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October 18, 2004

Inherited Memories: Being Outside Home (Nadia Davids)

These readings took me back to a winding staircase in Cape Town.

At the top of the stairs was my grandfather�s surgery and hanging at the entrance against faded, slightly mildewed wall-paper, at a permanently skewed angle, was a picture of Hanover Street in District Six. I used to climb these steep wooden stairs slowly, lifting one short leg after the other, knowing that as I turned the corner, the picture would hang in a silent visual testimony to a place that no longer existed. I don�t remember the first time my family spoke of their lost homes�I grew up understanding that the picture on the wall was where my grandfather�s practice had once been, and that the snapshots of another life that lay in desk-draws scattered throughout relatives homes�, were sometimes too painful to display. I remember pouring over photographs of my aunts and uncles, my cousins and neighbours, posed on stoeps for Eid celebrations, standing in clusters around newly bought cars, or dancing in long-since demolished town halls. These photographs, almost always in black and white belonged to vanished world that I knew in every sense except the immediate one. I remember driving through and past and over the rubble and the desolation of bull-dozed homes and the eeriness of my school playground ending where the stretch of emptiness began. Solitary churches and mosques dotted the wasteland (the Calvinist apartheid government maintained a healthy fear of god, and a total disregard of people); and families would making long, expensive, weekly journeys from the outlying Cape Flats townships to worship at them in an attempt to re-configure the fragments of their broken congregations.

I remember being ten, and going to protest meetings with my parents when the rumours began to circulate that the area was about to be re-constructed and the initial ambition of the apartheid�s government�s fantasy of a whites-only landscape in the city-centre was about to be fulfilled. The protest meeting became the campaign �Hands off District Six�, leading, amongst other things, to a series of photographic exhibitions. The memories began to emerge from the secrecy of the desk-drawers and were hung in an installation of defiance. The outcry was so immense that the government, once again, abandoned their reconstructive plans. After the exhibition, people began to come forwards with memento�s from their homes, their private worlds; with documents and dresses, with pots, and musical instruments and always, always their stories, their memories. Eventually, it was decided that these moments and images required a home of some kind, and a museum was founded in a church in Buitenkant Street, a one time refuge for activists in hiding, situated opposite Caledon Square Prison, one of the more notorious sites of torture and detention. The founders of the District Six Museum wanted to work with people�s memories, archive their narratives, embrace their pain, and foster the imagination of a restitution process that could one day return the exiled residents to both their land, and their sense of self.

Years later I found myself working at the Museum; my research at that time centred around an annual carnival that had once taken place in the District and I was charting the relationship between it and American black-faced minstrelsy. In 2002, six years post national liberation, the Museum was at a particularly challenging juncture in its history; the plans for the returning residents to move into their new homes was becoming a reality and the locus of the internal debate was around finding ways in which to maintain a critical distance from the government-managed home-building while simultaneously remaining vigilant about protecting the returning residents interests. Described as one of the most culturally dynamic, cosmopolitan and diverse areas in South Africa, the Museum felt that it demanded a restitution process that was creative, complex, and administers to more than just the agonisingly slow process of building homes. As a result, they began to develop programmes around indigenous knowledge and cultural forms, and create spaces in which issues of identity and citizenship could be discussed outside of traditional academic spheres, specifically through the filter of performance. I was intrigued, and slowly, the shape of my research morphed, and I became increasingly interested in the mobilisation of performance as a tool for emotional restitution.

My approach to the subject has revealed itself to me over the years, and will probably continue to do so long after the research is �finished�. At different times it has been to foster the possibility of healing through archiving, to open up spaces that could document subjugated histories, to disassociate the area from essentialist discourses of �coloured� ownership, and to find performative ways to attend to the psychological processes of home-coming. But its not all altruism; my own needs have been nourished and fulfilled; the playwright in me has been drawn to a landscape rich with stories, the researcher mesmerised by the scope of discourse available, and the South African�s nationalist need to �contribute� has been satisfied. By working in tandem with the Museum to find ways in which to perform the questions raised in the thesis, I also manage to negotiate a few of the ethical anxieties that most researchers in the developing worlds have difficulty reconciling: the politics of accessibility. It is true, as Narayan writes, that the eventual document could be of little interest, or available to a �closed readership�, but for me, the final paper-work is only one part of the research; significant, certainly, but no more so than the other modes of engagement; performance and conversation. But despite the many skins I have grown and identities I have assumed; as an artists, a researcher, a journalist, it is the first connection, through the family that informs my entry at the most primary level.

If my initial link to the Museum was forged through the family archive, the broken community and the mythology of �home� that comes with diaspora, I still felt that I walked through the Museum as an �inside� outsider. I have no memories of the District that are my own; the lifetimes I have lived there are entirely inherited and the time I spent working there brought my relationship with the area, its one time inhabitants and the children who carry its legacy sharply into focus. But the area functioned with such powerful symbolism throughout my formative years, both pre and post apartheid, that in the initial stages of my research I assumed my insider status to be axiomatic.

