Memories of a Forgotten People
ON THE first day of the spring of 1967, Simon’s Town joined Tramway Road in Sea Point, District Six in the centre of Cape Town and a range of other suburbs sprinkled around the city in being declared a white group area. The news was greeted with shock by the soon-to-be-moved coloured residents of the town – but the signs were always there….In 1959, the first proposal that Simon’s Town should be for whites only was advertised.
Prominent residents of the town responded by forming a local committee made up of, among others, representatives of the churches, the mosque, ratepayers’ associations, the Chamber of Commerce and sports bodies. The activism of this body consisted entirely of public meetings, petitions and individual representations. Although this was admirable, and on the surface at least, suggested a semblance of unity and community among different groups to a watching world, it did little to temper the enthusiasm of the National Party to implement apartheid in every form.
Of course, not all the churches in the town were opposed to the Group Areas Act. Long before the Act had been promulgated 17 years earlier, in 1950, the Dutch Reformed Church – the church of apartheid – had been agitating for separate residential areas for the different races.
In taking credit for the Act, Dominee Koot Vorster, the brother of South African Prime Minister John Vorster, said: “It was very pointed and very clear that the church wanted separate areas because we believe what the Americans say, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.”
There were others too who wanted to change the face and colour of Cape Town’s residential areas.
In 1959, Internal Affairs Minister PW Botha, as brusque as always, had a full go at the Cape Town City Council which the National Party believed was less than cooperative in implementing the Group Areas Act. Describing the council as “a bunch of Sappe, jingoes and coloureds”, he said: We are going to make Cape Town a place where the coloured people live on one side and Europeans on the other – City Council or no City Council.” Another member of the Cabinet, Minister of the Interior Eben Donges, argued that National Party policy was designed to ‘eliminate friction between the races’. And JJ Marais, the chairperson of the Group Areas Board, said: “Truly, for the majority of people the advantage would be that they will be provided with better housing and will live under much better hygienic circumstances.”
When the announcement was made that Simon’s Town was to be a white group area, the local committee sprang into action with even greater urgency – and for a short time it carried the hopes of many of the coloured residents of the town. Led by a local Black Sash official, Barbara Willis, it directly approached the office of the Minister of Planning, Carel de Wet.
But there was to be no reprieve.
In her report of the committee’s attempt to get the Minister to review the declaration, Willis wrote: “The Minister’s Secretary replied that Simon’s Town was proclaimed a white Group Area ‘after a thorough investigation by the Group Areas Board and careful consideration of the report submitted in this respect … and you have the assurance that due cognisance was taken of all the relevant facts and information supplied.
‘Furthermore the Minister had made it his duty to carry out a personal inspection, in order to acquaint himself with local circumstances before proclamation of Simon’s Town as a White group area, in the circumstances it is considered that no good purpose will he served by having further discussions on the matter and consequently your request that the group areas proclamation he reviewed and amended cannot he acceded to’. ”
Looking back to that time 50 years ago, Ronald “Cocky” Roberts said: “I didn’t expect any other outcome.”
The mass uprooting of a settled community – from Simon’s Town to Slangkop, just over 15km away – was about to become a fait accompli….
Roberts said: “Officials of the Group Areas Board (GAB), in their yellow GG cars, started paying visits to the homes of residents, wanting them to fill in papers and agree to move. For a long time tenants tried to dodge them, pretending not to be at home. But it was futile.
“The GAB quickly changed tack. Realising there was a dire housing shortage for coloured people, especially newly-married couples, in Simon’s Town, they turned their attention to the younger people.
“They started offering them their own homes. Once they had made this breakthrough, more and more people took up the offer of a home in Ocean View,” he said.
“Suddenly, people started approaching members of the GAB asking for forms, or wanting to know why they hadn’t received this documentation.”
Roberts said that by the end of the decade of the 1960s, the GAB began using the news that Mitchells Plain was going to be built to persuade the remaining residents to move to Ocean View.
“They warned the people that once the houses were all allocated in Ocean View, people would have to move to Mitchells Plain, which was much further from their places of work in Simon’s Town or Fish Hoek,” he said.
“The trucks.” Gacieya Esau remembered the big trucks that transported families and their belongings to Slangkop.
“We were among the first families to move,” she said.
“It wasn’t called Ocean View then – and when we arrived there, we saw only bush.
The families were heart-sore. All the friendships that had built up over the years were gone. In Simon’s Town, every mother was everyone’s mother – and now we had to mix with people we didn’t know,” Esau said.
“I only learnt what apartheid was all about after we were moved to Ocean View. We didn’t have any problems with white people in Simon’s Town,” she said.
Esau said there were no schools when they moved into the township, so they still had to travel to Simon’s Town. “It was expensive. We couldn’t afford it. After a year, I was sent to a farm school at nearby Imhoff’s Gift farm.”
She said the fall of apartheid and the opportunity to claim restitution did little to heal the hurt of many families.
“We were among the last people to be compensated, but by then it no longer mattered. They had killed the spirit in us,” she said
“My mother’s wish was to be buried in Simon’s Town. She had that wish 20 years ago,”
Esau said she eventually moved from Ocean View to Pelican Heights. “I still rent out my house,” she said.
“I made the decision to move for the sake of my children. Tik has taken over Ocean View.”
There were other poignant farewells too….
Tina Koff’s grandparents, who were a mixed-race couple were allowed to stay in St George’s Street, the main road of Simon’s Town, while her family had to move to the new township. To rub salt into the wounds of her grandparents, they were warned that members of their coloured family were not to be allowed to sleep-over at their house.
Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features.