By Zahraa Schroeder
Miniature South African flags are set atop programmes on red plastic chairs as guest speakers, members of the public and media mill about before the unveiling of Rocklands Civic Centre as a provincial heritage site. On Tuesday morning, a plaque was handed over recognising this history. The plaque, no bigger than an outstretched palm, holds great esteem in recognising the efforts of the Apartheid resistance.
In 1983, on this very day, members of a frustrated and oppressed country gathered under one roof to form a force the Apartheid government was not ready for – the United Democratic Front. During a time when the racial divide was at its strongest, the UDF aimed to break all boundaries by starting a socio-political movement with people of all races, all religions, all genders, all South African.
Erf 11553 is inclusive of the Community Hall, the Rocklands Public Library, the Memorial Square and the Community Healthcare Centre. Each play a significant role in turning the turbulent tides of Apartheid. In the 1980s the hall served as a headquarters for the UDF and today, is a memorialisation of the deadly work young and old took upon themselves to unearth the democratic society laying beneath an oppressive regime.
At the unveiling, former UDF leaders and members spoke of the struggles they faced, as individuals and as a united force.
Dr Mxolisi Dlamuka took centre stage as MC for the event and gestured to the crowd to rise from their seats. Rolling music plays, so familiar to every South African, a testament to the democratic society so many have died for.
Once the National Anthem concluded, in the fashion of South African culture, the event commenced with prayers from the major religions in Cape Town.
Veronica Simmers, a UDF founding member and activist, discussed the countless unknown heroes that were vital to the success of the anti-apartheid organisation. Some as old as 90, Simmers goes on to retell the horrors witnessed by the people of Mitchell’s Plain. The bloody history that has been forgotten, reminding the audience that the “story of the Wes Kaap is the story of South Africa”.
To roaring applause, one of the most prominent UDF struggle activists, Dr Allan Boesak, walked up to the podium. He started his speech off with a profound idea:
“I’m not talking about a kind of forgetfulness. I’m talking about unremembering as a deliberate political act of suppression. Of exclusion from history and memory…”
His words echoed across the quiet room, leaving the audience in stunned silence. A few heads nod in agreement. It was brought forth many times throughout the event, the question, if this Civic Centre played such a pivotal role in our country’s fight, why did hardly anyone know of it? Dr Boesak went on to add that “as long as there is injustice, as long as there is discrimination, as long as women have no proper place. As long as everybody else in this country is not included in our democracy – there’s a fight to fight”.
He said that although it would not be a bad thing to revive the UDF, it is just as vital to “recapture the spirit of what we had”.
From the provincial opposition, the ANC, Cameron Dugmore told us of the eye-opening events he witnessed while as a student. He mentioned that regardless of the freedom won, there is still “unfinished business” that needs to be dealt with. Poverty, drug abuse, discrimination and racism plague the livelihoods of countless Capetonians.
He urged that “the ability of the UDF to unite such a broad front, and not only to drive the struggle to achieve democracy and defeat apartheid, but also to take up local civic issues”. He said that the vigour of these freedom fighters must be adopted to bring, yet again, a broad front of people to tackle these everyday issues.
Professor Gertrude Fester took to the stage and armed with an indigenous stringed instrument, she regales her time of being arrested with her comrades and once on her own. At first glance, the titles: First Arrest and Arrested Again, bring a sense of unease.
Yet, Fester delivered her work comedically, buzzing across the stage. When asked if the humorous portrayal retracts from the actual issue at hand she replied:
“If you’re not able to laugh at ourselves, it’s actually very traumatising…I try and look at the funny side…Yes, I confront pain, but I also look at the funny side”.
And to bring the event to a jovial close, the audience was herded outside to witness Minister Anroux Marais lift the veil of the new shiny plaque – recognising the effort of Mitchell’s Plain community.
Together with Heritage Western Cape, Erf 11553 is now recognised as a Provincial Heritage Site. Protecting its history, the memory of its people, the role they played and the strength of these people – a strength that they found when putting aside what made them different and stood together against one common enemy.
But even though the event calls for celebration, the speakers, instead, encouraged reflection and encouraged the placid to look at the astounding work of the UDF. They were asked to reflect why such history has been erased from our history books.
When asked to comment on this, Minister Marais supported the idea of urging the Department of Education to relook the schools’ curriculum – more importantly relook its exclusion of the vital work of brave Capetonians. VOC