Displacement. Dispossession. Loss. Land. Space. Identity. Place. Home.
The person is the place. The place is the person. The person is the place. The place is the person.
We cannot forget that a person’s identity is inextricably linked to the place. People are centred within their communities, and often defined by their communities. When people have historically, and presently, been forcefully removed from that community, it creates a deep sense of displacement and loss – physical loss, material loss, emotional loss, and even loss of one’s self.
On Thursday, 6 April 2017, we as the SAWIP 2017 team had our first official session. I had found this session exceptionally powerful, having just walked into the room, I had initially seen two pages on the floor – “settler” and “native,” and upon further inspection I had seen a third page on the floor, “slave.” It was the first time I had seen the addition of ‘slave’ alongside the native-settler paradigm. I had come slightly late to this session, so I was on the back foot catching up – but the label slave was a welcomed addition, for the first time I could contextualise myself, particularly in a context where the coloured identity is one of confusion and lack of understanding.
For me, this session unpacked a great deal for me, it focused on forced removals and the Group Areas Act, particularly in District Six. This resonated with me, as my grandmother and my father formed part of the community that was forcefully removed during these campaigns. The legacy of the Group Areas Act and forced removals remains with us. Our communities have been ghettoised, people have been stripped of their identities, and were forced into new spaces. They had to build new relationships, and navigate this space – often young men and women were forced to adopt what Renee Kannemeyer, the facilitator, called deviant identities. Previous links that brought communities together in a place like District Six was completely eroded. Spaces like the Church, the Mosque, the Community Halls suddenly did not exist anymore. People reorganised and tried to find meaning, but in ways that were harmful – through gangsterism and drugs.
This extract by Noor Ebrahiem from his book, Noor’s Story: My Life in District Six brought me to tears when I heard it recited by our brilliant facilitator:
My Pigeons come home
(from Noor’s Story, pp82-83)
By 1975 I was fortunate enough to have saved sufficient money to buy myself a house in Athlone. This meant that I would not have to move to any of the areas designated for ex-residents of District Six, including Mitchells Plain, Hanover Park, Lavender Hill and Belhar.
So, on a warm day in January 1975, my wife and I with our two children, aged three and five, moved to our new home in Athlone. With our belongings were my prized racing pigeons, for whom I had built a loft, using the same wood that had made up the loft in District Six.
After three months in Atlone, I felt that it was time to let the pigeons fly free to see if they would return home. I was fully aware that not all of the pigeons would return to their new home in Athlone. When I returned home that evening, the first thing I did was visit the loft. ‘Where are my pigeons’, I asked my wife. Not a single pigeon had come back.
After a sleepless night I returned to work the next morning, driving, as I always did through the demolished landscape that was once District Six. As I drove past the now empty plot that used to be my home in Caledon Street, I saw a sight the shook me to the core: my pigeons, all fifty of them, were congregated on an empty plot where our home had stood. Getting out of my car, I walked over to where the pigeons were. Very surprisingly, they did not fly away, but looked into my eyes as if to ask, ‘Where is our home?’
How do we breathe?
How do we move forward?
All of this speaks to feelings of hurt and trauma, there is a trans-generational burden that our generation still must carry. What hurts most is that 23 years into democracy, our spaces are still racially stratified and segregated, our communities are still ghettoised. We still have forced removals, even if it is in a different form. Not enough meaningful progress has been made to improve the conditions of our existing communities. To add insult to injury, people without decent housing within the city spaces are still being pushed to the outskirts of the city or deep into the Cape Flats to make way for private developers to get access to prime property.
Professor Ronnelle Carolissen’s session a few days later had shown us that in many ways we can transcend geographical space, but it is difficult. We need to actively work to build stronger communities, to create opportunities for those who have been marginalised, and to rebuild identities and understanding of one’s self. There is no clear pathway to do this, but this is where the ground work starts.