How the Group Areas Act shaped spaces, memories and identities in Cape Town

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Cape Argus Front Page, 11 February 1966

The cornerstone of the Group Areas Act of 1950 was to prevent interracial contact ‘as far as possible’ [i] , while at the same time ensuring that those described as ‘white’ South Africans would be privileged with the exclusive rights and enjoyment of prime property in the country. [ii]   To achieve this aim, some four million South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes.  Refusing to do so was not an option and the penalties for non-compliance were severe. [iii]

The impact that these forced removals had on identity was profound and manifested itself in a myriad of ways. In terms of applying the Group Areas Act, colonial identity contructions became more entrenched. Identities were imposed upon people, as legislated by the Population Registration Act (30 of 1950) (Government Gazette Extraordinary 26 May 1967).  South Africans were thus defined as ‘White’, ‘Native’ or ‘Coloured’, the latter being the most ambiguous term, comprising as it did seven categories, i.e. Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Indian, Chinese, other Asiatic and ‘other Coloured’, the last being a category for those who fitted into none of the other categories. [iv] It was thus within these rigid structures that South Africans found themselves confined to identities that were socially constructed through Apartheid engineering. The importance of these identities was how they related into space: ‘space allowed’ and ‘space denied’. [v]

For people from areas like District Six, where the flavour was cosmopolitan and the sense of identity often fluid, the application of the Group Areas Act became at once defining and confining.  From then on in South Africa, racial identity became a burden or a boon, depending which category you were allocated to.  If the category was white, it meant that an abundance of space with a choice of property in a market where the supply outstripped the demand, thus upward mobility and the option of second or third homes were easily attainable.  For those who fitted into the ‘seven categories of Coloured’, the option of owning a home was limited to the ‘better off’, who paid a premium for property in a market where the demand outstripped the supply.  For the rest it meant leaving their former homes in centrally located areas and being moved to distantly located townships like Manenberg, Hanover Park and the like. [vi] For people categorised as Black South Africans, property ownership was not even an option.  In the main, Black South Africans were effectively identified as being ‘non South Africans’ and confined to ‘homelands’, places to which many of those so located, had no previous ties with.  Thus for many Black South Africans, their identities as South Africans were declared obsolete and the spaces they were forced to occupy were translated as not being part of South Africa. [vii]

While the financial implications on people affected by the Group Areas Act of 1950 were harsh, perhaps its most severe impact has been psychological. [viii] Some children who were confined to these ghetto-like areas began to self-identify with their new environments in often unwholesome ways. [ix] For many it meant the absorption of Apartheid imposed identities correlated with perceived rights or non-rights to space in relation to these identities. For the variety of people who were named ‘Coloured’, it meant the formation of often stagnant communities where they was no place to grow outwards, so that their identities became shaped within the spaces to which they were confined. [x]

Significantly as the Group Areas Act of 1950 caused divisions of space, this created barriers between people as they became defined racially within the spaces they occupied.  Thus in areas like Windermere where a variety of individuals referred to collectively as ‘White’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘African’ lived as neighbours, the Group Areas Act ‘re-proclaimed’ the neighbourhood as being for people the system identified as ‘Coloured’.  The most devastating impact of these demarcated spaces in terms of racial categories is how these categories became internalised to the extent that they caused rifts and divisions between people who were formerly neighbours. [xi]

With the advent of the Group Areas Act some people‘re-shaped’ their identities within the boundaries of Apartheid structures in ways that would exempt them from the consequences of the Group Areas Act.  This they did by having themselves ‘reclassified’ into categories that would offer them ‘lifestyle improvements’. Thus there were those who were placed into the category of ‘Coloured’ who had themselves ‘re-classified’ as white and there were those who were placed into the category of ‘Native’ or ‘African’, who had themselves ‘reclassified’ as ‘Coloured’. The personal cost of this ‘new identity’ was great in that it meant relinquishing ties with family and friends; however, many did this to enable themselves to benefit materially within a system which graded people racially and rewarded or penalised them accordingly. [xii]

Although the Group Areas Act of 1950 was applied throughout South Africa, the place in Cape Town that has come to symbolise forced removals is District Six.  Much of its iconic status could be related to the musical production by David Kramer and the late Taliep Petersen, which captured the imaginations of South Africans and ensured that the District Six story had a place in popular memory.  More significantly, it brought about a resurgence of memories, both imagined and real, in former residents of District Six. [xiii] Thus by the time that the District Six Museum opened its doors in 1994, the iconic status of District Six as being a symbol of forced removals was ensured.

