At the age of 61, Omar Lalla sits on his couch at his mother’s home in Rylands and casts his mind back to a lost childhood in a lost place: District Six.
Thursday February 11 will mark 50 years since District Six was declared an area for whites only.
Together with his mother and father, as well his three sisters and eight brothers, Mr Lalla grew up at 17 Clyde Street.
As a child, he attended Trafalgar Junior and Trafalgar High schools, where, together with his brothers, he played rugby and took part in athletics.
Growing up in District Six was “the best”, according to Mr Lalla. There was no crime in the area, and even the gangsters back then had more respect for people as they only fought among themselves, he said.
There were four cinemas: the Avalon, British, National and Star, where he spent most of his weekends if there was no rugby match scheduled.
Mr Lalla and his friends also enjoyed the public swimming pool in Hanover Street, played games in the street and even went to church on Sundays where they sang hymns and danced with the church members.
“There was a church on the corner of Clyde and Caledon streets, and every Sunday morning, I went to church with my friends, and we sang with the church, one of the songs was Fishing for Jesus. Even though we were Muslim, it didn’t bother our parents, we were having fun with our friends.”
Mr Lalla said: “Growing up in District Six was the best. We played lots of street games such as kennetjie, marbles, bok-bok op die rug, and handi-klippe. Everyone had a nickname, some were called Vleis, Blatjang, Lions, and I was called Babes I don’t even think they knew what my real name was.
“We all had respect for each other; we were a community. We had friends of all races: there was no racism in District Six. Blacks and coloureds lived together in one house. Our parents allowed us to be free and enjoy our childhood with no racism,” he said.
But all those good times, sadly, came to an end when the apartheid government introduced the Group Areas Act in 1966. People were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in far-flung areas across the city. Extended families were separated from each other and the community’s bond was broken.
“We felt so insecure because we had nowhere to go. The attitude of the people changed drastically. Their faces said it all. They were sad and angry, as well as disgusted with the government for taking away their homes.
“Lots of elderly people died soon after they were moved. They were put into dusty, unhygienic areas, and some houses even had no water even. Some people lost their jobs because it was too far for them to travel to work, they had no money for travelling.”
But Mr Lalla’s mother, Mariam, refused to move out of her home and stayed in Clyde Street with her husband and their children even after the police threatened them.
In 1973, however, they were forced to leave when the government cut their electricity and water.
Because Mr Lalla’ s father was Indian, the government wanted to move them to Cravenby in the northern suburbs, but they chose to rather live with one of Mr Lalla’s brothers in Rylands Estate.
“It was so sad, my mother was devastated, but she was always strong in front of us. I lost all my friends and couldn’t visit them, because we weren’t allowed in those areas or we would be locked up.”
Mr Lalla remembered how people in Distict Six took their washing to the Wash House in Hanover Park where women washed their clothes for a certain price.
There was also a public shower nearby where men and women paid 20 cents to take a shower. He also remembered how funny it was to hear the sound of a newborn baby coming from one of the rooms at his friend’s houses at random times of the day.
“At the time, the women gave birth at home, so it was very funny to hear the crying of baby coming out of the room a while after the midwives threw us out. ‘Get out! get out! Gaan speel buite,’ they said to us. The midwives were all over, so once the woman went into labour someone just went down the road and called the midwife to come deliver the baby,” he said.
After rugby on a Saturday morning, Mr Lalla and his friends would return to his house where his mother cooked a big pot of food for everyone to eat. They were eight brothers, so that meant lots of friends at their house on weekends. He said that after the game there would already talk about whose house the party would be at later that evening.
“It was fun, my mother always welcomed our friends. Everyone’s children was everyone’s. If we were naughty and someone knew us where we were, they gave us a hiding, and when we got home and told our parents why we were crying, they hit us again.
“There were lots of parties and lots of pretty girls also. We visited their homes, but their parents were strict. So when it came to 11pm or midnight they chased us away. ‘Moet nie die stoele warm sit nie,’ they said.
“Growing up in District Six was something else, we played soccer with gangsters; they didn’t kill people and rob them and hijack them like they do now. They respected the elderly, and if they were rude to the elderly, they got a hiding from the men in the community,” he said.
In 1982, Mr Lalla married and moved out of his brother’s house in Rylands and stayed in Surrey Estate with his wife. By that time, his mother had applied for a government subsidised house and received her house in 1986 in Rylands Extension. Together with his wife, they moved in with his mother and later had two sons, Quaashif and Yasser.
“I hope that the people who read this story will realise what it was like to live in a crime-free era. That the life we live today, full of gangsterism and crime, is not ideal. We need to make a change,” he said.