Dr Siona O’Connell, a University of Pretoria (UP) academic, has a produced a documentary titled Uitgesmyt (“Thrown out”), which focuses on the effects of forced removals, land restitution, and the after-effects for communities years down the line.
The 26-minute film is a result of her research into land and restitution, and was a collaboration between UP’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Curating the Archive. She has never studied film and “wasn’t trained in the conventional sense in film-making, but the film is one attempt at making sense of the effects of the country’s centuries of oppression,” she explains.
Dr O’Connell, who says she has “forced removals in her blood”, tracks the lives of the Elandskloof farming community in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape. Community members were kicked off their land in 1962, due to the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act. “They were small-scale farmers who farmed buchu [a herbal remedy] and rooibos, and paid a tithe to the NG Klerk, and were tricked into believing they owned the land.”
The documentary reveals that the community owned donkeys, cows and chickens. Food was plentiful. “We were a tight community. We didn’t know hunger. We had fruit…, ” said community member Margie Januarie.
Then disaster struck on a fateful day in 1962, when police set fire to their homes and bulldozed others, while confiscating their livestock and forcing them off the land, with the community scattered across nearby towns. Years of hardship then ensued.
However, in 1996 this community became the first to have their land restituted under the democratic government – but, 23 years later, they are still struggling.
The documentary highlights the shortcomings and challenges of land restitution. In Elandskloof, no houses were built for the returning community, while there are limited services, including scant cell phone reception. “Poverty is entrenched over many generations,” Dr O’ Connell explains. Stuck in a time warp, community members interviewed in the documentary reveal drug and alcohol problems, with high levels of gender-based violence, and children experiencing a sense of hopelessness. Elderly women eke out a living making dry floral arrangements and selling acorns to farmers for animal feed. “They are not allowed to farm rooibos, as that requires a permit,” Dr O’ Connell says.
With regard to the national land restitution project, there is an indication of poor planning on the part of the government, evident in the use of consultants who were often (failed) large-scale commercial farmers producing “wildly inappropriate” business plans for these small-scale farmers.
Dr O’ Connell is part of a family that has experience of forced removals. Her maternal grandfather emigrated from India to South Africa, where he became a businessman and a land owner – but his land was taken from him. “My dad’s family were tenants in District Six and were affected by the Group Areas Act. Tenants are unaware that they have recourse to anything. They were kicked out and they remain vulnerable.”
Through her ongoing research around race-based evictions, Dr O’Connell says the effects are long-lasting and inter-generational. After evictees were kicked out, some did better than others.
Her research found a pattern of alcoholism among communities who experienced forced removals, with men “being emasculated” and not being able to protect their families. “The Cape Flats arose out of forced removals. Divorce rates shot up. Men deserted their families. They were lumped together and dumped into the unknown.”
Dr O’ Connell believes there’s a need for a study into the after-effects of forced removals, as they were vast and catastrophic. “The film is a call to government. Nobody followed up on people who were affected by forced removals. There was no rethinking about what makes up a community. If you were kicked out, your economic resources were stifled and there were knock-on effects. There has been too little focus on trauma. There hasn’t been a place in South Africa that has not been touched by forced removals.”
Making the documentary was an emotional journey for her. “People opened up their homes easily to me. The film is a way for people to access the work I do. It provides insight into the aftermath of oppression. I have weaved together a story with ordinary folk,” she says.
What is clear for her is that, “People are being given their land, but are left alone and forgotten. It’s easy for us to turn a blind eye to the realities of millions of South Africans. But for those of us who are committed to live in this country, it can’t be business as usual.”
Dr Siona O' Connell