Harold Herman

Harold Herman, 72, is the dean emeritus of the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Cape. He was born in a village located between Stellenboch and Somerset West. He lived there through out his childhood and went to school in District Six. As a scholar in sociology, he has well-rounded observations on the social developments in South Africa.

What is the history of District Six?

District Six was the sixth suburb of Cape Town. For some reason, it was the only suburb that retained its number forever. There was District Five and District Four, but those were not known by their names. But District Six, because of its distinctive nature, was known as District Six from 100 years ago probably.

It was an area that was very multi-cultural. It was close to the harbor area of Cape Town. The sea used to go as far as the Castle. District Six is relatively close to the sea and the ports, so that means that a lot of people coming by ships to the Cape Town came for social reasons. 

District Six is the area behind the City Hall of Cape Town. That area had a variety of ownership. It was owned by some white people, particularly Jewish people, who had bought the land, and rented it to the people of color. But, of course, there were houses that belonged to the colored people as well. It was a high density area, in the sense that most of the houses were semi-detached, which means there was just a wall separating one house from the other. You see many of them in Cape Town. There weren’t big houses with big gardens in District Six, necessarily. There was some but only a few. 

What were the social conditions of District Six?


Because of the way that Cape Town was developed, it developed a capital of its own. People spoke English, but with a different accent from the pure BBC English. It wasn’t a dialect. You could understand it very well, but it’s just the accent, and the way they say words. It has its own distinctive language, which we called Cape English and Cape Afrikaans, or Dutch for that area. The language is a mixture between English and Afrikaans.


As people moved there, the institution developed. There were churches – There is the Moravian church, the Methodist church and the Anglican church (St. Mark’s Anglican Church), which is today the middle of Cape Town University of Technology. It was build with stones. Many people were Muslims, so there were a number of mosques. One thing about Islam, you are not allowed to destroy a mosque. The apartheid government respected that. 


I went to Trafalgar High School. I was there for four years, and I was taught by brilliant teachers. We were highly politicized school, and we rejected apartheid. We talked the philosophy of non-racialism. There were no such thing as colored people, white people or African people. We were just all human beings, South Africans. We had pretty radical philosophies. Most of them were marked as philosophies. I grew up in that kind of culture.

Only those of us who were intellectually strong and regarded as reasonably gifted children managed to survive the system and get to grade 12.

At that time, only 5 percent of us managed to get into white universities because very few colored and African people were allowed into these so-called open, white universities, like the University of Cape Town.

How did poverty exist before apartheid and as a result of housing removal?

I grew up in a poor area. I had wonderful parents, but, still, we were poor. The people in District Six were poor. But, the culture in which we grew up, the ethos of our schools was good. So there was hope. There was a sense of aspiration. You aspired to get somewhere in life. There was opportunity, although it was hard to get the opportunity. Nowadays, because these people were displaced and so badly neglected over the years, they’ve lost a lot of their hope, their dignity and their sense of wanting to achieve and get to the top. They live in a world of mediocrity.

One of the things that worries me a lot as an educator and teacher trainer about our school system is that the school system has been dumbed down. In other words, it drops to a lower level. What that means is young people do not understand what is quality in education, in writing, in literacy or in working. If you work in a factory, there’s work that you have to produce. Now that might be the case in China, people know they have to produce things at a certain level whether it be in school or at a particular workplace. A lot of that is not prevalent across black South Africa anymore because of the deprivations we suffered over the years. The irony of it is that the struggle against apartheid, where the schools were used since 1976 with the Soweto uprisings as a site of struggle, has reduced discipline in the schools, and it has taken away this ethos or culture of teaching and learning.

We refer to it in my work as the demise or the destruction of the culture of learning and teaching by the system. That is why South Africa has a huge problem in terms of the quality of its education system. It is those Model C and private schools, you saw it in that young black woman that has to produce the leadership for the future. In a sense, we are lucky that a fair percentage go through this system and are black. A lot of the Model C schools are now predominantly black in terms of the student population. The teachers will still be predominantly white. But, they grow up in an ethos that is productive. There’s lots of sports at these schools. South Africa is one of the leading countries in the world for rugby and for cricket. What people like me are trying to do with the United Nations Association and other projects like you saw in Stellenbosch, is to try and find ways to get those who are disadvantaged to get into this environment where they can achieve, have aspirations and have a view that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for them so that they don’t have to become gangsters and sit in townships, destroy their environment and be lazy.

How does apartheid still influence daily life?

I think what has happened since 1990 and 1994, is that class has replaced race as the decider of where you go. Many African people don’t speak like that because they didn’t grow up with the language of English. They only really came to grips with the language of English at university, which is a bit late. I’ve told you before how some of my students struggled with writing essays in English because they were Xhosa speakers. They were very intelligent people, but they were caught up in this language conundrum.

How do you think the challenges would be different if the housing displacement hadn’t taken place?

I think the challenges would be enormously different if that hadn’t happened. Those communities would have become more stable. You would have had the normal upward mobility of people. You have that in every country of the world. You live in a working class area and you work hard and upgrade yourself. You graduate into a middle class environment, a middle class housing environment, etc.

But, that didn’t happen in South Africa because the black community was severely handicapped by apartheid. You heard the president today blaming apartheid for the problems he was accused of yesterday by the opposition. Now of course, it’s 20 years down the line, and some would say he hasn’t got a case because we’ve had 20 years to reconstruct the society because we have a black government.

Power, property rights and wealth is still largely in the hands of white people, and it’s going to take time, as he said in his speech, to kind of get over that. You’ve heard about Black Economic Empowerment, Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, triple B, triple E, that is one way that is trying to redress as we say the inequalities, but that also has its challenges because it creates a small elite. The deputy president who sat right below us, next to the president, he’s a multimillionaire. He benefitted from Black Economic Empowerment. Now that’s fine for him, but our concern is more about the millions out there who’ve got nothing and you saw some of that in the townships where you were.

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