Exploring the often silent trauma that endures after apartheid evictions
Academic Siona O’Connell’s Uitgesmyt: Elandskloof and the Quest for Freedom is highly topical amid the expropriation debate
Siona O’Connell’s documentary Uitgesmyt: Elandskloof and the Quest for Freedom focuses on rural evictions and the yawning gaps in the land restitution process — a highly topical subject as SA debates whether section 25 of the constitution should be amended to allow for land expropriation without compensation.
Uitgesmyt roughly translates into “cast out”. But the English translation does not have the phonetic crack of a sharp slap as in the Old Testament word “smite” or the reference to being dirty, which are implied in the Afrikaans word.
The title was taken from a powerfully descriptive utterance from one of the primary interviewees for the film while describing the forced removal of her community from Elandskloof by the apartheid government in the early 1960s.
Elandskloof is a beautiful settlement 180km north of Cape Town, between the Koue Bokkeveld and the Cederberg mountains. Originally a mission station established by the Dutch Reformed Church, it has roots in colonialism and slavery. It produces fragrant buchu, rooibos tea and cedarwood — and was the first successful land restitution case in SA.
Though she has made seven films to date, O’Connell is not a film-maker but an academic at the University of Pretoria and a research associate at the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town. She also holds a distinguished professorship at Colgate University, US.
Her research interests pivot on “colouredness, memory and trauma and how to think about freedom after apartheid”. Not being a professional film-maker gave O’Connell a certain freedom from the constraints of traditional film-making. She has produced a simple film of great impact in which the people of Elandskloof star, in particular Margie January and Aletta Titus.
The feelings of despair evoked in Uitgesmyt are reminiscent of the story of Moses Tladi, the first black artist to be exhibited in the Iziko National Gallery. At his retrospective exhibition opening, his daughter told about how, when he was given notice of his forced eviction by the National Party government from his 1.2ha home in Kensington, Tladi took an axe and, over a few days, cut down each of his carefully tended fruit trees. He never picked up a paintbrush again and died four years later at the age of 56.
Elandskloof is a site of betrayal and double trauma. From the community’s inception, they were led to believe the outright lie that they would own the land they lived on after it was paid off to the Dutch Reformed Church. Then came their forced removal in the 1960s and subsequent return in 1996 to a fundamentally changed environment with no support.
“Restitution cannot be a monetary one or simply the return of land — the trauma must be addressed,” says O’Connell. “The Elandskloof community cannot support themselves anymore because it’s illegal to farm rooibos without a permit. So, not only are they in the middle of nowhere, with no infrastructural support and dealing with the trauma of what happened in 1962, but they are unable to resort to what they knew best, which is small-scale farming.”
The film includes footage of elderly Elandskloof women eking out a living from collecting acorns to sell to farmers for livestock feed.
O’Connell discovered a phenomenon that exists among many victims of forced removals. Because they are unable to make sense of their eviction, they are also unable to speak about it. This wounding can take the form of unrelated anger or alcohol abuse.
During her ongoing research on the aftermath of forced removals in Harfield Village, Newlands and Claremont in Cape Town, O’Connell discovered that some evictees had not spoken about what had happened in 40 years — such was the depth of their trauma.
She receives at least three e-mails a day from people who were forcibly removed. They don’t want retribution, but an opportunity to tell their stories. No money exchanged hands in the making of Uitgesmyt and the documentary was provided to TV stations free.
O’Connell, whose grandparents were forcibly removed from District Six, points out that while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “dealt with gross human rights violations, it did not touch on other human rights violations like the Group Areas Act.
“For me, it’s a personal journey. Even though I’m successful, I still have a feeling of not belonging — an —‘inbetweenity’, sitting on the edge and looking over my shoulder. And I’m not sure what I’m looking over my shoulder at as a result. But I’m drawn to this.
“I struggle with settling anywhere. We are only starting to grasp this now, 20-odd years after 1994, how devastating forced removals were.”
In Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections, about the causes and treatment of depression, he writes that first nations with the lowest control over their environments and lives had the highest suicide rates.
Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined two terms — solastalgia and endemophilia — that apply to the circumstances of the Elandskloof community. Endemophilia is defined as “a deep, satisfying feeling of being truly at home with one’s place and culture”. And solastalgia is the term for “psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”.
O’Connell hopes that Uitgesmyt will serve as a record and that the concerns about restitution and return will facilitate a commission or programme to deal with memory and trauma. She believes SA is sitting on a time bomb and does not have the luxury of another 20 years to defuse it.