Heal­ing the hurt of his­tory

Be­neath the beauty of a West­ern Cape val­ley lie sim­mer­ing ten­sions that re­veal old wounds

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - METRO - LIZ CLARKE

OLD his­to­ries some­times hurt, and of­ten very deeply.

Nowhere is that more poignantly ob­vi­ous than in the West Coast vil­lage of Riebeek-Kas­teel, just an hour-and-ahalf’s drive from Cape Town.

It’s a place of pow­er­ful beauty, of sweep­ing pic­ture post­card land­scapes that would have us be­lieve that this is where peace on Earth ex­ists.

But the much-pub­li­cised June ri­ots last year tell a dif­fer­ent story, one of sim­mer­ing ten­sions, deep-rooted fears and age-old anger over land and dis­pos­ses­sion.

To­day the land is sum­mer-hot and quiet. The burn­ing tyres have gone, the shat­tered glass has been cleared away, but the scars haven’t evap­o­rated. Nor are they likely to un­less some­thing is done to change the sta­tus quo.

No one knows that bet­ter than those who are try­ing to ad­dress old dif­fer­ences and bring har­mony in a com­mu­nity still locked in the shad­ows of an awk­ward and mostly ig­nored his­tory.

Among those who have taken what some would see as a daunt­ing path of repa­ra­tion is a for­mer city busi­ness strate­gist and land ac­tivist, Roger Ro­man, who moved to Riebeek-Kas­teel a year ago, giv­ing up Joburg life to pur­sue what he calls a “jour­ney” of heal­ing.

“From my very first visit to the town, I was aware of the deep un­der­cur­rents of racial de­nial and bit­ter­ness that seemed to be all-per­va­sive. I set out to try to un­der­stand the causes of the racial ten­sion still re­flected in the apartheid geog­ra­phy of the town.”

The start­ing point, he ex­plains, was to un­der­stand what hap­pened at Ouk­loof, high on the hill over­look­ing the Riebeek Val­ley where more than 60 coloured fam­i­lies, mostly small farm­ers, had built their homes, and lived and thrived on church-owned land.

Then, in 1965, their way of life came to an abrupt end. An ex­change deal be­tween the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties of the time and the Dutch Re­formed Church led to their land be­ing sold to white landown­ers and the coloured com­mu­nity be­ing forcibly re­moved to the swampy area at the bot­tom of the hill. Dur­ing the forced re­moval, the Ouk­loof church and com­mu­nity fa­cil­i­ties were de­stroyed along with the res­i­dents’ homes.

“The fam­i­lies were re­lo­cated to an area beyond the rail­way line, which over years has be­come ac­cepted as the di­vid­ing line be­tween the white and coloured com­mu­ni­ties,” ex­plains Ro­man.

“It caused huge bit­ter­ness and dis­rup­tion, es­pe­cially as their new sub­urb was named ‘Ester­hof’ in recog­ni­tion of the per­son who had over­seen the re­moval.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ro­man and his­tory re­searchers look­ing into the story of Ester­hof and Ouk­loof, this is where the roots of an­tag­o­nism smoul­der and bub­ble like a pres­sure cooker, even to­day.

“It’s not the whole story by any means,” says Ro­man.

“But we be­lieve that un­der­stand­ing the core is­sues is the be­gin­ning of an in­te­grated heal­ing process, which many agree is a fun­da­men­tal re­quire­ment to se­cure a pos­i­tive fu­ture for the town and the val­ley. In the process, old prej­u­dices and cur­rent prac­tices must be dis­rupted.”

Ro­man has taken his rec­on­cil­i­a­tion mis­sion sev­eral steps fur­ther, pur­chas­ing eight hectares of land on both sides of the rail­way line at the junc­ture be­tween where the two com­mu­ni­ties now live. A mul­ti­pur­pose com­mu­nity cen­tre and a mixed res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment are the core com­po­nents of the in­tended devel­op­ment and build­ing plans are in the process of be­ing sub­mit­ted.

He says a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor is that there is in-prin­ci­ple sup­port and co-op­er­a­tion from the Swart­land Mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

“Their ap­proach recog­nises the need to break the racial spa­tial devel­op­ment of Riebeek-Kas­teel – and that’s re­ally en­cour­ag­ing,” he says.

“The mo­men­tum for change is here and grow­ing and long over­due. Yes, it’s taken way too long, but it’s never too late to heal old wounds and set a dif­fer­ent path.”

The dif­fer­ent path, he says, would in­clude broad com­mu­nity in­volve­ment at all lev­els, which in turn would boost the lo­cal econ­omy, in­clud­ing its lifeblood, tourism.

A tan­gi­ble step for­ward, says Ro­man, is the go-ahead by the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties for a me­mo­rial to the Ouk­loof dis­placed fam­i­lies in the RiebeekKas­teel vil­lage square.

“We will be con­duct­ing a full pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion process, in­clud­ing de­sign op­tions to en­sure that those evicted from the town re­turn per­ma­nently – at least sym­bol­i­cally.

“Each fam­ily will be in­di­vid­u­ally re­mem­bered.”

Ro­man is part of the team that recorded the his­tory of the Ouk­loof evic­tion, which he is now col­lat­ing for an up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of paint­ings.

The paint­ings evolved from an out­reach project, which in­cludes the teach­ing of Ouk­loof his­tory to school chil­dren in the val­ley. The project also in­tends to sup­port a cul­tural re­vival of art dance, writ­ing and po­etry.

The in­spi­ra­tion for this project, he says, has been the de­ter­mi­na­tion and courage of the 25 Ouk­low­ers, the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the dis­placed com­mu­nity, whose sto­ries and rem­i­nis­cences are recorded on a re­cently es­tab­lished Ouk­loof Legacy web­site.

“If you read those sto­ries, you will see that change is not a choice but an im­per­a­tive, not only here but in many other ru­ral ar­eas where en­trenched racial pat­terns haven’t changed much over cen­turies.”

And in the words of those who still live to tell the tale: “We were like crumbs swept from the ta­ble, sim­ply for­got­ten. You will find no men­tion of us in lo­cal mu­se­ums. But we do ex­ist and we must make sure that peo­ple know and cel­e­brate our his­tory.”

See www.riebeek­le­gacy.org.

ROGER Ro­man, lo­cal his­to­rian and land ac­tivist on a mis­sion of heal­ing.

A VIEW from where the com­mu­nity of Ouk­loof once thrived.

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