Opinionista Terry-Jo Thorne 4 June 2014

Evictions: When tragedy comes full circle

The people of Lwandle are facing violent, devastating evictions this week. Sadly, it’s a sight all too familiar to South Africa, a scar that is still all too clearly visible. Considering this history, some of us grew up in relative privilege, but we don’t have to look far to hear the stories that survive.

The word eviction evokes violent imagery – more so in the wake of the considerably shocking removals occurring in Lwandle this past week.

The term “Apartheid-style” has been thrown around, too, as we speak of the use of the police force, with their Casspirs and their weapons, casting families out into the devastating winter climate.

I feel particularly strongly about it here in Cape Town because I am finally starting to sit up and take notice of the many, many voices that cry out in the night when the police come to arrest them and demolish their homes.

What does it mean to be evicted? I can’t speak of the violence, because I have never experienced it. I’ve been uniquely sheltered my entire life, and I find myself frightened at the mere suggestion of an imbalance in my comfortable and privileged world.

You’ve seen it in the news, and you can imagine it. So I think I’d like to speak rather of something else that is closely tied with the evictions happening around us today. And I speak not only of Lwandle, but of other areas and methods of eviction which occur throughout the city at an alarming rate. Hangberg and the Marikana settlement (Phillippi), to name a few.

My father was evicted in the 70s, from Harfield in Claremont. As a child, his stories were entertaining and as a teenager, they were merely the background chatter to his too-frequent drives through the area in a bid to relive the memories we left behind in the now-shiny, now-white neighbourhood.

It’s laughable, but it’s only when I moved to the area myself that I sat up and took notice of the ghosts which drifted down Harfield’s streets. Ghosts which spoke of a lost community, a lost future, and a lasting pain.

Forgive me for my melodrama – it’s just that, as a result of my newfound interest, I’ve heard stories. Real ghosts (audio recordings by people whose identities I don’t know and who I can’t be sure are living or dead) sharing tales of a community that was ripped apart violently under government orders. These stories, collected in 1994, capture the lives of the Harfield residents who were removed under the Group Areas Act, and it’s chilling to hear how aligned their sorrows are to the fears expressed by those under threat of removal today.

“But I’ve been here all my life – where can I go?”

“I can’t afford to move anywhere else – what should I do?”

“I built this place. Why should I be the one to leave?”

It may be nice to think that these communities which have developed and built themselves up in Cape Town could easily be replicated by the same people who built them before. The thing is, they’re not.

People get removed from homes and from neighbourhoods and the result is devastating to them and to our society, too. The violence is not forgotten, just buried in the individuals, the loss and the trauma cannot be erased. Whether they’re ten people in a small dwelling or individuals living in relative luxury, their home as they know it is pulled quickly and violently from beneath their feet. Mass evictions pull a single home from beneath the feet of hundreds of people. Like a physical assault (as these evictions often include), the trauma is everlasting.

And do you know how I know? Because somebody asked them and they told me. Decades after the forced removals under Apartheid, there were patterns in the stories told by ex-Harfield Village residents, a smaller but similar community to District Six. I listen to their accounts from twenty years ago before, and they are eerily reminiscent of those told by people who remember the removals today. That’s over four decades ago.

I don’t deny that people rally from these experiences. By God, we’re South Africans – I know we can rally from a good beat-down from any corner. The vanity alone will keep us upright. But it doesn’t take away the lasting effect on the communities in general and the individuals specifically.

I attended my first Harfield Village market last year. It’s a fun affair, with the entire Second Avenue blocked off and dedicated to festivities. It’s really worth a visit. My father, excited at the idea of a day out in his old neighbourhood, started early and I found him wandering through the crowds buying overpriced beer, enjoying multiple bands entertaining the suburban crowd. But when I spoke with him, he looked troubled.

“They gave me a map,” he said. I was confused, and took the piece of paper he showed me. A cartoonish map produced by a local property company to give visitors a chance to explore the pretty streets that make Harfield Village.

“They think I’m a fucking tourist.”

He was angry, but it was an old anger that bore little resentment – only fatigue. It was an exhausted feeling and spoke of a life of constant battle to forget the nightmares, but could not let go of the childhood happiness that once been enveloped in these tiny streets. It spoke of a history that could not be hinted at in the ridiculous yellow map handed out by the property company on their tuk-tuk, and a deep sorrow that could not be healed by the festivities which shallowly emulated some of the street celebrations of his past.

Who could tell these drunk revellers what had happened here 40 years ago? Who would understand how hard it was to rebuild dignity after moving to a community in which nobody knew you – or wanted you there? Did they fully grasp that poverty did not always mean misery? That their communities and lives and homes mattered, even though they were poor? Who could empathise when you expressed your fears that your children would never know the joy of a neighbourhood family you helped build and which would look out for them as they faced challenging world one day?

Whether a community is newly-formed or as ancient as the earth itself, the effect of tearing people from it – or, even worse, tearing it up completely – cannot be shrugged off by the powers that be. Just ask your parents if you need some perspective. DM


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