early 1980’s the neighborhood has been entirely depopulated through forceful removals. More than 60,000 residents were relocated from District Six to the Cape Flats townships, a flat-lying, sandy region that lies southeast of the Cape Town business district. All homes in District Six were demolished.  

District Six after demolition  - District Six Museum

A satellite image from Google (captured yesterday) shows the remnant of the razed neighborhood.  The Cape Peninsula University of Technology was controversially built in District Six, however, most of the demolished area remains undeveloped.  

Undeveloped lands mark the demolitions in District Six
The floor of the museum is covered with a map of District Six as it appeared before the forced removals and demolitions.  Former residents of District Six who have visited the museum have marked the locations of their family homes before the demolitions.

As I read the stories of those forcibly displaced and looked at images of bulldozers razing homes, I couldn’t help but think of Palestine. Demolitions have become emblematic of Israeli oppression in Gaza and the West Bank and are a sign of the callousness of the Israeli state in its treatment of Palestinian communities.  

While there is some speculation about the reasons for the demolition of District Six, as the apartheid regime suggested several different reasons for the removals, a piece of the answer lies in District Six’s proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor. In other words, in was a valuable piece of land that the government decided should be cleansed and re-inhabited by the preferential people group: whites.  The cosmopolitan nature of District Six also scared the government as the mixing of races would inevitably lead to camaraderie stemming from shared oppression, resulting in alliances that the minority white government could not afford.

The Israeli government also has various ambiguous reasons for carrying out demolitions of Palestinian homes. One category of responses is, “their homes are built illegally,” while the other set is, “it’s for security.” Or more ludicrously, Israel's previous policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers (even if an entire family still lived there).

The Israeli state demolishes Palestinian homes to safeguard land for Jewish settlement in addition to demolishing Palestinian homes under the pretense of protecting existing Jewish communities that were built in close proximity to Palestinian areas.  

The South African apartheid government and the Israeli state carried out demolitions for slightly different stated reasons, but the baseline rationale was the same: to distance, invisibilize, and margianalize the racial ‘other.’  The immigrants that settled on South African and Palestinian land took power (through various military, political, and legal maneuvers) and then sought to group the racial other into camps, bantustans, townships, or ghettos while leaving the most desirable and resource-laden lands in the possession of the ruling minority (the Palestinian and Jewish populations are now nearly equal between Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank but this is only a recent development -- after the war of 1948, Jews were a ruling minority population). Unfortunately, Israel carries forward the legacy of demolitions while South Africa has moved beyond de jure racial segregation.  

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