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Heritage Day must acknowledge the trauma of the dispossessed

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Dr Siona O’Connell is with the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.

To separate the reality of daily life in places like the Cape Flats from their historical legacy and entertain nostalgic musings about SA’s ‘colourful’ heritage would be to do Heritage Day a disservice. The Cape Flats exists as a result of thousands of families being forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act of 1950.

Heritage Day, 24 September, is the highlight of Heritage Month in South Africa. Public and academic discourse about braais, “traditional” dress, cultural practices and tangible and intangible heritage usually abound, and all sorts of physical distancing-compliant events will take place.

This Heritage Day will, of course, be unlike any that South Africa has had before, as we, like millions across the globe, continue to battle a common threat, a virus that has no regard for race, privilege, class, gender, religion or sexual orientation. This pandemic has revealed the deep fault lines in the democratic South Africa, but, equally, has opened up a crucial opportunity to think deeply about who we are and how we have come to be here.

That the pandemic has caused mayhem, particularly in poverty-stricken informal settlements, is unconscionable. As has been documented since Level 5 lockdown was announced on 26 March, physical distancing in overcrowded informal dwellings is impossible. Inhabitants on Cape Town’s Cape Flats, for example, have not only been held hostage by the virus, they have also had to survive under the most trying of circumstances, burning in a sand-swept expanse of land that is subject to winter flooding and shack fires.

To separate this reality from its historical legacy and entertain nostalgic musings about South Africa’s “colourful” heritage would be to do Heritage Day a disservice. The Cape Flats, an area understood to be where “black” and “coloured” people live, exists as a result of thousands of families being forcibly removed from areas such as Upper Claremont, Newlands, Constantia and Harfield Village under the Group Areas Act of 1950.

Before they received their eviction notices, residents lived, loved and laughed and engaged in soccer, dance and domino clubs – activities that played key roles in holding healthy communities together. The evictions had the effect of ridding prime land of its inhabitants, allowing “white” owners to snap up homes at bargain prices.

These homes, many of which were built by local artisans and craftsmen, sit on the uneasy side of heritage, a heritage that is whitewashed in “lovingly and originally restored” sales rhetoric and community security patrols, but is acutely traumatic for former residents who recognise their former homes. The dispossessed are alone in trying to comprehend the trauma of eviction and what the loss of homes continues to mean on psychosocial and economic levels.

The question of land, remembering and forgetting, sits at the heart of belonging and citizenship in South Africa. It is estimated that up to 10 million people were subject to race-based evictions during apartheid, meaning that a significant part of South Africa’s population today bears the intergenerational trauma and attendant costs of removals that occurred decades ago.

The land restitution process is complex and fraught, with the slow pace of restitution sitting at odds with the fact that the first legislation passed by the government of President Nelson Mandela was the Land Restitution Act of 1994. (The importance of land and restitution preceded the drafting of the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.)

Money siphoned off to corruption and State Capture, limited budgets, long bureaucratic processes and the Standard Settlement Offer, among other factors, have meant that the restitution programme has not yet yielded the restorative justice required to settle the debt, at least in part, to the dispossessed.

In cases such as that of South Africa’s first “successful” land claim settlement of Elandskloof in the Cederberg in 1996, the failure to comprehend the full extent of trauma and the kinds of support necessary to support precarious communities is evidenced by the fact that the residents of Elandskloof remain cruelly impoverished, cast adrift in a history and a heritage that is not of their making.

This Heritage Day offers South Africans a chance to contemplate the effects of historical injustices, particularly that of race-based displacement, with urgent questions of how South Africa can learn from Covid-19 responses and engineer green and resilient recoveries that will create some sort of buffer against future crises.

To celebrate Heritage Day with a braai and to cushion ourselves in a convenient amnesia will be our collective shame, and we will be complicit in the further silencing of South Africa’s forgotten. DM

Dr Siona O’Connell is with the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.

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