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.