From dispossession to restitution: A District Six journey
by Bonita Bennett
Director: District Six Museum
I have the privilege of working at one of the most inspiring projects in the city. Some of what I will be sharing today will be based on my institutional experience at the D6M, but I will also be referencing a broader range of my life and work experience including my work with Prof Legassick on the African Tenants Verification Project undertaken for the then Regional Land Claims Commission under the auspices of UWC.
On Monday, on 11 February, a small group of ex-residents and others will gather at the District Six Museum to mark 47 years since the 1966 declaration of District Six as a White Group Area. They will consist of ex-residents and some of their descendant family members, those who will be returning and those who will not return to live on the land from which they were displaced; they will consist of people from other areas of displacement around the city, supportive citizens of Cape Town and people who fall into that broad category of ‘the general public’.
I have chosen to start my reflection by focusing on the 11 February annual commemoration, not as a way to draw attention to the practice of the District Six Museum, but as an entry point into understanding the many complexities which continue to shape notions and expectations of return and restitution.
The commemoration will not be a mass occasion. The only time that it has been so, is when the day is linked to another part of the restitution puzzle such as official announcements of the next group of returnees who will receive keys to their new homes, or a count-down to the housing part of the restitution process.
Because this journey from dispossession to restitution is not a housing project only although the housing component of it is a very crucial one. It is the means to gain access to the land- but it is not enough.
Legal access to the land is a very crucial right confirmed in Section 25(5) of the Constitution places a duty on the State to: “Take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.” The Land Restitution Act of 1994 confirms the rights of citizens to claim the loss of their right to land- so in terms of constitutional and legislative provisions, we are covered. But the devil resides in the proverbial detail, and making these live in the lives and lived experiences of people requires a sustained focus and belief in the meaning of what ‘equitable’ might mean in different contexts. A few weeks ago we opened an exhibition in partnership with UCT’s Centre for Curating the Archive. The speaker at this occasion, commenting on the basis for the creation of labour and trade policy, referred to its basis needing to be ‘an equal love for all. Using the language of ‘love’ that feels slightly out of place in talking about policy and this might sound completely simplistic, but it nonetheless I think, points to the importance of getting the starting orientations right. If we do not believe that ‘equal love’ should guide the way in which access is granted, we will respond bureaucratically to people’s legitimate queries about the state of restitution in general and their claims in particular; we will respond to their difficulties of wading through red tape with yet another set of forms to be filled; we will be tempted to leave the phone unanswered, the queues unattended in dealing with their land claims of which the process of accessing should itself be an act of restitution. We will in fact, not see that the wonderful opportunity for our country to manage a difficult process of legalities, family and individual traumas, claimant desperation and not forgetting claimant self-interest – we will not see the opportunity to manage and resource all of these – in ways which are visionary and exemplary. To model a bureaucracy based on care and concern, on the attention to the rights of people to be humanely treated that has shaped our new constitution and democracy. If we truly believed this to be a starting point for restitution, we would use our understanding about narrativity as an individual sense-making mechanism, when listening forensically to the oral accounts people have been required to give when verifying their claims, and we would try more deliberately to try to make sense of the inconsistencies. We would take into this process an awareness of who has been excluded from the right to claim and consider whether this is correct and fair. Instead, the land claims process has become less of a rights-based process but one which is so fraught with human error, neglect and inefficient systems so as to make the experience of navigating the process horrific for some people. I speak with some experience of having had to navigate this system when working with the claimant verification project, limited though I realise that my experience is, having been confined to this region. This, together with the fact that some of the other options for restitution, ie, financial compensation, has not lived up to its promise of constituting ‘restitution’.
An elder of our city, the late Vincent Kolbe, who was also a founder member of the D6M, aptly said in an interview which I conducted with him many years ago: ‘The Land Restitution Act makes it possible for people who were thrown out of their homes, to return; what we need now is a restitution act for people who were thrown out of their souls.’ (My paraphrase of his words). A powerful way for me to remind us once again that the journey to restitution is not a bricks and mortar journey only; that it needs to accompanied by a whole range of support structures and systems that speak to holistic restitution. Infrastructural support and skills development so that people can defend and grow the access to land achieved; investment in the intangible heritage that needs to contribute towards either the cohesion or disintegration of communities once the dust has settled after the homes have been built.
The 11 February annual commemorative occasion has been an opportunity for the Museum to shape the landscape of memorial practice in different ways since it (ie the Museum) started way back in the 1980s as a movement, and in 1994 as a legally constituted entity. It has also contributed towards shaping the Museum’s own memorial practice in ways which are incrementally rich and varied. For we did not start this practice: it was a community ritual that existed before we did; an initiative that we have supported and brought into an organisational frame which thankfully did not kill it (which is always a danger when formalising or structuring initiatives which exist organically and semi-spontaneously).
We have been both strategic and intuitive in the way that we have dealt with this commemoration. We have been enriched by the ways in which members of the displaced community has grown in their understanding of return in the context of restitution. We have learnt from the many ways that people return, not only residentially but also symbolically, metaphorically, through their own internal memorial landscapes, through their acts of returning to the past in this, the present of their lives. So the returnees in this context are not equivalent to the names which you will find on the Commission’s list of verified claimants.
The annual 11 February commemoration involves a ritual which speaks to each person’s – not only returnees – laying claim to their connectedness with the physical land and the story that it holds. This year’s commemoration will include a symbolic act of letting go of oppressive elements of the past, most specifically the legacies of the 1913 Native Land Act and other instruments of oppression, the letting go symbolising a freeing up of space to exercise a re-energised commitment. Although the 1913 – 2013 commemoration is the one that we bring into focus at this time, we will also very importantly remember prior displacements before the promulgation of that Act – the dispossession of the indigenous people way before the Act and also those who were displaced through acts of cruelty outside of any legislative frameworks.
We eagerly await to hear more details about the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s programme based on the pledge to reverse the legacies. A very exciting pronouncement, signalling a strong awareness that that’s the devil and detail we need to deal with – not only the Act and replacing it with the Restitution Act – but also its legacies which are deep and difficult. I look forward to sharing the many ideas which we have which I believe might enrich the work of the Department.
In some ways the District Six Museum’s difficulties in making the case for support for access to memory in and of itself – not only as an instrument to access the land claims – mirrors that of the community’s struggle to return. But, we remain hopeful in the long and rocky road to restitution.