Community members of Ravensmead, formerly known as Tiervlei, participated in a conversation about Stellenbosch University's (SU) restitution of the Hardekraaltjie cemetery.
SU took ownership of the decommissioned cemetery where its Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) is currently located. People from the Tiervlei community were buried at the cemetery.
The community engagement conversation took place on 12 December at the public library in Ravensmead, Cape Town. SU has been in consultation with community members with ties to the Hardekraaltjie cemetery over the past two years.
The cemetery, which was in use from 1909 to 1946, had a central place in in the lives of the then Tiervlei community, which was subjected to forced removals under the Group Areas Act of the apartheid regime. SU became the owner of a portion of the land in 1971 when the then Parow municipality transferred it to the University.
The historic cemetery extends across sections of land owned or controlled by SU, Tygerberg Hospital (Western Cape Departments of Health and Public Works), as well as the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).
The discussion was hosted by Dr Therese Fish, the FMHS's Vice-Dean for Clinical Services and Social Impact and chaired by Prof Aslam Fataar on behalf of SU's Transformation Office. SU has embarked on a process of community engagement with the Tiervlei community members to ensure “a deep human-centred community participation process" which must culminate in appropriate commemoration of those laid to rest at the site.
Community participation is based on what Fataar called a restitution approach based on research, oral story collection and community engagement. The heritage restitution process “involves descendants and those who resided in the environs around the cemetery. We are working with Heritage Western Cape on appropriate commemoration procedures, including long-term management of the Hardekraaltjie site," said Fataar.
Dr Handri Walters, lecturer in SU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and researcher on the project, gave a brief presentation highlighting some of the findings that emerged from interviews with selected members of the community and made use of old maps of the area to facilitate a conversation about the cemetery, its location and its relation to the University and Tiervlei.
Walters reiterated the University's commitment to do what the apartheid government failed to do, which is to recognise the cemetery as the final resting place of people with valuable lives and to acknowledge their lives even in death. Her presentation concluded with a list of persons who were buried at Hardekraaltjie cemetery based on information provided during the interview process.
Fellow project member and researcher, Curtley Solomons, offered a presentation of aspects of the social life of the Tiervlei community during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Based on newspapers that he accessed for the period, Solomons elaborated on the thriving civic, recreational, sport, schooling and religious activities in the community. These were severely disrupted by forced removals and consequent disruption of community life by the apartheid state.
Presenting these perspectives is an attempt by the project to make visible the lives of the community who lived in the environment of the cemetery and who were severely disrupted by the apartheid state. In this light, a key dimension of the project is the collection of stories of descendants of people who were buried in the cemetery. A team of university and community-based researchers have spent the last six months collecting stories of around descendants, which will form the basis of a book.
Solomons also briefly presented information about a digital repository online website where all assembled documents, artifacts, audio clips, articles, etc can be accessed by anyone interested in the project. Open access to the project's information is a key aspect of the project and will later form a crucial part of educational and community conversations that will form part of the cemetery's memorialisation.
The session witnessed vigorous comment and engagement by the audience of around 50 community members who were in attendance. Some of these comments concentrated on; the importance of contextualising the cemetery's restitution process within the history of the indigenous people who lived in the Tiervlei area before colonialism, the need to accommodate the local indigenous Khoisan language in the restitution process, and the importance of raising the consciousness of young people about the project.
The final input was a presentation of an interim Context Board to the meeting by project manager, Jerome Topley. Such a Board would offer a statement of the ongoing process, and the objectives and community participation methodology of the restitution process. The aim of the presentation of the Context Board was to discuss with the participants the acceptability of erecting such a board and to obtain ideas about appropriate ideas and wording. A key recommendation from the participants was to consider presenting the writing on the Board in four languages, which would include the Khoi language, in addition to Afrikaans, isiXhosa and English.
Fish summed up the session by highlighting the complexity of our shared past and recognising that the past and current communities are not homogenous. This was re-emphasised in the context of the cemetery being part of a system of colonisation which was preceded by the presence of indigenous persons and systems in previous centuries. The question of consideration of the inclusion of an indigenous language was reflected on. Fish reminded all that while the engagements around the cemetery initiated this engagement, the rich stories of the community members around their own pasts, provided the opportunities for these stories (often oral history) to be documented by the communities themselves and past down to the descendants.
In conclusion, what was central to the community's understanding of the restitution of the cemetery is the need for the memorialisation to attend to the emotional suffering and spiritual void caused by the transgenerational trauma suffered by the community. A poignant call at the end of the session was made for the memorialisation process to provide a space at the cemetery site for quiet reflection and for honouring the memory of people buried at the site.
Photo: With staff of the Ravensmead Library are (at the back) Mr Curtley Solomons, Mr Chefferino Fortuin and Prof Aslam Fataar. In front, second from right are dr Therese Fish and far right, dr Handri Walters