More Than District 6: The Legacy of Forced Removals in South Africa


The ‘Land Question’ has reared its head with increased vigour following the recent passing of a parliamentary motion to investigate changing the Constitution to permit land expropriation without compensation. As a deeply contentious issue, the ‘land question’ has provided impetus for heated debate, as well as various forms of social conflict.

While the African National Congress enters its 24th year in power, the call for affordable housing and accelerated land redistribution rings louder in political discourse. We are seeing rising contestation between all racial groups, so-called “white”, “coloured”, “black”, and “Indian,” centring on the legitimacy of claims to land, which range from constitutional to cultural and spiritual.

An example of rising tensions is the recent violence in the Siqalo informal settlement in Mitchells Plain, the largest ‘coloured’ township in Cape Town. ‘Gatvol Capetonians’, a group once themselves subject to forced removals, are advocating for the Siqalo settlement’s demolition, and the concomitant removal of the people living there, due to ongoing service delivery protests by residents for the lack of basic services. One Mitchells Plain resident was recorded saying:

“I am not a racist. We have never shown hatred towards blacks. This is about fairness, justice and equality. We have welcomed people from the Eastern Cape until we discovered they don’t want us here. They want our land.”

In an article titled “The Limits of Coloured Nationalism”, Sean Jacobs and Zachary Levenson address why it is that we see some ‘coloured’ people (who the authors, correctly, identify as ‘coloured’ nationalists) are able to invoke the constitutional right to housing to secure their own demands, yet in the same breath reject ‘black’ South Africans’ claim to “their land”. Jacobs and Levenson write, “If it’s not already obvious, the answer is race”.

However, the story of land dispossession and colonisation in South Africa is certainly not clear cut. Understanding requires historicising the interconnection of identity formation and land dispossession in a way that explains, and does not merely assert, the saliency of race-thinking and racism that defines the land issue today.

Thinking about the ‘land question’ requires an understanding of how and why racial zoning came to be policy consistent with the industrialisation and development of South Africa. When one traces the high levels of continuity between the racist ideological basis of Apartheid and the established segregation policies in the Union of South Africa before the National Party’s rise to power in 1948, one may surmise that racial zoning was both a product of racist policies, and one also amenable to the demands of powerful companies establishing themselves in an expanding global commodity market. Moreover, addressing the land question demands a reckoning with the psycho-social effects that the process of racialisation, and forced removals has had on social relations.

Creating the ‘Native’, Planning a State for Capital

Native Pondos tribesmen recruits for Joh

Indigenous societies in the Southern Africa region had contact with foreign merchants, missionaries and traders since their arrival at the Cape in 1652, and between 1653 and 1822 approximately 60 000 people were brought to the Cape Colony as slaves. During this time, much of the Khoi and San populations were wiped out by sickness brought on by colonials, whilst the slave population grew. The high number of Cape ‘coloured’ people whose surnames still reflect the names of the month, biblical figures and Greek Gods is testament to the residual brutality and ubiquitous legacy of slavery on South Africa’s population.

Upon entry to the Cape’s shores slaves were renamed. Of course, being slaves, these people were deracinated, separated from their family, taken from their homes, stripped of their property, robbed of their identity. Once sold into slavery they could not own anything, as they themselves became the de jure personal property of their owners.

It is incorrect to identify ‘coloured’ people as merely the product of racial mixing between ‘black’ and ‘white’ people. The coloured demographic are direct descendants and products of the global slave industry that thrived between the 17th and 19th Centuries. What, then, does that mean for land ownership for ‘coloured’ people now?

The discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand in 1886 was a watershed that would restructure communal life for people in South Africa irrevocably. “Africans” and “coloureds” would be increasingly subordinated to the organisation of society according to the demands of Rand capitalism. It was at this time that the aim of the government became centred on the ‘Native Question’- the question of how to ensure adequate and cheap labour supply for the booming mines on the Witwatersrand.

A record of the proceedings of an “Inter-colonial Customs Conference” in Bloemfontein in 1903 point to the priorities of the economic powers at the time and their influence on social policy. During that conference, the Chamber of Mines is recorded to have stressed the persistent shortage of ‘Native’ labour in the gold mines. The Transvaal Labour Commission of 1903 confirmed that there was a labour shortfall of approximately 129,000 workers and concluded that because ‘African’ people were not volunteering themselves to work on the mines, that the local proletariat would have to be made.

Hence, the racialisation of people in South Africa, and in particular, the designation of the “native labourer,” was a direct result of state intervention that could facilitate the imperatives of capital of the time. Legislation like the 1913 Native Land Act show this quite clearly in the effective dispossession of ‘black’ Africans of their land and livelihoods and into wage labour positions. The history of land dispossession and racial zoning was established many years prior to Apartheid and affected population groups differently. However, this early history shows that race was socially constructed by the practices of dispossession, supported by the “scientific discoveries” by eugenicists and anthropologists of the time.

Race and Forced Removals: Not Only in District Six


The sheer number of people forcibly removed between 1960 and 1982 rivals the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Group Areas Act of 1950 set the scene for the continued segregationist land policies under the National Party’s Apartheid regime. Prior to 1948 there was preference for ‘coloured’ labour in the Western Cape, which meant that the ‘black’ people had to be moved out and the labour needs of the Peninsula were to be met by migrant labour.

