Opening dialogue about forced removals

Across Cape Town, from Sea Point to Simons Town, families were torn fromthe only existence they had ever known, to live miles away from the places where they were born and called home. One of those areas is Harfield Village in Claremont, the subject of a new book by former Walmer Estate resident and academic, Dr Siona OConnell.

Apartheid’s forced removals tore several families and communities apart.

The areas of Harfield Village and Claremont were among those declared for white people only under the Group Areas Act and are the focus of research being conducted by Dr Siona O’Connell, who was inspired by a set of photographs taken in 1974 by the late sculptor, David Brown.

Mr Brown’s striking black and white photographs give a glimpse into the lives of those who were to be displaced; there are lots of happy children and some tender moments.

Dr O’Connell is an academic at the University of Pretoria and a research affiliate at UCT’s Centre for Curating the Archive.

Dr O’Connell, previously from Walmer Estate, who has a family history of forced removals, decided to find the people in the pictures “in an attempt to make a few points” and write a book about it.

“The photographs confront the convenient beliefs that areas subjected to forced removals were ‘slum’ areas or ‘black’ spots – one only has to look at the carefully polished floors and creaseless bedspreads to counter these claims ,” Dr O’Connell said.

She said the motive behind her latest book was “to ask difficult, yet urgent questions of restoration, repair and restitution. To open up a space for dialogue so that residents – past and present – can together address a shared past and present”.

Until the end of 2016, Dr O’Connell was at the University of Cape Town, but moved to the University of Pretoria. She has previously worked on projects involving the local clothing and textile industry and the issue of forced removals have already been threaded through all her work and personal interests.

She also judged SACTWU’s Spring Queen Fashion pageant and worked on films including, An Impossible Return and The Wynberg 7, adding: “I really am committed to thinking about how we live after apartheid.”

Despite the book only being launched next year, Dr O’Connell said there is hard work to be done, especially in the next few months, as she aims to track down the people in the pictures.

“I am hoping to make the point that every single person who was forcibly removed matters, that this trauma cannot simply be reduced to – ‘well it was a long time ago and time to move on’. The problem is that not everyone can! And in many ways, those who were forcibly removed continue to pay the price due to the kinds of areas in which they were ‘dumped’ and the losses they endured,” Dr O’Connell said.

Another reason for writing the book was her belief that just like in 1994, South Africa in 2018 was at a “crossroads”.

“Central to our yet-to-be realised freedom is the question of land, a question that frames South Africa in every possible sense. The book will draw attention to lives torn apart by an eviction notice, in an effort to have ordinary people engage in questions of historical trauma, restitution, belonging and social cohesion in a country that is among the most unequal in the world,” she said.

“Just under four million people were subject to race-based forced removals in South Africa and a very small portion of those (or their descendants) have opted to pursue a land claim. I am interested in why this is so and what this may mean for an historical injustice that continues to shape our present.”

Dr O’Connell is hoping to get people talking about the reality of our city. “I am hoping that the public across all divides, can see that Cape Town is a complex and in many ways, a divided city. If we are to live up to the promise of 1994, then we owe it to ourselves and our children to square up to what this means on a personal level and begin to talk,” she said.

Dr O’Connell said Mr Brown’s pictures offered her an opportunity to make new connections between those living there now and those who were removed.

“If we choose to remain in South Africa, then each of us has to be held to account for the past. If we choose to stay here, then we need to grasp that it cannot be business as usual and that by sitting down and having a conversation, we have a chance to restore, in part, that which was shattered decades ago,” Dr O’Connell said.

If you are one of those featured in these photographs, or know someone who is, contact Dr O’Connell via email on or by telephone on 065 826 1956. To view more pictures, go to our website at

There will be a get-together for former residents of Harfield Village and Claremont at UCT’s Hiddingh Campus, 31 Orange Street, Cape Town, on Saturday March 17, between 2pm and 4pm.

Dr O’Connell hopes that some of those in Mr Brown’s pictures will be able to attend.

For more information on the reunion, contact Jade Nair on or 021 650 1649.