Not as simple as a line drawn between victors and victims - Business Day

Mar 22, 2018
22 March 2018 - I once interviewed a man in the shade of an ancient avocado tree, which stood alone, like a cenotaph, in an expanse of patchy grass littered with broken bricks and the glittery fragments of shattered bathroom tiles.

Michael Morris

I once interviewed a man in the shade of an ancient avocado tree, which stood alone, like a cenotaph, in an expanse of patchy grass littered with broken bricks and the glittery fragments of shattered bathroom tiles.

Nearby was the crumbly vestige of a tarred street that went nowhere, a quietly decomposing relic of error and memory.

It was here, the man told me, that he and his childhood mates had played kennetjie, blikkies and bok-bok and, when they were older, kicked a ball around, bouncing it against the neighbour’s back wall until the insufferable thudding prompted a bellowed threat from the other side.

Of the neighbour’s wall there was no discernible trace. As for the neighbour himself, who could tell what happened to him? All that remained was the lone avocado tree. And yet, of course, there was — is — so much more.

This much was obvious as I watched Rashaad Fataar pace out the lounge, the bedrooms and the garden of the District Six, Cape Town, home in which he grew up and that was no longer there and watched him dwell on that cracked, weedy trace of the street in which he had once played.

In that moment, it seemed, the intervening years collapsed into a single impossibly bustling yesterday and he was momentarily silenced by the intolerable freight of absence, of nullity.

It was all gone, yet remained unbearable.

Conceivably, you could multiply that emotional tonnage many times over and still not quite come out at a tally commensurate with the real import of "dispossession" — the word routinely used to describe the historic loss suffered by millions of South Africans.

In the more febrile reaches of contemporary activism, "dispossession" is regarded as too polite a euphemism for an altogether more serviceable "theft".

However, suggesting it was larceny risks not only trivialising the long and complex engagements that shaped the earlier territorial conquests — not least by Southern Africans who didn’t turn up out of the blue in sailing ships — but also mistaking the real scale and reach of the ideological deprivation of the massive losses that came later.

Invoking a "stolen land" thesis fosters the illusion of potential recovery, as if what were lost could be retrieved, rather like a stolen car.

But if it’s sententious and unhelpful to argue that history is irrecoverable, it remains true that the past is the condition of our future. And that condition in SA is shared fate.

Historian CW de Kiewiet underscored this when he wrote in the 1940s of "the deepest truth in all South African history" being that "every blow that struck at native life had its repercussion on the white community as well".

We have long been an indivisible society that defies the simplicity of a line drawn between victors and victims pursuing mutually antagonistic ends.

Imposing this simplicity was precisely the core rationale of the ideological deprivation visited on South Africans by apartheid.

Today, the overweening and terribly ironic reliance on race as an indicator of who we are as individuals and as a society, where we have come from and where we are heading, is an error almost indistinguishable from the costly racial enthusiasms of the past — of which that lone avocado tree in District Six is an accusing symbol.

The National Party, too, wanted to rewrite the landscape, reorder the reality of De Kiewiet’s "deepest truth". Yet apartheid failed, ultimately, because it was false to the country’s real history of complexity, intimacy and inter-dependence, which, if we remember them, remain the source of our optimism.

The tragedy is that justice for historical failures and the wrongs they inflicted can never be fully realised, perhaps because to equal them must inevitably restore the error itself.

In District Six, the rubble has settled to a lumpy unevenness, the grass obscuring the firmer ridges of foundations too stubborn even for the bulldozers that came to raze the suburb in the late apartheid years. The longing lingers, too.

As Fataar put it when he ambled among the ruins that remained: "Most of the people who lived here long to come back because of the way it was. Whether it will be the same … I doubt that. But they long for it."

There probably can never be enough acknowledgement of this lasting anguish caused by the Group Areas Act — or resistance to the kind of thinking that produced it.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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