Significant too is the fact that save for an educational institution, the area has never been re-developed. It thus remains a gaping hole in the landscape of Cape Town, a physical reminder of the destruction brought about in peoples’ lives by the Group Areas Act of 1950. For the ex-residents of District Six it is a fitting monument to their pain. For the greater Cape Town area, it is a silent tribute to a life that once was, in a space transformed by the Group Areas Act of 1950. [xiv]

 

ENDNOTES:

[i] Booklet: Summary of the Group Areas Act 1950 (Union of South Africa) p.5. ‘focal points of contact should be eliminated as far as possible.

[ii] Booklet: Summary of the Group Areas Act 1950 (Union of South Africa) p.3 ‘Europeans may exclusively own and / or occupy land and in which they are protected against penetration by members of the non-European groups’.

[iii] Booklet: Summary of the Group Areas Act 1950 (Union of South Africa), p. 11 ‘In order to enforce the scheme of the Act … there must be effective sanctions against the holding of immovable property by disqualified persons.  The Minister may … cause the property to be sold either out of hand or by public auction.  The proceeds of the sale are applied firstly to defray the costs of the sale and thereafter to pay off the legal burdens upon the property in their legal order of priority.  Except in certain cases the balance, if any, is paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund.’

[iv] Michael Whisson, The Fairest Cape?, (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972), pp.v-vi.

[v] Michele Ruiters, ‘Collaboration, assimilation and contestation: emerging constructions of coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa, in Burdened By Race, (ed.) Mohamed Adhikari, (Cape Town: UCT press, 2009) p.110 (‘Apartheid legislation created correlations between race, space’).

[vi] Sofie M.M.A. Geschier, ‘So there I sit in a Catch-22 situation’: remembering and imagining trauma in the District Six Museum’, in (Eds.) Sean Field, Renata Meyer & Felicity Swanson Imagining the City (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007) p.48.

[vii] Abebe Zegeye, ‘Imposed ethnicity’, in (ed.) Abebe Zegeye Social identities in the New South Africa, (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2001) p.6 (‘Black people were forced to live in ‘homelands’, which were generally rural areas with scant opportunities for employment’).

[viii] Sofie M.M.A. Geschier, ‘So there I sit in a Catch-22 situation’: remembering and imagining trauma in the District Six Museum’, in (eds.) Sean Field, Renata Meyer & Felicity Swanson, Imagining the City (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007) p. 40.

[ix] Michele Ruiters, ‘Collaboration, assimilation and contestation: emerging constructions of coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa, in (Ed. Mohamed Adhikari), Burdened By Race (Cape Town: UCT press, 2009), p.110 (‘Even imposed identities are reconstructed to reflect the daily experiences and realities of a community and individuals and this process could entail a reconstruction of an ethnic identity’).

[x] Michele Ruiters, ‘Collaboration, assimilation and contestation: emerging constructions of coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa, in (Ed.) Mohamed Adhikari, Burdened By Race (Cape Town: UCT press, 2009), p.109 (‘With forced removals, the state pushed together people who would not otherwise have lived in the same area or have mixed socially.  This process led to closer identification between neighbours and within neighbourhoods, cementing a closer sense of colouredness’).

[xi] See Sean Field, ‘Remembering Experience, Interpreting Memory: Life Stories from Windermere’ African Studies Volume 60, Issue 1, 2001.

[xii] For an insight into this phenomenon see Michael Whisson, The Fairest Cape? (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972).

[xiii] Sofie M.M.A. Geschier, ‘So there I sit in a Catch-22 situation’: remembering and imagining trauma in the District Six Museum’, in (Eds.) Sean Field, Renata Meyer & Felicity Swanson, Imagining the City (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007)p. 45 (There is a thin line between remembering and imagining, because of the moral and emotional character of this process of giving meaning to past, present and future).

[xiv] Sofie M.M.A. Geschier, ‘So there I sit in a Catch-22 situation’: remembering and imagining trauma in the District Six Museum’, in (Eds.) Sean Field, Renata Meyer & Felicity Swanson,Imagining the City (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007), pp. 43-44.

This article was written by Joline Young.


References:
• Anon. Booklet: Summary of the Group Areas Act 1950 (Union of South Africa). Source: Simon’s Town Museum.
• Field, Sean. ‘Remembering Experience, Interpreting Memory: Life Stories from Windermere’ African Studies Volume 60, Issue 1, 2001.
• Geschier, Sofie M.M.A. ‘So there I sit in a Catch-22 situation’: remembering and imagining trauma in the District Six Museum’, in (Eds.) Sean Field, Renata Meyer & Felicity Swanson Imagining the City (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007).
• Ruiters, Michele. ‘Collaboration, assimilation and contestation: emerging constructions of coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa, in Burdened By Race (Ed.) Mohamed Adhikari, (Cape Town: UCT press, 2009.
• Whisson, Michael, The Fairest Cape?, (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972).
• Zegeye, Abebe. ‘Imposed ethnicity’, in (Ed.) Abebe Zegeye Social identities in the New South Africa, (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2001).

Last updated : 24-Jun-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-Feb-2016