It was a special Easter celebration for scores of people who were forcibly removed from District Six more than 50 years ago, as they reunited with loved ones, family and friends they hadn’t seen in a long time.
In Green Point Park on Sunday April 16, people pointed out familiar faces, hugged one another and cried tears of joy as they recalled memories of the old neighbourhood and the way it was before the apartheid state declared it a “white group area” in 1966.
Some brought old pictures of their homes, others carried old school reports.
The reunion was organised by Priscilla Fortuin, who lived in Cauvin Street but now lives in Ottery.
She first got in touch with her old friends and neighbours through a District Six group on Facebook.
“I saw how hungry the people in the group were for a reunion,” she said. “We decided on a date, and thought Easter Sunday would be best. Although a lot of Christian people couldn’t make it, this is the first of many more we will try to host.” She was particularly surprised to encounter some old neighbours — twin girls she had mothered from a young age.
“They lived in the road where I stayed. There are many people from Cauvin Road. Someone even came from Johannesburg to come to the reunion.”
She said people should look out for the next reunion to be held after the fast on a date that has yet to be decided.
Yolanda Harris and Helena Ludawyk are sisters who haven’t seen each other in 15 years, as Ms Harris recently returned home from abroad.
Ms Harris, who now lives in Lansdowne, said she had gone to the reunion to build her family tree. “In the old days, people were very secretive and quiet, so I am here to get in touch with my family I’ve lost all those years ago, and to hear about them from my neighbours.”
Ms Ludawyk, whose family was moved to Lentegeur during apartheid, now lives in Elfindale.
“This experience is so overwhelming. If I have to talk about it, I’m going to cry,” she said.
Ms Harris said they had found many people from where they had once lived in Cauvin Street.
“We found Priscilla and other neighbours who told us about our grandparents, and friends of my mother, Beryl, who had passed away, so we have made some progress.”
She said the best thing for her was to hear how much she looks like her mother, and how much she is like her mother. “It warmed my heart. I wish there were more people here, but they should definitely have another reunion.”
Jasmina Hakim, from Milnerton, said she was very excited to attend the reunion.
“You don’t really remember the names, but you recognise the faces. I lived in Rochester Road.”
She said walking to the reunion had felt like taking a walk into the past. “It was like memory lane. The people here share memories that no one can erase. It is actually sad to see how people were scattered and how we are trying to find each other again.”
Keith Adams, who grew up in Canterbury Street, said the reunion had given him and others a sense of belonging. “It’s good to know where you came from and helps you with where you are going. People from District Six have a sense of identity. And instead of choosing to remember the area being declared a ‘white area’ under the Group Areas Act, they tend to acknowledge the positive nature of the area and what emanated from it.”
He said name tags would have made it easier for him to spot old friends and neighbours.
“People aged and their faces changed, so it’s difficult to recognise people, but I have seen a few familiar faces.”
Gawa Mohammed, from Athlone, brought pictures of the area that she has kept all these years.
“We grew up in Petersen Street. I found so many people from my area. I would like to return one day,” she said.
Sisters Farieda Sambaba and Gaironesa January, from Heideveld, said it was exciting yet heartbreaking to see everyone trying to salvage old memories. “We grew up in Bloemhof Flats, and when we got here we found Gawa,” said Ms Sambaba.
Shamilla Abrahams said the reunion had brought childhood memories rushing back.
“Myself and my twin sister, we were Priscilla’s babies. We practically lived in each others homes. I didn’t recognise her when I first came, but then when I stared at her, it all came back to me.”
Ms Abrahams said Ms Harris resembled her mother, whom she had grown up with.
“I cried when I saw Yolanda. We are all part of each other’s memories, and we are all looking for closure. Although most of us were moved to Mitchell’s Plain, we were all scattered and lost touch with one another. It’s a very emotional experience for many of us.”
Shariefah Isaacs, Ms Abrahams’s twin sister, said: “We were Sandra and Suzette Nichols, then we embraced Islam, which we felt comfortable with because in District Six religion did not divide us. We all went to madrassa and Sunday School. We all ate from each other and played with one another and everyone looked after everyone.”
Faeeza Rossier, of Salt River, said: We were all one big happy family. If I was naughty, your mom could give me a hiding. The shops put food on our table when we didn’t have. It was a wonderful area.” Nur Arendse said it was overwhelming to see all the familiar faces after 45 years. “It’s so awesome because we were all scattered. I can’t even explain the feeling. It was so sad, being removed from District Six and being dumped all over the show, but nothing can break our spirit.”