The Group Areas Act and forced removals from lower Claremont

The generally poor, but stable mixed community living below the railway line increasingly began to receive the attention of Apartheid authorities and planners, who as early as 1953, identified the area as a “black spot” and expressed concerns about the presence of African families who were apparently “squatting” in Cape Town’s suburbs. The whole area of Claremont was considered to be valuable real estate and a need to clear up “slum areas” was used to justify the removal of residents living in these areas. As one apartheid official put it, the area was “n” baie wardevolle blanke omgewing – hierdie kolle moet verwyder word” (a very valuable white area – these mixed areas must be removed). (30) The residential separation of the various races was the goal of the Group Areas Act (No.41 of 1950) although attempts to segregate people, particularly Africans, had existed in South Africa long before the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. It was thus Africans who were the first to be removed from lower Claremont in the 1950’s. African men, many of whom were employed in local hotels, and their families lived in and around the area known as Princess Square, behind the horse-racing stables on Third Avenue. (31) One such resident of Rutland Street (his two brothers lived close by in Cambridge Street) remembers being constantly harassed in the middle of the night by police conducting pass raids until he was eventually evicted in 1959 to live in a “pondok” in the bushes of Nyanga. (32)

Opposition to the Group Areas Act in the more liberal environment of the Cape, as well as delays as officials went about creating the infrastructure to implement the act, including dealing with an existing critical shortage in the Cape Peninsula of between 15 000 and 20 000 houses for coloureds, meant that specific areas were only declared seven years after the passing of the act. (33) The first areas to be declared were those that were already mostly white, coloured or African – for example Sea Point & Langa – and only later did officials turn their eyes to the “mixed” areas, such as the one that existed in lower Claremont. (34)

The area was declared as being one for white occupation only on the 14th of November 1969 (Proclamation No. 296) (35) and an article in the Cape Times reported that “an air of quiet despair hung over the community.” The declaration made it illegal for anyone who was not white to live in, own or rent property in the area. In the two decades that followed, a large number of the coloured residents were systematically forced to move to new homes on the Cape Flats – in areas such as Manenberg, Hanover Park, Mitchell’s Plain, Lavender Hill, Grassy Park, Bonteheuwel and even as far as Atlantis on the West Coast. The exact number of people moved is not known but at least 11 800 coloured families were evicted from the Cape Town area in general, many of which were lower Claremont residents (36) (in 1984, the Department of Community development stated that 4 257 families had been removed from the area which included parts of Lansdowne, Claremont and Kenilworth since 1969) (37)

The old Lansdowne Hotel and Bottle Store on Lansdowne Road
The old Lansdowne Hotel and Bottle Store on Lansdowne Road (image courtesy SABMiller)

Not everyone was evicted at once. Homeowners were the first to move out after they were approached by the Group Areas Board who valued their properties and then told them to sell. Once sold, a time limit was set on moving out but the seller would be penalized 25% on any profit made above the valuation price for every year that he or she stayed on. Some families pre-empted the arrival of the Group Areas Board and quickly sold their properties believing that if they didn’t sell, the government would just claim their property. (38) Many owners, the elderly in particular, sold their properties to aggressive property developers and speculators, only to find that they had been offered amounts way below the actual value, which had skyrocketed after the declaration of the area as white. The City Council sold a considerable number of their properties to these large developers and many houses were demolished and large blocks of flats built instead. A handful of families living in council cottages around Second Avenue however managed to tenaciously survive the many attempts to move them and some remain in their homes today. Private tenants were served eviction notices by the new white-owners of the properties they had previously been renting or else were lured out by Group Areas officials who promised them houses of their own on the Cape Flats. These promises often did not materialize, or else the houses were found to be completely unsuitable or located in areas other than those requested.

The entire process created a climate of intense mistrust, exploitation and harassment, as one woman remembered; “A Scotsman bought those houses and he could come and put us out of our house, we that were born there. Dug trenches in our yard, that man used to terrorize me. We were amongst the last people left. That guy was breaking up the place right on top of us. The first night after we moved out, I just cried and cried.” (39) Government officials were not afraid to employ scare tactics to get people to move and Group Areas Inspectors would maintain a presence in the area – one young woman apparently became a local hero when she punched one of these inspectors in the face. The police were called but neighbours hid the woman away. (40) Aside from isolated incidents such as the one above, collective organised resistance did not occur. The repressive apartheid régime declared numerous states of emergency in the years post 1960, banned political gatherings and was conducting police raids and detention without trial. Many people felt afraid and isolated. While some teachers, traders and other professional people joined organisations and tried to organise protests, the average man or woman found it difficult to make their voices heard through such organised channels, especially after those organising the events, such as Dr. Alexander and Mr. Fataar, both teachers at Livingstone High at the time, were either banned or imprisoned. (41) Other prominent people from the area emigrated and the daily struggle of surviving for the rest meant that opposition to the implementation Group Areas was limited. Some local whites made their opposition to what was taking place known, albeit on a limited scale – the United Women’s Organisation, a multi-racial group, compiled and published a booklet on the history of the area and the effect of the removals when rumours surfaced in 1982 that the remaining 50 families were to be evicted by the Department of Community Development and in 1984, 150 white residents signed a petition against eviction when these rumours again re-surfaced. (42) None of the opposition however was enough to stem the segregationist aspirations of Apartheid town-planners and officials and after the majority of coloureds had been removed, the area, through a process of concerted renovation, was transformed into an up-market residential suburb of Chelsea cottages and houses, known as Harfield Village.

The choice of the name of Harfield Village, as the area came to be known, was probably taken from the association of the area with the Harfield Road railway station. The station (& Harfield Road running alongside it) in turn received the name from its’ proximity to “Harfield Cottage”, built by Mr. Thomas Mathew. He was one of the earliest residents of Claremont, a successful cooper and wine merchant of British birth, who purchased about three hectares of the Weltevreden Estate, east of the Main Road, and moved there with his family from Cape Town in 1831. He placed a document under the foundation stone of the cottage that he built there in which he wrote that it was “to be called after his esteemed friend and his wife’s half-brother, John Harfield Tredgold, Esq., “Harfield Cottage.” Tredgold was a senior partner in the firm Tredgold and Pocock, Chemists and Druggists, Long Street, Cape Town and a well-known anti-slavery reformist. In addition to the cottage, “Father Mathew” as he was known, built a circular chapel on the grounds in 1840, where David Livingstone once preached, which was to be the beginning of the Claremont Congregational Church. (43)

Aerial View of Claremont 1931
Aerial View of Claremont 1931

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