The Observatory I knew and the Twilight People

There are many lenses through which we can look at Observatory’s past. Here we look at Observatory as the City of Cape Town’s frontier for Apartheid’s twilight people – those caught in the fault-lines of Apartheid’s race classification system. Bokaap, District Six, Woodstock, Maitland, Salt River and the northwest corner of Observatory presented the implementation of Apartheid with a major headache. Between 1957 and 1961 more than 100 000 people classified as “Coloured” had already been forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act of 1950. However probably more than 200 000 “Coloured” people lived across this broad area of Cape Town with many employed in industries dotted across this same area, 60 000 of them living in District Six alone. Interspersed in pockets were also white working class people, but the biggest headache for Apartheid were an estimated 20 000 people of indeterminable race – the twilight people. They too were all over this area but where these were most vulnerable was in the northwest corner of Observatory as well as here and there over the areas to the north of Station Road.

These twilight people had many colloquial names, but essentially were families who could not neatly fit the Apartheid label of “White”, nor any of the categories of “Coloured” and “Asian” as a whole family. Some of the siblings in a single family could with a bit of social engineering fulfil criteria for a category while others only for another category. A special race classifications and review office was established to deal with such cases and all who were subject to this would find it a traumatic and deeply shameful process.

My father was born in District Six and my mother was born in Onderdorp, the “Coloured” section of Wynberg in the second decade of the twentieth century. My mother’s father and mother had moved to Cape Town from Cala, in the Xalanga district of Thembuland after my great grandfather had died in 1908 aged 100. He had been an English soldier in the War of the Axe in the Eastern Cape and married by grandmother, a “Coloured” woman from the Kat River settlement and then moved to free Thembuland before it was colonised. They were a small “Coloured” Catholic community who were part of the beginnings of the town next to the Tsomo River.

My father’s parents likewise were “Coloured” and Afrikaner from Lemoenshoek in the Kannaland. My father was a shoemaker at a factory called Bally’s in Woodstock, and mother a garment worker for Sweet Orr and later laundry worker for Lawson & Kirk and Nannucci Brothers. They were never married and my father disappeared from our lives in my infant years. My mother had already been divorced and her children from the previous marriage were grown when I was an infant. Our extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, were all a happy mix of European “Coloured” and Indian. We were what people called by a whole range of names, Grey People, having the ‘Touch of the Tar’, three-eighths, Quadroons, Halfies and ‘Halfnatjies’. Our classifications in Apartheid terminology straddled “Coloured”, “Other Coloured” and “White”, with some of the latter moving off to never engage with others again. My mother and her sister both worked in District Six and both were single mothers struggling to make ends meet. They frequently moved about living at times in Woodstock, Salt River and Observatory and then for the longest period they lived in the northwest corner of Observatory.

The Observatory of that time was an enigma, full of contradictions and it was not one place. Historically it was first a white middle class suburb and then as light industry and the Salt River railway works grew, it began to become stratified and its edges merged with the edges of Salt River.

Observatory was stratified at least into three parts, if not more. My mother lived as a boarder with other people and my half sister and her family also lived in an area which was actually considered to be more part of Salt River than Observatory. This was a relatively small enclave behind the Bijou bioscope where the lowest and poorest strata of Observatory lived and where the correlation of class to colour was also a factor.

In this north-western corner bounded by lower Rochester Road, Robbins Road, inclusive of lower Scott Road down to Malta Road, the most deprived area was the part of Rochester Road below Lower Main Road and streets like Nansen Street, Naires Street, Burke Street, Cole Street, Pitt Street, Tasman Road, Grant Street, Chatham Road  Lower Scott Road.

The second strata of Observatory were the artisan class which were stretched from the upper part of Rochester Road to Station Road and to below the Lower Main Road. Those living nearer to the Salt River side shared similar status to the lowest strata in the north-western area but were just cut above in status. Then the third strata who were part blue collar and part lower echelons of white collar workers lived in Observatory South, from station Road to Mowbray and on both sides of the railway line. Among them were also upper middle strata professionals. But even in southern Observatory one would have the odd person or family that broke the imposed Apartheid classification norms. The most well-known being the Guajarati family, the Khshevs that had a shop in Trill Road, where they lived above the shop until forcibly removed. They had run Oxsole Shoe Repairs opposite the Post Office in Trill Road since 1903 and had to give up the property in the 1980s. This is now the place called Tagores.

The two laws that determined race categories were the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act and these were quite contorted in its prescription. They first relied in practice on a determination based on general appearance but then a new factor was introduced which related to social acceptance, or “what others thought”. This of course led to people pimping on each other. At a cost of R20 an informer could raise questions about ones classification and this allowed for witch-hunts that led to investigations of one’s background and community relationships.

Between the early 1960s and the early 1980s there was one in six people classified as “Coloured” who were forcibly removed as to one in over 660 person’s classified as “white” who were assisted to move in terms of these Acts. Any white person would be classified “Coloured’ if in a marriage with someone of any group not classified as white. And no new marriages were allowed to take place across the race boundary under the Immorality Act.

Observatory, Woodstock, Salt River, Maitland, Little Claremont and District Six were areas where this factor of race classification and applications for reclassification were more common. It had devastating effects on peoples’ lives. Some people immigrated; some families were split forever, never again to talk to each other. There was at least one case where a couple who were sweethearts from childhood committed suicide by jumping in front of a train in Salt River. The parents and community were devastated with grief.

