Woodstock’s unique Freedom Day tale

JOHN HARVEY

Located in the records of the Apartheid Archives, an international research initiative that examines the nature of the experiences of racism of ordinary South Africans under apartheid, is a poignant testimony of an unnamed individual who was forcibly removed from his family home in Newlands under the National Party regime.

He writes: “My family eventually settled in upper Woodstock, an interesting area that appeared to slip off the radar of apartheid authorities as families classified as white lived either alongside or in the adjacent streets of those classified coloured. As children, we wondered about the ‘mixed’ neighbourhood, and when District six, a mere 3km away, was bulldozed we quietly awaited our turn. It never happened.

“This meant that we lived within walking distance to a school and public swimming pool that were reserved for our white neighbours. The experience of living in Woodstock emphasised the craziness of being assigned a race and its lived consequences.”

This “craziness” to which the author refers was extended to the the whites-only swimming pool, where he and his friends would gain access because the cashier on duty could not tell the difference between coloured children and Portuguese youngsters whose parents had settled in the area.

Woodstock was one of apartheid South Africa’s anomalies. While forced removals in neighbouring District Six ravaged an entire community, the Nationalist regime left the area largely untouched by segregation.

The suburb’s “uncontrolled” status proved to be a tremendous lure for people of colour who relocated to Woodstock in droves in the 1970s and 1980s. Many viewed this as a type of migratory rebellion against the Group Areas Act.

This makes Freedom Day, which was celebrated across the country yesterday, Wednesday April 27, a particularly interesting topic in the area.

Many residents have lived their entire lives in Woodstock, and while they were deprived of the right to equal opportunity at the height of apartheid, they were spared the agony of forced removals.

“Voting (in a democratic election) obviously meant a lot to me and my family in 1994, but I think the most important thing was that we could become even closer, more neighbourly, as a community,” said 56-year-old resident Lionel Everson.

“That has always been the thing about Woodstock, it’s sense of community. I think what that election did for us was make us feel like we now had the right to stay.”

For others, however, their life in one of the few non-segregated precincts in South Africa meant that April 27 1994 was “just another day”.

“I was very young – I think about a year old – when my family was moved out of District Six. It was because the building we were in collapsed, and so we had to move to Woodstock,” said 69-year-old John Meavers.

“We were very lucky, because in a way apartheid did not affect us nearly as much as it did other people. So yes, I voted in the election in 1994, but it could have been another day,” he said. “I think one thing I can say that has changed since 1994 is that there are not nearly as many gangsters around. In those days, the 1970s and 1980s, the big gangs were the Doolan gang, who were a white gang from Claremont, the DK gang, the Ringsters … it was always over territory. The thing is, there were no guns like there are today. It was just fists and maybe bottles were thrown. Not like today,” he said.

Mr Meavers recalled that the community was so close-knit, that every funeral was marked with a procession through the streets.

“People would carry a coffin through the streets, and people would come out to look. That is what I always think about when I think of Woodstock: that people have always had respect for one another.”

Mr Meavers’s neighbour Raymond Coutts, a former lift attendant and baggage handler at the Mount Nelson Hotel, has also been in Woodstock all his life.

“I voted at the Woodstock Hall on that day, yes, but I really just took it as it came. I think it’s what’s happened afterwards that impresses me more. They’re really trying to make Woodstock look nicer, and I like seeing that,” Mr Coutts said.

Like Mr Meavers, he also recalled the Woodstock of old as a haven for gangsters.

“There were fights all the time. I don’t think you see that as much anymore. One thing that hasn’t changed is people’s struggle for work. It was like that during apartheid, and you still have that.”

Nico Bester, owner of the Nihaka Trading Post, has seen many changes in his 24 years in Victoria Road.

“You have to ask the question, ‘What is freedom?’ Are people more free today than they were 22 years ago? You see things like (Archbishop Desmond) Tutu coming out against today’s leaders, and you have to ask questions,” he said.

“Where I think you do have freedom is that people now have the freedom to think for themselves. You see that in a lot of younger people, and that’s very good to see.”

Mr Bester was also pleased that Woodstock was undergoing a rigorous gentrification process.

“About 15 years ago, I was stabbed when I had the space next door. It is a lot safer now, and the character of the suburb is improving in leaps and bounds.”

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, chief executive of the Cape Town Partnership, said for as long as she could remember, Woodstock had been known as a “grey” suburb.

“During the days of apartheid and the Group Areas Act, Woodstock was one of the few places where people of all races co-existed. Still, Woodstock has a long history that predates apartheid, and many families have called, and continue to call, the area home for many generations,” she said.

“So on the one hand, while Woodstock is an attractive investment and development destination, given its proximity to the city centre and the price of land relative to this. It is a necessary location for affordable housing, too, in order to maintain the fabric of such a unique Cape Town suburb.”