On a recent visit to Cape Town, South Africa, this writer visited the location where a once bustling and vibrant cosmopolitan community that was within walking distance of Cape Town’s city centre once stood. During the 1970s, South Africa’s apartheid government evicted the politically oppressed residents from Cape Town’s sixth district that had evolved during pre-apartheid South Africa, then sent in the bulldozers to demolish people’s former homes. The ruins of District Six remained for several years after the demolition, a stark message of how an oppressive government can deal with a vibrant cosmopolitan community.
The story behind District Six is the story of how functional extended family relationships among the community’s resident provided a basis upon which an oppressed people of limited economic means who evolved from slaves could strive for greater achievement. During its peak, District Six was alive with entrepreneurial activity, with a great multitude of locally-owned small businesses being located along the main road through the area. Many entrepreneurs sold their products door-to-door. Many of the children of District Six helped their parents and relatives run their family businesses.
While several fatherless boys lived in District Six, most of them had an adult male role model in their lives, usually an uncle or a grandfather who was involved in some form of constructive entrepreneurial endeavour. They were expected or required to earn some income for the family, either by working in a family business or by working for someone whom the family knew. Older male relatives often taught them business skills at a young age, meeting the inborn need of young boys who seek approval, acceptance, validation and acknowledgement from older males. As a result, gang crime in District Six was minimal and usually involved a few small gangs fighting among themselves.
Being located within walking distance of Cape Town’s city centre, many District Six residents could walk or ride a bicycle to their places of employment. During the era of District Six, Cape Town’s city centre was alive with activity on weekend and holiday nights, courtesy of the residents of District Six. While most of them came to enjoy the activities or walk around just to enjoy the evening, many others were street vendors who sold a variety of snacks and refreshments to visitors. Others shared their talent by putting on sideshows to entertain visitors and contribute to Cape Town’s weekend evening vibrancy. Several of Cape Town’s white-only nightclubs even employed non-white musical talent from District Six to play the beat to which white Cape Town danced.
During the very early years of District Six, the area’s children gained access to a non-compulsory primary school education in stables that had been converted into classrooms. Action by the non-white council member from District Six resulted in the opening of a small high school with minimal resources in a converted old house. While tax revenue provided minimal school funding, school attendance was not compulsory and political control of the curriculum non-existent. Successful completion of the final year of high school examinations opened the door to a university education. South Africa’s racial policies required that non-white teachers teach non-white students at the primary and secondary school levels.
After WWI and courtesy of political action by the firebrand city council member who represented District Six, the University of Cape Town accepted non-white students who had successfully completed their final year of high school examinations. But these students could expect contempt and ostracism from most of the white students and the most of the all-white faculty, who were at least colour-blind when they graded assignments, tests and examinations. Even after WWII, a non-white student who asked a question of a professor could expect to be ignored. Courtesy of the attitude of a few professors, several non-white students formed an informal support group to encourage each other “to keep up the struggle” as they persevered through the university level academic challenge.
During this period, two students who were well-read in classical literature realized that the attitude of the faculty literally put them into the roles of an academic Ulysses and Hercules. Both graduated from UCT and became teachers, one of them at the high school in District Six. They in turn put high school students from homes of limited economic means into the academic roles of Ulysses and Hercules and continually encouraged them “to keep up the academic struggle” in schools that had minimal resources. By the early 1950s, both UCT graduates were teaching in District Six, one becoming the principal of the area’s second high school , “Underdog High,” with minimal resources and flimsy pre-fabricated structures for classrooms. Despite the drawbacks and challenges, many of the students achieved spectacular results on their final year examinations.
The combination of emotionally supportive extended family environments in the home and a few teachers who persisted in encouraging students to “keep up the struggle—because they were worth the effort” saw most of them successfully complete a rigorous high school curriculum. Many former students successfully completed university studies in education, medicine, commerce, business and law. The high schools of District Six also became hotbeds of political discussion and debate, with supportive teachers telling students from politically oppressed origins that “they were more than 2nd class citizens.” “Underdog High” even eventually gained the nickname of “Revolution High.” As the bulldozers moved in to demolish District Six, a student from “Underdog High” scored top marks in a multi-racial mathematics Olympiad that included participants from South Africa’s more privileged schools.
The lesson of Cape Town’s District Six is that when governments leave well enough alone in the social department, extended families can provide for the emotional and developmental needs of the younger generation, despite limited economic means. When government leaves well enough alone in economics, entrepreneurial activity can thrive in a community. When government keeps politics out of the schools, even schools with minimal resources can produce students capable of achievement despite them having originated from families of limited economic means. In Chicago, teacher Marva Collins achieved similar results in her first private school with students from working class families.
South Africa’s apartheid government’s destruction of District Six was a purposeful plan intended to destroy the extended families that once lived there by forcibly relocating people who had been neighbours into outlying areas where their new neighbours were total strangers. Other governments in other nations have used the more subtle, more tactful strategy of social welfare to undermine the integrity of functional families, along with a range of economic regulations that restrict interested entrepreneurs from doing business in numerous areas of the economy. Cape Town’s District Six was a cosmopolitan area with functional free-market entrepreneurial activity that served a core population of 60,000 people and an extended population of 150,000 people. Its existence stood testament to the fact that a community can function without government social control and economic regulation.
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.