25 years after the end of apartheid Courtroom 19 of the Western Cape High Court was filled with the claimants of District Six, an area eviscerated off the slopes of Devil’s Peak by the apartheid government in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Of all the apartheid crimes, this may not have shed the most blood, but it was symbolic of the apartheid regime’s cruelty and its resolute will to cleanse a multiracial district of its ‘immorality’. Yesterday, Advocate Budlender put questions to the minister of Rural Development and Land Reform as to why a substantive plan for the district had not been submitted to the court timeously and just when this would be done.
Minister Nkoana-Mashabane seemed at times confused by what she was being asked, at times she took up attempts at political grandstanding. However, her rhetoric, concerning the crimes of apartheid and the deep racial inequality in the country, were met with complete silence in the court. The people who had come to listen were, it seemed, not interested in hearing from her what had been done to them. They were there to hear what will be done for them. They had come not to be told how they had been dispossessed but why they had been ignored for more than twenty years.
In fact the only person to get audible murmurs and cheers of agreement was Acting Judge Tembeka Ngcutaitobi. Ngcukaitobi who recently published the book The Land is Ours, which set out the story of black legal history in South Africa, was not to be fobbed off by the minister’s: equivocations; her claims that fund raising for the project would now begin to take place in various but unconfirmed government departments; that companies and South Africans would be appealed to for money to rebuild the area; that the project would cost too much for the ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform. Ngcukaitobi in many ways became both the voice of the people squashed into the small courtroom and the 1021 whose claims have not been processed.
What had, Judge Ngcukaitobi asked, happened to the R700 million Jacob Zuma had promised the project in 2012? Why had the minister produced ‘nothing factual’ with regards to the project? Why were there no concrete plans after over twenty years? Why had two separate and incomplete plans been made by two different companies? What substantive action was taking place other than claims by the minister that something inchoate would take place in the future? To this this the minister simply stared back in a form a stupefaction, the underlying nature of which is difficult to ascertain.
Acting Judge Ngcukaitobi warned the Minister that she had produced nothing of real value in her entire day’s worth of testimony. 13 claimants, Ngcukaitobi rebuked, had died in the last two years waiting for the Minister’s answers. For the most part the crowd sat waiting in silence, waiting to hear their fortune. Just what fortune they received from Nkoana-Mashabane in court was precisely that of a tarot reader. She answered nothing with clarity but rather with the strawman’s misty promises, promises conceived in the affluent rooms of South Africa’s impassive political class. But if there was some small succour for the group of the silent abandoned onlookers it was held in the judge’s questions. Whether the voice of an acting judge can rebuild a community is now a question – but sadly not an answer.
Further Reading on District Six