When Charles Gordon was a boy, he would spend hours playing and catching squirrels in the forested areas of Protea Village in Bishopscourt.
He was the envy of his classmates at Kirstenbosch Primary, having been given the “freedom of the forest” by the local clergyman. To a youngster there could be no greater honour, given how deeply entrenched the community was in the Church of the Good Shepherd atop Rhodes Drive.
These halcyon days continued as he entered Newlands Primary, a relatively short distance away from his home at Moldovia Cottage, which neighboured Bishopscourt’s famous old cash store.
Then, one day, he learnt his mother had bought a house in Steenberg, a place he had only ever heard mentioned in passing.
His mother, who was widowed and left to fend for several children, informed him the family would be staying with their grandmother in Silvertown until such time as they could move into their new home.
“I couldn’t comprehend what was going on,” Mr Gordon said. “It was very dramatic. Suddenly I was having to travel hours a day to and from Newlands Primary.”
This severe ruction in the young man’s life took place some 53 years ago, but as he recalled these memories to the Athlone News in the tiny confines of one of Bishopscourt’s historic stone cottages on Saturday June 18, the emotion in his eyes made the event seem as though it were yesterday.
But after a prolonged, 21-year land restitution battle, Mr Gordon, along with 85 other Protea Village claimants, will be going back to their childhood home, after a signing ceremony involving representatives of the Protea Village Communal Property Association (CPA), the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform and developers Bethel Property took place on Saturday.
Protea Village was the name given to the home of former slaves to Protea Estate. Most of the claimants grew up in the cottages built in the 1880s for the men and their families who worked on the road from Groote Schuur to Hout Bay, but were relocated when the apartheid government’s forced removals programme was implemented from 1965 onwards.
While the handover of the two erven on either side of Kirstenbosch Drive occurred more than 10 years ago, two legal challenges had been mounted by local residents’ associations, which argued they had not been consulted by the then Land Affairs Minister and Lands Claims Commissioner about the donation of the properties, and the restoration of the land would impact residents’ privacy and lead to increased noise levels.
The original number of claimants had numbered 130, but in 2002, 56 opted to take a settlement of R175 000 each.
“When the land claim battle began, I was still living in Johannesburg, but I asked my sister in Cape Town to keep me informed of all the developments,” Mr Gordon said.
“They offered her a cash payment for the value of the property, but she insisted that she would rather hang on. Now this has happened, and it’s just such a pity she could not be here today.”
It was not lost on Mr Gordon that apartheid’s policies not only segregated people, but in many instances were not consistent.
“When I moved to Johannesburg, there were no coloured areas as was the case in Cape Town. I managed to get a good job and worked hard, and rented a house for my family in a very white neighbourhood. “All our white neighbours were very accepting of us. We were treated like every other family.
“That is the sad part, that this would have been the case without apartheid. My father died when I was only a year old, but he is buried here at Kirstenbosch. When my mom passed away, we wanted to bury her next to my father, but we couldn’t. Very sad.”
Another claimant who attended the signing ceremony, Cecelia Bosman, recalled how the older people had cried when a “big lorry” had come to remove their furniture from their homes upon the implementation of forced removals.
“The trouble actually started long before this. We started seeing people coming to lay piping for the taps. I remember there was one young chap who told us, ‘You people are going to be moved out.’ We didn’t know what he was talking about,” Ms Bosman said.
“When the time came it just happened so fast. The authorities just loaded up the furniture, they didn’t care. We moved to Lotus River, but there was nothing there – no roads, no lighting or anything. I was heartbroken.”
Ms Bosman said while she was thrilled that claimants were having their land returned, she feared it “would not be the same” as when she was a teenager.
“In those days it was wonderful. There was no such thing as buying your veggies from a shop. You just grew your own, which you shared with your neighbours.”
Ann Ntebe, a claimant who presided over proceedings on Saturday, said every one of the 86 claimants had “Kirstenbosch in our blood”.
“People used to carry water from the spring, and we all learnt to swim in the Liesbeek River. We all have kept memorabilia of our time here in Kirstenbosch, mugs and bowls and ornaments. We have kept these good things, and now is the time to take these good things forward,” she said.
She recalled how over the decades she had read of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens’ success at the Chelsea Flower Show in the UK, and would always be proud that those flowers were “from my home town”.
Among the claimants was 90-year-old Katy Sasman, the oldest of the group, who could barely contain her emotions as she relayed how Protea Village had always been her home, and how delighted she was that this day had come.
Bethel Property will be developing the erven, primarily for residential use, and while the finalisation of the project could take up to six years, developer Daniel Filippi assured claimants the company would give them a “product that is beautiful”.
Ms Ntebe emphasised that the claimants would not be “moving anyone out”.
“What this moment shows is that we weren’t just servants, but people who lived here.”