Written by Heather Wilhelm
When I entered the movie theatre to watch the movie District 9 last week, I had no idea what I was going to see. I had heard hype that it was a great movie, but as far as I knew, it was just another movie about aliens with great special effects. I quickly realized that this movie had a very important social message and that while it may have been based on events that occurred decades ago, its message is still very much relevant today.
The movie is filmed in a mock documentary style and begins with numerous people being interviewed on camera regarding the aliens or “prawns” that have inhabited Johannesburg, South Africa for twenty years. As the story goes, an alien ship landed over Johannesburg in the early 1980s and remained dormant there for months. Upon investigation, it was discovered to be full of millions of sick aliens who were unable to move their ship. Flash forward to the present and the aliens have been living on earth in towns and ghettos around Johannesburg for decades, one of these areas being District 9, which has become a degraded slum. For this reason, the Multinational Unit (MNU), a military contractor, has decided to move the 1.8 million inhabitants of District 9 over to District 10, a tightly controlled camp some 200 km outside of Johannesburg. The basis for the film was the forced removal of more than 60,000 residents from Cape Town’s District 6 over a fifteen year period between 1968 and 1982.
District 6 (Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town) was created in 1867, and quickly became known as a lively area lived in by artists, immigrants, former slaves and merchants. Approximately one-tenth of Cape Town’s population called District 6 home. After the Second World War, the area was largely populated by coloured residents (in the South African, Namibian, Zambian, Botswana and Zimbabwean context, the term Coloured refers or referred to an ethnic group of mixed-race people who possess some sub-Saharan African ancestry, but not enough to be considered Black under the law of South Africa) as well as some Muslims, whites, Africans and Indians who all lived together in relative harmony, and the District’s proximity to the harbour brought through many foreigners, making it a truly cosmopolitan hub of Cape Town.
Beginning in 1966, in an effort to segregate the different races living peacefully in District 6, the Apartheid Government began the forced removal of residents from their homes by declaring District 6 a whites-only area under the Groups Area Act. The Government claimed that District 6 was a slum unfit for habitation, also making claims that the area was destitute and ridden with crime including gambling, drinking and prostitution. While residents had to accept these as the official reasons they were being uprooted from their homes, many believed that their land had simply become very valuable to the Government due to its proximity to the city centre and harbour, and that the forced evictions were simply a result of greed and land lust. For whatever reason, between 1968 and 1982 more than 60,000 residents of District 6 were forcibly removed from their homes (1,800 of which were systematically destroyed) and forced to relocate to the Cape Flats township some 25 kilometres away.
The homes created for the displaced residents of District 6 in the barren Cape Flats were squalid and meant to contain violence. There was nothing accessible to the area which contained only one highway in and out of the area so that military reinforcements could easily control any insurgencies. Poverty soon took over, as there were no increases in salary to compensate residents for their lengthened commute, and families were often split up, which meant women having to leave their children at home in order to work. This poverty led to an increase in gang violence, and soon, none of the community and togetherness that had once been the core of what District 6 was known for, was any longer apparent.
Fifteen years after the fall of the apartheid government, there has been little change in the Cape Flats that still house many of District 6’s displaced families. While the residents are under no obligation to remain in the area, few have the money to leave the Flats and relocate. Gang violence is higher than anywhere else in South Africa, with gang rape, murder and robbery at an all time high. Residents are currently able to submit claims to the Government in order to be returned to District 6 and the new housing that is being created there to house those displaced by the tragic forced removals that spanned more than two decades, but is that really enough to make up for the racial discrimination and alienation that has been suffered by so many for so long?
The great thing about South African director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is the fact that it is bringing awareness to the plight that the original residents of District 6 are still facing despite the apartheid government of South Africa having fallen fifteen years ago. The movie provides metaphor after metaphor for how damaging racial segregation was and still is, and brings to the forefront a very important social message – this is still going on, and we have to stop it! If nothing else, I can only hope that movie goers around the world are able to gain from this film what I did, and that the true message behind District 9 is not lost in special effects and a fantastic tale.