I have written before about interviewing Rashaad Fataar under a solitary avocado tree in a swathe of scrubby grass on the periphery of central Cape Town.
It was, ultimately, an interview about the cost of a political idea, in particular the cost to the family who lived in the house that once stood next to that tree in what was once a teeming District Six.
There are conceivably hundreds of thousands of stories just like it; taken together, they implicitly reinforce the idea in many South Africans’ minds that justice – and the guarantee of a better, fairer country – demand a state-devised revision of property ownership.
Or do they, really?
When I first wrote about the Fataars of District Six, I began with the tree.
‘Every tree has a story,’ I wrote, ‘and this one’s is a story of endurance.’
Its gnarled elbows and limbs, weathered amputations and thickened scars are contained in an overall posture of forbearance, stooped with the burdens of wind, time, solitariness and, one can’t help imagining, heartache.
This is an avocado tree all its own, once the inhabitant of a homely garden on Albert Street, filled with children who’d climb it or hide in it, the dominant feature of a garden with roses and a fig tree, once animated by the elders’ murmuring talk and chiding advice as they sat on the shaded stoep, by comings and goings, unexpected knocks on the door, the smell of cooking.
And it’s still there, this dogged hanger-on, its elephantine girth proof of a determined indestructibility – but all alone, now, in a field of weeds and broken bricks, beer bottles and fragments of discarded things, a snapped CD, a pen top, a cigarette packet and countless shards of plastic, glass and porcelain that formed objects whose functions and shapes have long been indecipherable.
Albert Street is no more, nor Ellesmere Street, nor Smart Street; it’s all just lumpy grass and broken things. But the tree is still there, and the memories.
Rashaad Fataar amply provided the last.
What I’ve never written about before is that, almost slyly – as if it verged on an impermissible disturbance of a greater artefact of history – I pocketed a shard of marble, two fragments of white tile, each still bearing a trace of the blue line that was the unbroken original’s minimal decoration, and a small piece of granite.
Bulldozed to rubble
These are the fragments in the image that accompanies this piece, the backdrop a photograph by former colleague and long-time picture editor of the Cape Argus, Jim McLagan, of children playing cricket in a District Six street before it was all bulldozed to rubble.
What is the point?
The fragments I have kept – with a scribbled note ‘Albert St, District 6 (see cuttings, Feb 27 2016)’ – are not strictly aide-mémoires. I cannot claim any authentic memory, here. In part, they are a token of my own incorrigible impulse to collect things, as remembrances of places, encounters, episodes.
But I remember there being something distinctively purposeful in bending down to pick these few things up in February 2016 – the bit of marble that can never be returned to its place along the edge of a scullery sink; the shards of tile that are beyond restoring to any kitchen or bathroom surface; and the nub of granite, once part of a wall, perhaps, a gate post or a step, but never again.
The history of District Six, and the larger history of dispossession, of racial engineering and forced removals, and the effect of these brute intrusions on the lives of millions of people, are so familiar as to seem old hat. We all know the gist, and must accept the absence of wiggle room for making anything less of it.
But we do perhaps need constant reminding that history – this history – was a lived experience that played out for families, for people like us, in their intimate spaces and routines; the bustling kitchen, the kids whacking a ball down the street, the homely bathroom.
Can their losses be restored? Or – considering the fragments in the photograph above – can the broken pieces be put together again?
If 1994 didn’t do the trick – and couldn’t reasonably have been expected to, on its own – the lingering injustice of the years since is that South Africa has yet to properly face up to the challenge of providing an answer.
The African National Congress and those who favour land expropriation as a means of exacting justice and achieving redress think they have the answer in the drive for expropriation without compensation, the Expropriation Bill and the moves to amend the property clause in the Constitution.
The argument against it – vigorously promoted by the Institute of Race Relations, among others – is routinely misrepresented as an attempt to preserve the status quo, sometimes referred to as ‘apartheid property relations’ (intended to mean that whites keep the land they own and occupy and never mind the rest).
Real public interest
Viewed in these terms, opposition to the expropriation drive can be made to look like resistance to what is ‘just and equitable’ and what is in ‘the public interest’. But the real public interest lies in what we do with the future, not the past.
Even leaving aside the now crippling deficiencies of the ANC government, its corruption, cronyism and incompetence, granting powers to a state to intrude once more to try to remake the landscape – as in District Six and elsewhere over decades – will only produce new victims and new resentments and leave to its successors a country with yet more broken things that will defy repair.
South Africa doesn’t have to repeat its history, but it will do so if it fails to admit the cost of trying.
My own appropriated fragments of ‘District Six’ memory remind me of the tail end of my conversation with Rashaad Fataar in 2016. He was, by then, long settled elsewhere in Cape Town, but I wondered if he ever thought of returning to live in District Six, considering his sentiments about being forced to leave.
Earlier in the interview he had recalled the day of reckoning in 1980: ‘I never thought that day would come. For us, for the people living here, this was our whole life … everything we did, we did here.’ He paused. ‘When you finally left knowing you were not coming back ….’
So, would he ever consider returning?
‘Right now? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be the same,’ he told me. ‘I think for people who have been staying out in the townships, coming back is better, they get a piece of property, a place of their own.’
But the yearning, that was real enough. ‘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.’
South Africa will never be what it was – doubtless a painful truth for many – and it is beyond the power of planners or politicians or anyone else to take the country back to whatever ideal state they might imagine once existed. But they might try, and that is the problem, for it can only be a repetition of the error it purports to correct.
The problem is not that the ambition is too great, but that it is too modest, imitative rather than genuinely restorative.
The alternative is to persuade South Africans to long for a country that is better than it has ever been. That will be harder, and may not even seem fair. But steeling ourselves to avoid repeating the unjust failures of the past is the first condition of creating a society in which people – and that can only mean all people – can reasonably expect to have ‘a place of their own’. And for such a society to succeed will depend on the state’s protecting, not threatening, property rights.
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