The Coloured Labour Preference Policy meant that the 1950s saw the tightening of measures to control ‘black’ (at the time, called ‘African’) people’s movement with the aim to allow first only single, migrant African labourers and their eventual relocation altogether, to create space for ‘coloured’ labour. During this time family-style housing built in Nyanga in the 1950s was converted to single-sex dwellings for Africans, but was later redeveloped as family accommodation for ‘coloured’ people.

Towards the middle of 1952 the Goodwood, Parow and Belville municipalities moved all the Africans living there to the Mau-Mau area in Nyanga and then to a ‘transit camp’ in Nyanga four years later. Between 1953 and 1958 more than 16,000 ‘black’ Africans were forcibly removed from their homes in Bellville, Parow and Goodwood to self-made shacks in Nyanga. Soon after that, swathes of African families were moved from the designated ‘coloured’ areas: Windermere, retreat, Athlone, Elsies River Grassy Park, and moved to Gugulethu and Nyanga. The areas where Africans had settled were converted into subsidized housing units reserved for ‘coloured’ people who worked in and around the city.

Both black African and ‘coloured’ people were moved from areas such as Hout Bay, Newlands, Harfield Village, Kenilworth and Bokaap, then called Schotse Kloof. Bo-Kaap is another area where activist groups are now demanding “Hands off our BoKaap” as they face threats of eviction due to gentrification and rising property prices, rates and taxes. When Bo-Kaap was declared a Malay Area in July 1957, there were ‘black’ people living there too, but by 1960 it was reported that all “African” families had been removed.

In 1955 the largest groups of Africans on the Cape Peninsula were in Windemere (15000), Northern Suburbs (13000), the Cape Town City Centre, Woodstock and Salt River (3800). These were not only people living as tenants, or squatters (although there were many of these) but home owners with title deeds. Hence, while the District Six forced removals have been the most publicised, the process of planned displacement and social engineering began a century before and was experienced by people of colour across South Africa.  It was then from 1960, that ‘coloured’ families were forcibly removed from the designated ‘white’ areas – from Harfield Village, Constantia, Newlands, Simonstown and Seapoint, to name a few.

Whose Land is it?

One of those families was my own. Classified ‘coloured’, my father and his family were moved from the property they owned in Strawberry Lane Constantia to Lake Road in Grassy Park. My great-grandmother had moved to Cape Town from Genadendal in search of work as a washer-woman. She heard that a property was being auctioned by a man named July Joseph, the grandson of an emancipated slave on the Van der Stel Estate who had been granted a portion of land. Perhaps he had encountered some financial difficulties, but for whatever reason he auctioned his property and my great-grandmother, Christine, placed the winning bid.

Years after this, my family experienced the trauma of forced removals. Many from Constantia were moved either to Parkwood Estate (recently the scene of protests over housing and a toddler being shot in the face with rubber bullets), or Grassy Park. Others from the surrounding areas were moved the Cape Flats, from where ‘black’ Africans and their families had been cleared to ‘African’ locations.

So here is the story of one property, once free land roamed by people at the Cape, then owned by Slave-owner Simon Van der Stel, granted to a freed slave whose grandson sold it to a ‘coloured’ woman from Genadendal and expropriated by the Apartheid government in 1965.

With this being but one case of the complexity of land ownership in South Africa, can we really say, with any certainty, whose land it really is?

Revisit the History of Dispossession

The first thing that needs to be addressed in earnest is revisiting the story of displacement in the country. The International Criminal Court recognises forced population transfer as a crime against humanity. The experience of being forcibly removed from one’s home – whether that is as a migrant labourer from a village in the Eastern Cape, as a tenant farmer in Worcester, or a landowner in Constantia – feels the same and the effects are the same. In a single action, one is simultaneously disposed and disinherited.

One of the major failures of South Africa’s transitional justice mechanism, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was that it did not acknowledge victims of forced removals within its conception of gross human rights violations. On this topic, Mahmood Mamdani stated,

“Imagine there was a truth commission in the Soviet Union after Stalin, and this commission said nothing about the Gulag. What credibility would it have? The South African Gulag was called forced removals. Between 1960 and 1982, an estimated 5.3 million people were forcibly removed, their communities shattered, their families disposed and their livelihoods destroyed.”

Land reform must happen, and must happen with urgency. However, should we continue along the lines of politicising racial identities along an avenue of racially-motivated land distribution we are likely see a contest for indigeneity that puts us on a dangerous road to nativism and tribalism. Anyone acquainted with Mamdani’s work knows that when racial and ethnic identities become politicised and linked to access to rights and social services, it creates a recipe for fear and a high probability for violent inter-group conflict.

One thing is certain, the answer is not simple. We require policy that accounts for the nuances articulated above, and the intergenerational effects that these complexities have engendered. But beyond policy, it is important that the experiences of all communities who have suffered forced removals are acknowledged, including the intergenerational trauma this has been incurred on these communities.

Supporting the work of heritage projects like that of the District Six Museum, but also other initiatives like Sophiatown the Mix and The Constantia Heritage and Education Project can go a long way in acknowledging the histories which concessive regimes in South Africa have sought to remove from official memory. The initiatives also, in various ways, are working towards improving the lives of people who continue to feel the effects of forced removals today.

By Claire-Anne Lester.

Lester is a PhD Candidate in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch. She is a founder of the Constantia Heritage and Education Project. Follow: @Claire_lest, @Const_Heritage