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Forced removals - Happened and still happening

17 December 2012, 07:48

FORCED REMOVALS. It happened then and is still happening now.

Many people wonder. Did forced removals really happen?  Yes it did.  I cannot remember not being part of some forced removal or another.  And I know how it feels. Our little suburbs were earmarked for evictions – The reason? We had to be moved out of towns and cities that was reclassified for "whites only". We, people of mixed colours  had to be moved away from privileged whites. The State had decided on Separate Development. Whole communities were being uprooted. We were not allowed to decide where we wanted to live or with which race we could live with. The blame of these removals should lie at the door of the Nationalist Party who governed South Africa at the time. They were harsh and unsympathetic to any human suffering. And the Health Department was the Government lap dog!  All non white areas in Johannesburg were earmarked for demolition.  The Health Department  declared it “Unfit to live in”.

The Health Department would come around, look at the houses we lived in. These houses were virtually falling apart. Whites got the best houses in whatever area they wanted. Our houses were left to rot so moving us out would be easier when the time came. Blueprints were passed.  People knew what was coming so no one wasted money on the upkeep of their houses. It would not help to stop the evictions. Houses were dilapidated but it was clean. “Non” Whites were house proud and their houses sparkled! The HD did not evict us because our homes were filthy or unsanitary hovels.

Areas being “cleaned” of non-whites were Sophiatown, Ophirton, Vrededorp, Marshalltown, Doornfontein, Fordsburg and all other  little places that would become “Industrial” areas and “White”  areas. The country was abuzz with news of people in all towns and cities becoming victims of “Forced Removals”.  The upheavals started taking place in Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Johannesburg. No place was safe.

And back in my town, Ophirton, life carried on. My dad was convinced “it” would not “come” to us. The “it” being forced removals. We were an industrial area – although there were mixed races living in and around Ophirton, there were more factories than people. We walked through a maze of factories each day – getting to and from our houses.  Schools were mixed, we had our own “Rainbow Nation”! A thought occurred to me the other day, why did the Health Department not move us on the grounds of Asbestos poisoning and Emphysema caused by the Mine Dumps? We were growing up and living in the midst of mine sand blowing into our homes, grit in our mouths. Years later I likened it to beach sand – that gets into every nook and cranny of your body!

As soon as the Health Department came around and rubber stamped your home for demolishing, the race was on! Young and old would scurry around our little suburbs – there were always some empty homes – some people gave up and moved as soon as they received notices – leaving their homes. Excavators would be there as soon as possible to demolish these houses. But we were faster. Overnight the houses would have new tenants. The HD would have to start the process of eviction over again! The only advantage was that the present homeowner had to get an eviction notice which gave us some time to settle! Celebrations ensued when new homes were found!

Homemade brew and music helped the celebrations get started – we beat the man! We beat the system – even for a short time. And so we lived. Like vagabonds trying to keep one foot ahead of the excavators. Sometimes we were not fast enough – that’s when the bulldozers would come and lift the roof of your home at the crack of dawn. Parents would haul kids to safety, grabbing clothes and whatever valuables they could grab. Especially permits to travel. Birth certificates and other important documents would be placed in safekeeping. When your home was being demolished there were always police with the demolishers. You were forced out and were not allowed back in – in the process you lost a lot.

 Some people would chain themselves to their houses! The bulldozer would rip the wall out of its foundation – with the person chained to it, and carry man and wall out and hurl it into the street! Us kids would get hammers and choppers and break the prisoners free! Sometimes whole families would climb up onto the roof and lie there – but still the heartless bulldozers came. I saw people fall into their houses as their roofs caved in. They would come stumbling out covered in paint and plaster. The rest of us would roll around laughing!

And then finally they won. We were eventually uprooted and taken to various “areas” assigned to us – Coloureds to their area, Indians to theirs, Blacks to theirs and the few whites with us could move anywhere they wanted to. And the state of separate development continued. Separation also started causing animosity amongst once close knit communities – now we were Coloured, Indians, Blacks and whites when once we were just people. Lots of people tried keeping in touch but it was hard. Communication was not as simple as it is today. But as the years go by – you bump into an old “friend” and laugh about our forced removals.

Separate Development caused more division in communities then just pulling their homes down around them – it created the “Them and Us” syndrome. We were not allowed into other areas so we started avoiding people of other races. Political issues were more pronounced depending on which areas you came from. No one was trusted. You had to be careful of being seen to fraternise with the enemy. All this started with forced removals. Today it seems a million years ago – for some the scars still remain. Homes and properties were lost, families split apart but most of all – we lost friends  because colour mattered. And it makes people uncomfortable when you talk about - but it happened.....

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