SA author Bronwyn Davids pens moving account of her family home – and losing it
On the surface it was an idyllic life. But almost for as long as she could remember, the dark shadow of forced removals hung over writer Bronwyn Davids and her family like the proverbial sword of Damocles.
The family house in Heatherley Road dates back to 1920 when Davids’s great-grandfather Joe McBain, not without some dissent from his wife, purchased five parcels of land in Lansdowne in Heatherley Road and Dale Street, around 2 000m².
Lansdowne Dearest – My Family’s Story of Forced Removals is a sensitively written and well-researched tribute to a house that was a home not only to many family members, but to friends, neighbours and associates.
Many books have been written by residents of Cape Town about forced removals. Davids’s is unputdownable. She offers a beautifully evoked and often whimsical account of her days there. She is an an astute writer and her years as a highly regarded journalist have stood her in good stead.
Davids was born in 1961 at the height of apartheid and moved with her parents to Woodlands in Mitchells Plain when the “new city for coloureds” was launched in 1976.
From her mixed heritage, which includes Javanese, Portuguese and Scottish ancestors, Davids builds up a colourful and fascinating background of her family.
She was born at Heatherley House to Mavie and Ivan Davids, and there was much speculation about what she would look like.
“Would it (the baby) come out dark to the fair, or fair and blue-eyed to the dark? Everybody maliciously waited for dark children to be visited on fair relatives, especially those who had opted to be reclassified white …”
Davids describes herself as a curious and active child – small wonder, growing up in the bosom of a family that had diverse interests and living in a house as interesting as theirs in Lansdowne. She writes: “Though I played with heart, I never quite got the hang of being socialised and following the rules of games, and I often questioned every decision …”
A chapter is devoted to the magical garden, where every type of flower bloomed, and vegetables and fruit trees flourished.
“They may have been the owners of their land, but my family was not rich in money. What it was rich in was magic, from the quaintness of the house’s layout to the sprawling garden with all its interesting nooks and crannies,” she writes.
Davids, who has travelled to more than 20 countries, comments: “In all my travels over six continents, I have never found a garden like that one.”
She tells it like it is in a host of bittersweet memories – the frequent family gatherings around a table groaning with traditional dishes, or family trips to Somerset West or Goedverwacht, a Moravian mission station in the Piketberg.
As the years pass, Davids becomes more questioning and observant. There is a growing awareness of discrimination under apartheid’s evil mantle. The trips out of town to visit family where they had to take their own food as there were no places where they could sit down.
Bus trips to and from school or to the centre of town, where they had to sit on the upper deck, which proved a nightmare for a young girl scared of falling down the stairs. Davids takes it all, if not in her stride, then with not much complaining.
During her time at Livingstone High School there is a growing political awareness and deeper sense of questioning right and wrong.
Davids also describes the growing wave of dissent among her family and friends to apartheid’s inhumane rule. Many become Struggle activists, some are detained, and their home phone is “bugged”.
The year 1976 is the turning point – removals, bulldozing and then Davids’s parents move to Woodlands in Mitchells Plain. After school, Davids becomes a reporter for the Argus and the Cape Times, travels extensively and then returns as a general reporter for those papers and for the Weekend Argus from 2016 to 2018. She currently works as a freelance journalist.
Heatherley House was sold in 1980 after being in the McBain family for six decades. The story is a moving one. Fascinating, wonderfully rendered and, in my books, a must read.
** This article is part of our #UltimateSA series, celebrating the very best of what makes South Africa great. Read more here.