Relationships in the area were, and continue to be understood, digested and reflected in terms of family: family name, family connections, a family�s trade or function; tailor, printer, builder, teacher, washer-woman, lawyer, carpenter. When I am introduced to an ex-resident, I am expected to account for my genealogy, and I must be prepared to draw on vague associations until the ex-resident finds a common, comforting thread to bind us. Often I am introduced in relation to my mother�s family, or more specifically, my grandfather�s name is invoked. One of three doctors in the area, he occupied a position of authority, power and love that comes with being in a skilled minority of a caring profession. He lived and worked there at a time where doctors, in addition to being guardians of ones physical heath were automatically confidants, advisors, and was granted a position of social of leadership, which in South Africa, almost immediately translated into political influence. My own status in the meeting is immediately conferred though him, and our interaction is coloured by this. There are other factors, naturally that create multiple in-roads; my gender, my youth, my education (university is not the only distinction, a part of my schooling was at an elite, private institution), the religion I was born into (Islam), the language I speak (English as opposed to Afrikaans, which can signify both a class and cultural distinction), but it is the family that establishes the first connection. Katz suggests that �trust� is the �most elusive and precious quality�, and this is granted almost mechanically, and a believed and shared history is more often than not constructed by the ex-resident. The descriptions of their lives are punctuated by asides that envelope me into the story, reminiscence is interspersed with a desire to create mutual ground: �It was close to your aunt�s shop�, �It was behind your family�s mosque�.

With what degree of authenticity can I claim the position of �native�? My position of �native� is complicated by my own fantasy; I live an imagined, inherited nativity, but it is also the only one available to people of my generation. I am also defined as an �insider� by insiders, and any attempts to dissuade them of this truism are met with dismissal. It is perhaps this question of �insider authenticity� that suggests my most fundamental impediment; does my familial association with this landscape guarantee or deserves the inclusion it confers? If the thesis is around Forced Removals, dislocation, and displacement, surely these are not bound by locality? Bhabha described dislocation in broader, humanistic terms, as �a distinct case of de-territorialized culture, not bound to a geographic locality but located through the experience of dislocation itself� (Bhabha, 1994). Which infers surely that anyone associated with Forced Removals in South Africa, in Moderbam, Botshabelo, Simonstown etc is entitled to the status of �insider�, and beyond that, anyone who has experiences the pain of exile and the insistence of the right to return has an emotional in-road that places them in them in a similar psychic space that confers recognition? I am torn about whether or not to endorse Narayan�s need to dissolve or collapse the traditional boundaries between insider/outsider, because I think I occupy a peculiar space in between them. While I appreciate the merits of avoiding parochial ownership, I am also acutely aware of my aunt�s life spent longing for her home, and immediate frenzy with which she began to pack upon hearing that she might be able to return in a few years time. I am aware of her house stacked with boxes as she waits, in her seventies, at the precipice of a new life that cannot come too quickly. Perhaps my �inside� outsider status allows for me to sympathise with her excitement, while maintaining enough of a distance to recognise that the years spent longing have created a mythologized, romanticised account of the area wherein she believes her future happiness resides. I am also aware that these ex-residents, many approaching the end of their lives, view me as a sort of conduit, a potential bridge between their pasts and the possibility of bequeathing a memorialised legacy. Most attempt to convince me that theirs� is the definitive District Six story, and there is a continuous jostling for preference and contestation around another�s narrative.

This is my first posting, so it is necessarily a sort of �overview� of my thesis, and I have chosen to focus on one aspect of the readings; the tensions between insider/outsider.

District Six was once home to a diverse range of people; at the turn of the 19th centuary it was a refuge for emancipated slaves, Lithuanian Jews fleeing the horrors of pogroms, indentured Indians, indigenouse South African peoples and working-class Europeans immigrating to the colonies. By the 1950�s it was one of the global centres of jazz, a place still riddled by poverty and active with political debate, it had settled into stratified social classes with a minority middle-class educated elite and a majority working class. In 1952 the Group Areas Act was passes declaring that it was illegal for racial groups (as defined by the 1950 Population Registration Act), to co-exists in a shared living space, however, it was not until 1966 that the law was enforced in District Six; people began to receive government letters that they were to relocate to remote, outlying neighbourhoods specifically constructed to house the dislocated. Because of the residents resistance to the move it took over ten years for the last house to be bull-dozed, in 1977.

Posted by BKG at October 18, 2004 11:17 AM


Good start on the clusters. Trick will be the followup questions that get the interviewee to expand and develop responses.We'll address this is class. Interesting project!

Posted by: bkg at October 25, 2004 11:43 AM