District Six hero dies before seeing his dream of return fulfilled

The man spearheading the return of thousands of people to District Six, an area in Cape Town that they once called home, will not get to see the fruits of his labour. Shahied Ajam, 62, the chairperson of the District Six Working Committee died of a heart attack this past weekend. 

In 1966, under the Group Areas Act, the prime land in the City Bowl was declared for white people only. About 60 000 people were forcibly removed to the Cape Flats and buildings, except for churches, were bulldozed. 

Now, through the work of Ajam and many others, more than 1 000 claimants await the day when they can return to District Six. Just before South Africa went into lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, he was preparing beneficiaries for a public participation process that would see them help conceptualise and design a reimagined District Six. Reconstruction was expected to start by the end of 2020, dependent on the end of lockdown. 

The working committee’s lawyer, Nicki van’t Riet, said the group had been shocked by Ajam’s death. But they took solace that he was integral in rectifying the city’s history, brutally scarred by legislated race-based spatial planning. 

Ajam has been described as charismatic and tenacious. His mission was to keep the dream of returning to District Six alive. 

“Seven years ago, Shahied was tasked with tackling this issue afresh. He was the driving force behind this whole process,” Van’t Riet said. “His zeal was contagious and he has had a profound impact on all of us.” 

In February, Ajam and the working committee celebrated a victory when the land claims court ordered the  national, provincial and local governments work towards a blueprint to start development and have people return to District Six. Soon afterwards a multi-billion rand development was approved. It was a restitution promise that was made, but left unfulfilled, in 1994. 

“Prior to the judgment, small pockets of development had already been taking place in the area. The plan now on the table is a four-year project taking place over seven phases, with residents expected to return to the area by 2024,” Van’t Riet added. 

In a statement, the District Six Working Committee said their work will go on. The group will meet this week to elect a new chairperson to take charge of the planned return of residents.

Ajam was born in District Six in 1958. His family was evicted from District Six when he was 16. He spent a large part of his adult life in Namibia, where he raised a family, before returning to Cape Town. 

He had been working on the restitution project for more than a decade, often without earning a salary.

Tributes have poured in for Ajam, whose burial by Muslim rites was modest and with a limited number of people present because of the lockdown regulations. 

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato attended the funeral. He and Ajam had worked closely not only on the District Six restitution project but also on feeding schemes and aid relief during the lockdown period. 

“The last personal contact I had with Shahied was during Ramadan where we cooked food for people. It was a wonderful evening. To see his passion. He had plans to even go deliver food to people in Hermanus. He was a person with a heart for the people and community,” Plato said. 

Plato acknowledged Ajam’s role in the District Six restitution project, describing him as a fierce negotiator, but a conciliator and democrat at heart. 

“The reason the City of Cape Town is intimately involved is because he made us intimately involved. He could call national ministers to meetings. Only he could drive the work being done. The repatriation of people and the building of new houses, he brought it up to this moment. Cape Town is losing a great man,” the mayor added.

Politicians at national level also paid their respects to a man who has often been a thorn in their side. 

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza was a respondent in the working committee’s lawsuit for the government to put promises into action. 

“In recent times, Mr Ajam, through his actions and work in consultation with the department, the Commission for Restitution and other stakeholders, contributed greatly in pursuance of a redevelopment plan that is in the process of being implemented to see the return of almost 1 000 forcibly removed families back to District Six,” she said. 

“It is especially tragic that Mr Ajam will not see this come to fruition, having contributed so influentially and tirelessly to this cause. However, Mr Ajam’s passion and devotion to the District Six community will endure. His legacy of action and activism for his community will always be etched in the fabric of the district,” she added

Ajam is survived by his wife Waggieda, three daughters, three step-children and five grandchildren. 

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