The most mixed area was the northwest corner where residences were interspersed with small factories. In much of this part of Observatory as with Salt River and also parts of the second strata of Observatory the houses were owned by a few rich landlords, like Penkin, who had let the properties deteriorate because there was a Rent-Control Board that kept the rentals affordable for the lower classes. The roofs leaked, the floor-boards were rotten, windows broken. The walls with some of the properties in the worst state were boarded up, otherwise you could see into the house. People in the poorest part had fire-burning geezers for bath-water and many cooked on primus stoves and used paraffin heaters in winter. In this northwest corner there were “poor white”, “halfnatjie”, “Coloured”, Indian (and I knew of at least one “Native” family) living in a common condition of poverty.

Because my mother was a single parent, and over forty and poor, she boarded in other people’s houses and could not always have me with her so I would be fostered out and also spent time in a cruel Dickensian Children’s Home. Whenever I came to be with my mother for a little while, as a child, I would notice how Apartheid was slowly winning the war for separateness. The Bijou where my half-sister worked as an usherette for a while first became an upstairs downstairs segregated establishment and then a “whites only” establishment. The Palace where one of my half-brothers sometimes worked as a doorman was built as a “Coloureds Only” bioscope. People in Observatory South looked down on people on the other north-western end and kids used terms like Gham and trash and ‘Halfnatjie’ more frequently. Another name that was hurled at the twilight people was “Obs-scurve- itry”.

There was one historic moment that I recall when Marius Barnard, the brother of Chris Barnard, did his first heart transplant and the donor was a lad from a few doors down from my half-sister in Cole Street. The lad had got involved in a fight over a spanspeck melon and his opponent stabbed him through the head with a screw-driver. There was only one phone in the street and that was in my half-sister’s home, and that’s where all the negotiations took place over the phone. They were promised all sorts of things including to move to a new home in Woodstock if they signed on the dotted line. People were desperate for greater security and the deal was done. I don know how it all ended.

By the time that I went out to work at the end of my fifteenth year a strategic squeeze was occurring in Observatory which facilitated the forcing out of white working class families to places like the northern suburbs and leaving the poorer twilight people exposed. These either moved further into Salt River and Woostock, or managed to get classified either as “Other Coloured” or as “White” and then also moved into the designated Group Areas. Then rent control system was being phased out and landlords were now renovating and tarting up houses and renting these as shared premises for students. In the north-eastern corner demolitions and building of factory premises also played a role in squeezing people out. Many of the twilight people managed by hook or by crook to get through the entire Apartheid era by coasting under the radar. More opted for being “white” and a few insisted on being recognised as “Coloured”, not because accepting the term but on making a statement that they were not prepared to abandon their family identity and kow-tow to the Apartheid regime. And one or two of us took of the might of the security police and the military and Home Affairs and the Race Classification Office and went off and fought the war for liberation.

The Child Welfare Department were also always snooping around and in some cases children were removed from parents and put into children’s Home institutions or fostered out because they were either to fair or too dark, not too different to what happened to Aborigine children in Australia. The pretext was often to paint the parent as being delinquent. In some cases this also included “Sugar Girls” who worked the docks. They too were twilight people, as were their children fathered by Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian seamen.

Observatory also had the most churches that any place could have. I think I once counted twenty churches. Most of those with modest means either were Catholics or went to informal churches, but there was every denomination that you could think of. One also had to beware of church people conniving with welfare officials and with informers. Nowadays I see that most of the churches are no longer churches and used for something else.

I have all sorts of mixed feelings when I walk through Observatory today. It’s changed so much – for the better. It’s kind of like WE WON in the end. It’s a wonderful social mix of people and cultures with a bohemian twist and where the pallor of your skin tones and social class really does not marginalise you as it did in those days. But I still also feel sad and see ghosts and the north-western end feels like a graveyard. Once a noisy place where raised and excited voices competed with steam trains at the bottom of the road shunting and hooting. And when I stop and stare at twilight time, I swear I see my twilight people lingering here and there. A sprinkling of the old Obs people are still around; some, because they have worked a lifetime for Groote Schuur Hospital.

The saddest thing for me by far was one day when I returned after 15 years in exile, having been on the wanted list. I was crossing the road in Obs and this fella came up to me asking for some small change. There was something in the voice that made me look at him a bit more closely. He was one of the kids with me in the Children’s Home when I was a kid. He and his brother were dumped in the institution by the police when their mum was murdered in her bath by an intruder in their home in Woodstock. A whole lot of things went through my mind in split seconds. He was a wonderful kid and had great dreams for the future – wanted to be a pilot. He was always finicky and meticulous about his appearance; he even use to swirl his hair with a swirlcose. Now he was dressed in handouts worse for wear, but still you could see that neatness trait. He was younger than me, but now looked much older than me. His teeth were messed up and his eyes sunken. It really took me aback. I responded to his request and at the same time called him by his name. He was taken aback and stepped backward and I said “it’s alright, it’s me” and identified myself. And with just a flicker of a smile he responded; “It’s so good to see you after all of these years – I heard that you had become a somebody.” And my heart was wrenched and tears came my eyes. He slept in doorways and under bridges and was in and out of Valkenburg and got by with the help of strangers who took pity on him. We talked for long and he told me how his brother had committed suicide. He did not live for much longer after that encounter. He died never knowing what it was like to be the “somebody” that he had dreamed to be; he was one of my twilight brothers.

– Patric Tariq Mellet (Heritage Whisperer)