Cape Town - 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-a-half’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 Riebeek- Kasteel 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.”