Thursday marks 50 years since Cape Town’s iconic District Six was declared a whites-only area, followed by forced removals. Music maestro David Kramer has created a new work, District Six – Kanala, to commemorate the event that tore a community apart. vi
he one thing everyone remembers about District Six is the music. How everyone would “langarm” at the Tafelberg Hotel on the weekend. And there was something about the alleys and the side streets, and the defiantly multicultural nature of the place that seemed to birth talented musicians like nowhere else. The National Party had to tear it down. Everything that District Six was, there on the slopes of the mountain, dancing in pencil skirts and slickedback hair, proved that apartheid did not work.
It took the bulldozers more than a decade to erase District Six completely – well, to physically erase it, flatten the buildings, remove the people, destroy the vibrant community, break the bonds, split the extended families up and scatter them to the wind. It will be 50 years ago on Thursday, on February 11 1966, that District Six was declared a whites-only area, and the forced removals began, work which was only completed by 1978, when the last building was flattened and the area settled into “a haunting”. Not even a haunting, as David Kramer remembers.
“Living in Cape Town in the 80s, you didn’t hear anyone speaking about it. It was so painful ... It was very quiet. There was nothing about it.”
It is partially due to Kramer’s pioneering work with late fellow musician Taliep Petersen that District Six – The Musical, this collective memory of the district, exists. That now-legendary production, mounted at the Baxter in 1986, was to mark the 20th anniversary of the declaration, and now, here we are 30 years later, with Kramer about to stage District Six – Kanala, opening on the 50th anniversary, in the district itself at The Fugard Theatre.
Kanala is a tribute show with a strong ensemble cast that features longtime Kramer collaborator Loukmaan Adams, as well as Bianca Le Grange, Andrea Frankson and Carlo Daniels. Drawing from the Kramer/Petersen songbook, as well as new material, it is a series of vignettes told by a narrator. As Kramer explains, “People would always say, ‘Ag, just give me this kanala or just do this for me, kanala,’ which means ‘please’. So I just thought Kanala would be recognisable. It’s the idea of talk about District Six. ‘Kanala ... like, District Six, please. Give us something.’ So I’ve got this young girl saying when she was a kid she used to crawl on to her granny’s lap and her granny had this photograph album with photographs of her friends and the place. And her granny would tell her, ‘You know, my girl, you know who this was? This was so and so...’ And so she, as a child, learnt all the stories around these pictures. So she would crawl on her granny’s lap and say, ‘Granny, District Six, kanala.’”
I had always imagined Kramer to be permanently possessed of that slacklimbed Chaplinesque walk hard-coded into the men of early South African television, a sort of Paul Slabolepszy lope. Instead, he skims across the dark floor of The Fugard lobby, his trademark little black hat neatly askew. For the whole morning he’s been doing technical run-throughs, testing the lighting against the projections of the images that comprise the grandmother’s photo album. It’s plain that he’s a perfectionist.
“I wanted to put a show together which, if you hadn’t been there, would illustrate what the district looked like,” he explains. “And if you did know District Six, then it would be nostalgic. I’m telling it from a young person’s point of view. This grandchild of a woman who lived in District Six.”
The Fugard is housed in a church that was part of District Six, around the corner from the District Six Museum, where a huge archive of life in the district is available. It was different when Kramer and Petersen wrote District Six – The Musical.
“What’s interesting is how little there was,” says Kramer. “There was hardly anything in book form available.” He pauses here to think. “It was 1986 ... It was a terrible time because it was the state of emergency. The country was tense and going up in flames ... I think that initially we got white audiences in and then, as people started to hear about it, it just took off ... like this is what they needed to relive that thing. It was still so painful and fresh. It was an unexpected reaction. And the music started that conversation again...”
Kramer explains his approach to the National Party’s erasure of histories like this: “Barney Simon from The Market theatre used to always say the theatre should be a living newspaper because we had all that censorship at the time and you didn’t know what was going on in the townships unless you went to a Market theatre production. And I found that really informative and stimulating, and in some way they printed it in the back of my mind that we really have to show this place that’s now being destroyed in a way that will hopefully speak to the people who lived there, because if they approve of it, then I don’t care what anyone else says.”
Kanala is also a tribute to Petersen, murdered in his home in 2006, a crime his wife Najwa Petersen was convicted of masterminding and was sentenced to 28 years in prison for. And it’s a tribute to many other people Kramer has worked with over the years, such as Salie Daniels, Cyril Valentine, Billy Jaftha, Dougie Schrikker, Al Hendricks and Zayn Adam, as well as Richard Rive and Vincent Kolbe.
“I met so many wonderfully talented people who have been denied access to the stage,” says Kramer, “and it was a great thrill and wonderful to be able to bring some of those talents to the stage.”
It’s hard to fully grasp how different the times were when Kramer started making music. Back in the 80s, for him to be creating what we might now call Kaapse Afrikaans was heresy. But to white audiences who opposed the
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7 FEBRUARY, 2016
Edith Plaatjies (left) and Bianca Le Grange during rehearsals for David Kramer’s new show, District Six – Kanala, at The