Heritage: How forced removals shaped ‘An Impossible Return’

21 September 2020

Data – in multiple forms – informs stories, and stories shape the things we study. In this case, the acclaimed late South African sculptor David Brown helped UP academic and filmmaker Dr Siona O’Connell reshape one of her studies of forced removals.

At a 2015 meeting with O’Connell, Brown shared photographs he had taken when he was a student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. The pictures (illustrated in this article), were taken in the 1970s and show members of a community living in Harfield Village, in Cape Town’s southern suburbs.


Thanks to the apartheid-era legislation known as the Group Areas Act of 1950, Harfield Village, like District Six, Claremont, Newlands and Simon’s Town, saw many of the coloured, black and Indian communities forcibly removed to an expansive and inhospitable area of the Cape Flats on the outskirts of the city centre. Others were moved to equally far-flung places such as Atlantis and Ocean View (which is nowhere near the sea). An additional cruelty to the eviscerated Harfield community was its re-zoning, with homes being sold to white buyers at unconscionably low prices.

       Image by David Brown of children in Harfield VillageImage by David Brown of people from Harfield Village

Brown’s photographs became a window for O’Connell to tell the story of how these lives and this community, with their camaraderie and closeness physically ripped apart, was forced to cope with the alien and hostile environment of the Cape Flats. Between inhospitable winter flooding and the barren sandscape, the Flats lacked the support of an extended family and the links and bonds of the Village neighbourhood. Areas like Manenberg, Lavender Hill and Mitchell’s Plain became fertile ground for the escalation of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, which continue to plague people on the Cape Flats today.

a baby in the 1970s in harfield village

“The economic impact of being forcibly removed is felt down the generations,” says Dr O’Connell as she considers the poverty traps that exist on the Cape Flats and in Atlantis (50 km north of Cape Town), and how the past has shaped these communities, especially the ‘coloured’ communities, into what they are today.

David Brown’s images became an exhibition, curated by O’Connell, and later formed part of the documentary and book titled An Impossible Return.

  a woman in the 1970s captured by david brown   

The pictures capture an intimate story of a community imbued with grit and echoing loss. Much of what is captured was fortuitous – during the period covered by the exhibition, access to photography was reserved for the select few who could afford a camera and the cost of developing the film.

a man who had performed the hajj pilgrimage in the 1970s poses for david brown in a traditional arab outfit

Still, these images documented the losses suffered by the dispossessed of Harfield Village. “The violence of the forced removals, the loss of their homes and the overwhelming sense of dispossession persist with these former residents of Harfield Village, with many commenting ‘There is no going back’,” Dr O’Connell says. The multiple losses are haunting and captured in her book and film. O’Connell’s research presents these personal truths and documents the collective trauma for the Villagers, the current homeowners, and for future generations.

O’Connell’s focus on the coloured community stems from her own journey of dispossession and loss. She continues to document dispossessed communities using archival sources like David Brown’s pictures to capture the collective pain of people who have been socially, psychologically and economically affected by the trauma of the past.

In a post-apartheid society, O’Connell’s research matters because it pricks our collective conscience and provokes us to question why true freedom in South Africa, extending beyond political freedom to economic freedom, is still unrealised for so many.

Watch An Impossible Return here: 


Infographic showing statistics of forced removals at harfield village

An Impossible Return is published by Kwela Books and can be found here.

Credits for all images: David Brown