Book brings memories of Claremont evictees to life

Impossible Return tells the stories of those forcibly removed from Harfield Village under the apartheid-era Group Areas Act.

In November 1969, the Group Areas axe that had been hovering over Lower Claremont for almost two decades, fell with a sickening inevitability.

With a stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, close to 19 000 residents were faced with the reality of being forcibly removed from an area in which many of them had been living for generations.

Those who described themselves as residents of die Vlakte (the Flats), as it was known before Lower Claremont came into vogue, were crammed into an area that took in Bell Road (which ran from Harfield Station) to Rosmead Avenue, to Chichester Road, and from there into Lansdowne Road, and back into First Avenue.

The area consisted of three main avenues – First, Second and Third – which ran parallel to each other. Running off the avenues were a number of roads, all of which were named after British towns or counties, such as Surrey, Lancaster, Leicester and York.

In 1972, acclaimed South African sculptor, David Brown – who was then a student at University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art – took a series of photographs of families in Harfield Village, before they were kicked out of their homes.

These photographs have become central to a project I was leading and it is due to the efforts and the support of the team at Southern Suburbs Tatler that attention was drawn to those pictured in Brown’s photographs.

The article – published in early 2018 – resulted in scores of people contacting me, embarking on a series of workshops and interviews. These centred on the traumatic effects of those who were evicted, many of whom reveal that they regularly drive past “their old homes”.

However, none of the evicted with whom I have worked speak of retribution or vengeance.

On the contrary, they urge a “coming together” with current Harfield residents so that an acknowledgement of what happened to them and a further understanding of the havoc that was inflicted, may begin.

None of them expressed any wish for those now living in Harfield to be kicked out of their homes.

The project will continue into geo-mapping the area, showing who lived where and to where they were scattered, effectively destroying the community.

I am interested in the far-reaching effects of the eviction on evictees, their children and grandchildren and appeal to anyone who lived in Harfield Village to contact me at siona.oconnell@up.ac.za

Professor Siona O’Connell, based at the University of Pretoria, recently launched her book Impossible Return at St Matthew’s Church in 2nd Avenue, Harfield Village. To win one of two copies of the book, send an email, with Impossible Return giveaway in the subject line, to chantel.erfort@inl.co.za by midnight on Sunday November 2.