Trauma and Memory
The Impact of Apartheid-Era Forced Removals on Coloured Identity
in Cape Town
Communities often cohere around memories of historical suffering: black Americans look back to the atrocities of enslavement; Hutus to the injustices of pre-colonial Tutsi domination; and Afrikaners to the abuses of British imperialism. For coloured South Africans, a people whose diverse ancestry experienced enslavement, dispossession, genocidal extermination, and apartheid degradation, the question of historical memory is fraught with difficulty. One of the striking aspects of coloured peoples' memory today is that, for the most part, they do not invest in remote historical traumas. Some scholars have even implied that they suffer from "historical amnesia."
Most coloured Capetonians instead focus upon a painful experience within living memory: the forced eviction of 150,000 coloured people from their natal homes and communities in the Cape Peninsula between 1957 and 1985 under the Group Areas Act of 1950. It is this experience that gives coloured identity vital resonance, especially amongst working class people, many of whom have yet to overcome the losses of that trauma.
Based on over one hundred life history interviews with coloured and African forced removees, this article examines the impact of Group Areas evictions on contemporary coloured identity. It suggests that, in the wake of mass social trauma, coloured removees coped with their pain by reminiscing with each other about the "good old days" in the destroyed communities. Their removal to racially defined townships ensured that they mainly shared their memories with other coloured people, and much less with African or Indian removees.
Apartheid social engineering to a large extent thus determined the spatial limits within which coloured memories circulated, creating a reflexive, mutually reinforcing pattern of narrative traffic. Over the past four decades, the constant circulation of these nostalgic stories has developed a "narrative community" amongst coloured people in the townships. This experience of popular sharing and support in the context of loss today gives coloured identity in Cape Town a dimension that would be lacking if it were only mobilized for political or economic purposes.
"Trauma and Memory" appears in Mohamed Adhikar's edited volume, Burdened By Race: Coloured Identities in Southern Africa. Adhikari is an historian at the University of Cape Town who has written extensively on the historical formation of coloured identity.
According to UCT Press, "Burdened by Race showcases recent innovative research and writing on coloured identity in southern Africa. Drawing on a wide range of disciplines and applying fresh theoretical insights, the book brings new levels of understanding to processes of coloured self-identification. This collection also examines diverse manifestations of colouredness across the region, using interlinking themes and case studies from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi that challenge and overturn the conventional wisdom around the identity in the literature."
Trotter, Henry, "Trauma and Memory: The Impact of Apartheid-Era Forced Removals on Coloured Identity in Cape Town" in Mohamed Adhikari (Ed.), Burdened by Race: Coloured Identities in Southern Africa (Cape Town: UCT Press, 2009), pp. 49-78.