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Fetching back nation's forgotten

Date Released: Mon, 18 February 2013 09:50 +0200

In our haste to get away from the past and forge a new South Africa, we turned our backs far too casually on the pain and suffering caused by apartheid. Fortunately there are those like Saleem Badat, an academic and former political activist, who refuse to allow us to forget quite so easily.

 In his new book, The Forgotten People, the current vice-chancellor of Rhodes University warns against forgetting the injustices of the past, and instead calls on us to remember the many sacrifices made during the struggle.

Badat's book on banishment is his contribution to this process of remembrance. He gives a systematic and carefully researched account of the lives of some of the people who were victimised in this way by the National Party after it came to power in 1948.

Banishment involved forcibly removing people from their homes and resettling them, usually in a remote and barren part of the country as a form of political punishment. According to Badat's research, at least 160 people were banished between 1948 and 1982.

While this number is relatively small compared to those imprisoned, banned or exiled under apartheid, he rightly describes it as an "extremely pernicious form of reprisal and repression". This is clear from the many personal experiences Badat relates.

A case in point is the callous treatment of Makwena Matlala, who in 1948 became acting chief of the Bakone community of GaMatlala, about 40km from present-day Polokwane.

First she was deposed in 1949 as a result of her opposition to certain government programmes. Then, the following year, she was banished to Hammanskraal near Pretoria (she was even once assaulted during that period).

After police complained that she was still communicating with people in GaMatlala, she was banished to Zwelitsha outside King William's Town.

With just a pot of maize meal, she was left in an empty house in an area in which she was unable to understand, let alone speak, the local language.

Nor was she given any assistance for almost two weeks, financial or otherwise, indicating the government's utter disregard for the welfare of those banished.

Most of the people subjected to such brutal treatment were from rural areas (140 of the 160). There was no doubt about the intention behind this violent strategy of forced relocation. To quote Badat: "This attempted to emasculate the activities of rural political figures by removing them to distant areas and isolating them from the popular struggles of the day".

He gives a detailed breakdown of the total figure by province and district (most of those banished were from the former Transvaal). There is even a map which helpfully illustrates aspects of the sometimes intimidating wealth of statistics.

Badat deserves much gratitude for his pioneering study. During his research, he discovered - rather astonishingly - that there was not a single scholarly article on banishment in South Africa.

The Forgotten People is an important part of correcting this omission.

Although there is undoubtedly much work still to be done on the subject, Badat can justifiably make the following claim, however immodest it may seem: "[T]his book has answered many questions about banishment and considerably more is now known than before."

It is the result of many years of research, and is largely based on the records of the ANC-aligned Human Rights Welfare Committee, which provided support for the banished.

Badat recalls that, as part of her work for this body the renowned political activist Helen Joseph once memorably travelled 11 000km to visit banished people (the book is, appropriately, dedicated to her).

Badat also acknowledges his indebtedness to the South African National Archives and newspaper records of the SA Institute of Race Relations (which often instigated questions in the then whites-only parliament about banished people).

Even though The Forgotten People at times verges on becoming a relentlessly earnest and dry account of a particularly ugly chapter in our recent history, Badat's passion for this project of recovery and his compassion for the people he writes about, remain beyond question.

It was also a particularly inspired decision to include photographs by the remarkable Ernest Cole (some published here for the first time). These help to bring to life the stories of those who dared to speak up so selflessly against injustice and oppression.

Yet Badat's book is not only a vital account of our recent past; it also points to important lessons for the future. He believes social justice in South Africa can only be achieved if we remember our past, and refers to the acknowledgement of our recent history as a constitutional imperative.

He goes even further and calls for the cultivation of what he describes as a prophetic memory: "[A]mnesia about the injustices of the past... threatens to undermine the achievement of our constitutional ideals." On the contrary, he reminds us, South Africa needs bold transformation.

As a tribute to the once-banished, and for the sake of the future of this country, hopefully this appeal will not go unheard.

  • August is a former editor of the Cape Times. This article was published on Cape Times.

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