The alien film that’s a true story - sort of
Popular science fiction has long explored the themes of race, racial tolerance, isolation and segregation.
Alien species as a metaphor for race is not rocket science and it goes as far back as 1953 with the movie It Came From Outer Space, where the aliens believe their hideous appearance will inevitably lead to conflict with humanity, and reflects the xenophobic thinking at the time, that is the “blacks” would show consideration for the “whites”.
It was the sort of thinking that in turn led to one of the most tragic social-engineering laws of our time - Apartheid.
Hollywood’s latest offering District 9 - about the relocation of a population of aliens that have crash-landed in Johannesburg, South Africa is no exception to the species as race metaphor.
If you’re thinking “that’s bleeding obvious the film is set in South Africa after all,” it might be news to you that the film is actually inspired by a very real South African tragedy - the story of District Six in Cape Town that was home to many “coloured” South Africans.
I did love the look on a friend of mine’s face when I said “District 9 is based on a true story,” but that’s not far from truth. Leaving reviews of the film behind (and accusations that the film is itself racist in its depiction of Nigerians), it’s a story that should not be forgotten. At least not in exchange for the memory of the fictional Wikus van de Merwe.
District Six was, at the turn of the century, a bustling microcosm of racial tolerance and a vibrant and lively community populated by former slaves, artisans, small business people and immigrants. In the early days its population were mostly Cape Malays (called “coloureds” at that time) brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company during the years it administered the Cape colony.
But the population became more culturally diverse and home to a smaller number of Africans, whites and Indians. It is not a glossing of facts to say it was an area in which Christian, Jews and Muslims were neighbours and blacks and whites lived together as friends.
Eventually Apartheid would catch up with it.
On February 11, 1966 it did, with the government declaring District Six a whites-only area under the Groups Area Act, deeming it a slum and portraying it as an area rife with crime, gambling, drinking and prostitution and in need of rehabilitation. The Group Areas Act meant prime land, which the area was on, was to be reserved for the white population.
Apartheid upheld that interracial interaction caused conflict and necessitated the separation of races. District Six would forever disprove that and had to go.
In 1968 the first forced removals began and were carried out with shocking clarity and force. The “blacks” were the first to go, then the Indians, Chinese and Malays. Removals continued until 1982 when more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape flats - a township some 25 kilometres away.
Many are still trapped there in a vicious poverty cycle, cut off from the world, by the one road that leads in and out of the area. It took about 15 years but by the end the government had completely razed District Six. Houses and homes that people had only known, were bulldozed to the ground - the only buildings left standing were a few mosques and churches.
The story did not end there.
The (guilty) memory of what District Six stood for triumphed through Apartheid and the area stayed largely undeveloped, with only a small area redeveloped as a Technological College.
Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress recognised the claims of former residents to the area, and pledged to support rebuilding on the still empty land. In 2003 work started on the first new buildings.
On 11 February 2004, exactly 38 years after the area was rezoned by the government, former president Nelson Mandela handed the keys to the first returning residents, Ebrahim Murat (87) and Dan Ndzabela (82).
There have been some breakdowns and delays in claims and funding for rebuilding the area, but the government still expects some 30,000 people to return in the next three years.
I guess until that time the grassy lawns that grow over the old District Six prove the legacy of Apartheid will take a long time to overcome.
Meanwhile, white South Africans are the new villains in Hollywood, and some would say it’s a role that 40 years of Apartheid makes them well-suited for. But in our quest to blow up spaceships and save the human race, let’s not forget the recent and real story of District Six.
At least then, there is hope for the “future”. Aliens or not.
Don’t miss: Get The Punch in your inbox every day
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…