Heritage: Finding your way back home after being 'uitgesmyt'

Uitgesmyt – ‘cast out’ – is a documentary by Dr Siona O’Connell which tells the story of the first land restitution case in South Africa.

The story centres on the coloured community in Elandskloof, in the picturesque Cederberg region of the Western Cape. The community was forcibly and violently removed from this area in 1962 when, as a result of the Group Areas Act of 1950, the land was sold by the Nederduitse Gereformeerder Kerk (NGK) or Dutch Reformed Church, and their homes and belongings burned and bulldozed.

This close-knit community had its roots in the Slave Church and farmed buchu (a leaf used to make medicine) and the herbal tea colloquially called rooibos (red bush). The community paid tithes to the mother church, the NGK. In 1996, this community was the first to have their land returned to them by the post-apartheid South African government. However, returning to their land was not the end of their struggle. Elandskloof was home to a community of farmers whose initial dispossession created an economic and social vacuum that has entrenched a repeating cycle of poverty and attendant ills. The newly returned community members could not go back to farming their traditional crops due to legislation, failed interventions and access to water and pathways being curtailed.

According to Dr O’Connell, Uitgesmyt tells the story of the challenges, failures and opportunities of the land restitution programme, as well as one of restorative justice in the post-apartheid country. She says, “Elandskloof is an important lesson about the cycles of violence enacted by centuries of racial oppression, and a call to freedom to which South Africans should respond.”

Watch Uitgesmyt  in the video sidebar to learn more about how apartheid’s legacies continue to haunt democratic South Africa. Click on the next page to learn more about how forced removals in Harfield Village shaped An Impossible Return

An Impossible Return

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 the gallery in the sidebar of 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.

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.

“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.

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.

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 in the sidebar to learn more and click on the infographic to see some statistics about the extent of forced removals. Click on the gallery in the sidebar to view some of David Brown’s photography from the period.

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

Dr Siona O'Connell

September 21, 2020

  • Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Table of contents

  • Dr Siona O’Connell
    Dr Siona O’Connell is based in the University of Pretoria’s School of the Arts and is a founding member of the Critical African Studies project at UP (CAST UP). She was the recipient of the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of the Humanities in Africana and Latin American Studies, Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies at Colgate University in the USA. She has published widely, curated numerous exhibitions, and directed and produced seven films that consider ways of life after racial oppression in South Africa. These include two on forced removals and restitution: An Impossible Return and Uitgesmyt, as well as a film on South Africa’s post-apartheid governing party, the African National Congress, titled Promises and Lies: Fault Lines of the ANC. Her latest film, In Gods Naam, considers the long reach of a colonial and slave history and confronts the schisms that remain unreconciled between the Nederduitse Gereformeerder Kerk (NGK) and The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA).

    Dr O’Connell co-edited Hanging on a Wire: Photographs by Sophia Klaase, which won the 2018 Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Award for Best Non-Fiction Edited Volume.

    Her work pivots on ideas of place, belonging and freedom, with a specific focus on land restitution and restorative justice. Her research interests centre on ‘colouredness’, memory and trauma, and how to think about freedom after apartheid.

    What has influenced your research interests?

    I am a self-acknowledged late developer! I credit the shaping of my academic career to being schooled at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa in Swaziland and my postgraduate studies with the late Professor Harry Garuba of UCT, Professor Nick Shepherd (UP and Aarhus University), and Professor Anthony Bogues of Brown University in the USA.

    Where did you learn filmmaking?

    I have never studied film production, but knew it was a powerful medium that has broad appeal and impact. I started off by learning instead from award-winning directors and creative teams and building a team with whom I have worked for years. I ask questions, believe in a dialogic approach, and establish relationships long before a camera is used. I also don’t use a script or storyboard.

    How has your background influenced your work?

    I was raised in a politically aware family, living on the edge of District Six, in walking distance to my paternal grandparents’ home in the iconic area. A love of reading and learning was drilled into the entire extended family. Also, ‘sitting on the fence’ was never an option. The forced removal of my grandparents, uncles and aunt to Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain on the Cape Flats is pivotal in the work to which I am committed. Seeing my grandfather diminish, becoming a shadow of his former, looming self, has never gone away.

    What drives you to do this work?

    My drive is not only to document the past as a nostalgic project. Rather, I contend that South Africa’s past plays out every moment in a deeply unequal society, and that those who are committed to the project of freedom are duty-bound to do difficult but necessary work. I am acutely aware of the privileges afforded to some on the basis of skin colour and gender – far too many have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It is my daily drive to chip away at the edges of privilege.

    What are your goals at UP?

    I am focused on developing a new generation of critical and imaginative young scholars at UP, to ask those unsettling questions of who we are and what freedom can look like.

    What should young South Africans do to document their own family’s struggles?

    Be involved in documenting the experiences of their families, ask questions, track down objects, photographs, and reach out to others to speak about shared experiences. Consider studies that focus on reimagining Africa!

    How can people who have a story to tell (from the Cape Flats or other forced removals) share their experiences and stories with you for curation?

    Please contact me on email or through castup.co.za.

    As a scholar and a practitioner who sees the lasting effects of apartheid in everyday South Africa, what is the most devastating legacy of apartheid?

    Poverty and inequality. And that women, especially black women, continue to pay an unconscionable price for a debt that’s due as a result of the past. This is why I the do the work that I do.
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