I took a trip in time yesterday. It wasn’t my usual Saturday afternoon routine (if lying on my couch considering the hard choice between a wine or a workout can be called a routine). I was invited to attend a rare event, and one which so happily coincided with an interest I’ve recently taken in the history of the neighbourhood I live in, and one that is quite important to my family.
It was the second reunion of the ex-Claremont residents – those who were forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act from the 50s to the 70s. I’ve included 2 candid shots taken by the photographer, David J Brown, in the years before the Group Areas Act removed the majority of the residents in Harfield. I just enjoyed these particular pictures, but you can find more on his website here.
I won’t talk too much about the painful particulars of the removal here, because it’s a talk for another time – lots of other times. And you can look it up here and here. Or find it in books here. What I DO want to talk about is the wonder of the afternoon I spent.
It started at 15.30 on a Saturday which told me already that this would be no ordinary afternoon. Nervous that I would be perceived as an intruder, I skulked in my car until my parents arrived, full of good spirits & probably a little nervous themselves about the event which they had only recently found out about. Would my dad see all the familiar faces from his past? Would they recognise one another? What happens at 15.30 on a Saturday afternoon at the Wynberg Civic Centre?
When we enter, I’m dropped suddenly & delightfully into a time of my parents’ youth and, worryingly (because now I realise that I’m approaching the age at which I can relate to them), a time which brings glimpses of my own childhood.
Platters are being carried carefully from cars, while smartly-dressed guests try not to spill on their outfits. Long tables covered with cloth & organza surround the largest sunken dance floor I have ever seen (or, rather, the only one), and I drop into my chair in wonder as I take in the band, the patrons & the 70s/80s era hall.
I’m ecstatic. And feeling a little too casually dressed.
Sequined blouses, short black dresses, chiffon & lace are common themes. When the band starts playing, a trickle of beautiful couples open the floor with their foxtrots, waltzes & quicksteps. I am in heaven. And though I am likely the second youngest person there (my little sister took the title), and could not share the stories that unite the people gathering at this celebration, I am welcomed warmly & invited to chat about the times gone by & happy memories shared by the ex-residents of Claremont & Harfield.
Before the celebration begins, we have a moment to reflect on the memories shared and the communities lost. We’re reminded that we’re not there to celebrate the evils of the past, but rather to celebrate the memories & lives shared & which could not be lost despite those evils.After the applause, there are a few shout-outs from the crowd, calling out names like “Orpheum”, and other cherished social hangouts which have long been lost & papered over.
And then, it begins! I had no idea what to expect. I had anticipated the band (I was told there would be one), but the Langarm I had not prepared for. I was told emphatically by a family member that Langarm is different from Sokkie, but I had my suspicions.
So much fun was crammed into a few hours that it was hard to believe it had only gone 19.30 when the band packed up & we all headed out. In a break between music sets, some pop was played to keep the crowd happy, it was then that I was hauled onto the dancefloor by my family & their friends. Around us people twirled, while others started a line dance that had grown to a size so large that my mom & sister were quickly consumed into it & found themselves joining the formation despite themselves. I have the coordination of a drunk puppy, so I excused myself at this point & hurried back to our table.
I wish I didn’t hate using the word ‘coloured’ so much, because I want to say something about some of the wonderfully unique aspects of this culture I’ve grown up in, but I have to use the word ‘coloured’ to really put a pin in it. It’s different from other Cape Town cultures in some respects (language, location, religions), and so similar in others. It’s in the abundant food supplied by each guest for their table & for general consumption. By the mix of Muslim & Christian in the family & friend groups. By vibrantly-coloured hair & make-up worn by the women, and the youthful smart attire chosen by the men. By the yells in Afrikaans & English across tables to one another in greeting, and the compliments I received after being told I look just like my father (what?!).
Everybody smiled widely at me as I walked past their tables to hunt for the ladies’ bathroom, and many a person leapt out to ask me whose daughter I was & regale me with a tale of what a cheeky young man my father had been, or how beautiful my aunts were.
Excuse me, where did I find this big family & why have I missed out on this all my life?
When I mentioned that I’ve moved back to the area they were moved from, entirely different conversations were started about the new community of people occupying this space. Few desired to return to Claremont – the community was, it seemed to me, more made up of the people in that room than it was the buildings from which they were cast out.
I’ve also discovered that at 30, you’re not too old to have your cheeks pinched or your hair ruffled. And, though the occasion was firmly a joyous one, the happiness & affection which set the tone for this occasion did not betray the sadness at the loss experienced by these same families so many years ago.
This is, sometimes, what I admire South Africans for. You know, we go through hell, often taken by surprise, and we smile & laugh despite the horror. It’s something I’d like to learn how to do, though I hope I’ll never need to do. I see it in some of my family members now who are experiencing terrifying things of their own, and I’m so proud of them & to be connected to them.
And so, we celebrated. We celebrated the neighbourhood skollies, the churches which many still attend, the scouts, Livingston high, the shebeens, the nuns, the bioskope, the mosque, the musicians, the minstrels, old boyfriends & old girlfriends, the dead, the living, the past & the present. I was not there in Claremont with them during that time, but if I celebrated with them, I was one of them. And I felt as though I was.My partner, a jolly Norwegian who was slightly less jolly after being handed the title of designated driver, was welcomed into the fold despite the kilometers between his history & theirs (ours?).
He overheard a conversation I was having with some people about there having been a brothel in Wesley street and, instead of the expected horror & indignation on behalf of the Wesley St residents, there was merry chatter about how nice it was to have so many different fellas from different countries to meet walking down their little street. How’s that for an inclusive community?
People talked about neighbours helping one another, doors being constantly open, the wealthier & poorer living side by side. They don’t claim that it was perfect, but it was theirs & it was special. I could see that. I made a promise to many, before the end of the evening, that I would make dates to listen to more Claremont stories.
The best part of the evening (apart from the dancing) was the opportunity to share stories. And stories are things that South Africans really LOVE sharing. I’m armed with some phone numbers, a severe case of optimism, and the hope that I’ll get over my shyness to call those numbers & ask for more tales.
I am so excited. And grateful! And not a little proud to be part of this wonderful community.