Dr Siona O’Connell on The Wynberg 7 and The Impossible Return

9 Nov 2015 - 13:15
Dr Siona O’Connell contextualises her recent films The Wynberg 7 and The Impossible ReturnIn the following text, which is the speech she gave at the films’ premiere at the Baxter on the 29th of October 2015, O’Connell explains how these projects are deeply personal to her and why for the past nine years she has been committed to thinking about apartheid afterlives, “in an attempt to make sense of a past of which many of us were not the authors.”

Dr  Max Price, Professor  Debroah Posel, Mrs Mary Burton, Dr  Iqbal Surve, Mr Jimi Matthews, Mr Enver Daniels, Mr Michael Worsnip, Mr Andre Kriel, Mr Brian Isaacs, Professor Edgar Pieterse, Professor Fritha Langerman, Professor Stephen Inggs, Professor Pippa Skotnes, Mr Faizel Cook and all other honoured guests, thank you for being here tonight.  A warm welcome to  those who have travelled from the US: Professor Marianne Hirsch of Columbia, Professor Anthony Bogues of Brown University, Professor Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth College and Professor Jonathan Highfield of the Rhode Island School of Design.

It is an enormous privilage being an academic especially one with an office on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus in Orange Street. From my desk,  I have spectacular views of the moutain that frames this city in particular ways, but also a view that obscures and overlooks the realities of life for many in  Cape Town. My office is a stone’s throw from Government Avenue, and a scant 5 minute walk to the Houses of Parliament, a space showcasing a  towering bust of our  first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, a sculpture that is easily visible throughthe iron railings and gates.

I would never have imagined, sitting at my desk a week or so ago, that the violent scenes playing out on my computer screen as I studied the final edit of ‘The Wynberg 7’ would be repeated just a week later at our Parliament.  When I first purchased archival footage of the October 1985 student protests in Cape Town, showing uniformed South African  police running amok, I kept reminding myself that this was thirty years ago; that notwithstanding challenges of all sorts, 1994  marked a point of no return.

I am left shattered by my realisation that I am held hostage by our past. I was rendered mute and immobile  as I  saw live television broadcasts on another October day – last Wednesday –  that showed our students – my students – being mowed down in front of the people’s parliament, an action that has forever shamed our city and our nation. The rainbow nation has been tarnished  by changing  the colour of  the dye in the water cannons. Too much has been sacrificed for too little and we have set our bar for freedom too low.We have much to learn from the resilience and tenacity of those thousands of ordinary moms and dads, aunts and uncles who worked hard, bailed out children, organised clothing and food parcels and support groups  for those in detention and who believed in the value of education. It  seems that not even the tragedy of Marikana has been enough to compel us to rethink who we are and what we  imagine our hard fought for democracy to mean.

This has always been significantly more than a research project. Both documentaries deal with subject matter that is deeply personal and in one way or another, I have been shaped by  forced removals and the story of the Wynberg 7. My dad’s family was forcibly removed from District 6 and I share an aunt with Julian Stubbs, one of the  Wynberg 7. These stories hover over mine,  and for the past nine years, I have been committed to thinking about apartheid afterlives in an attempt to make sense of a past of which many of us were not the authors. All of the deeply personal stories that have been shared tonight remind us to guard the past, to give it a presence in the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ and to emphasise our obligation to remember – an obligation that must include a reflexive and honest acknowledgment of the stark divisions and inequalities that are the lived realities of the majority of South Africans.

Working on the legacies of forced removals started in my undergraduate studies and culminated in my doctoral thesis, and under the mentorship of Professor Anthony Bogues of Brown University, I embarked on what I now believe is a life long commitment to work on what it means to be human and what it means to be free.  For his guidance and deep friendship, I thank him, just as I thank David Brown for his generosity and humility in sharing his remarkable 40 year old photographs of Harfield Village before forced removals.

It is one thing to have an idea and quite another to bring it to fruition.  In this light, I am indebted to  the Mellon Foundation  and Professor Saleem Badat for funding my work on forced removals.  I need to express my gratitude to every single person who welcomed me into their homes and who shared their experiences, their words resonating long after the interviews were completed. This experience underscored my understanding that our past is far from over, and the need to speak and to be heard is echoed across our beautful yet tragically scarred country.

It was really only about 3 months ago that work began on ‘The Wynberg 7, and the fact that we are able to screen this tonight  is due to the unrivalled support of my work by Professor Pippa Skotnes who responded to my request for financial assistance for this project in a heartbeat. I am exceptionally lucky to work with a group of remarkable women at the CCA. So  Pippa, Fritha, Jo, Jane, Nancy, Fazlin, Nina and Jade, thank you.

Making this documentary was incredibly hard, the traces left by meeting Bradley Niekerk, the  Enous, Pandy, de Klerk,  Stubbs and other families have been etched on my being.  I have been forever changed by these interactions, humbled by  your generosity, distressed by your pain  and bouyed by your spirit to continue to do my  work.  I will never be able to  thank you enough.

Despite punishing schedules, my requests to meet with Mr Enver Daniels, Mr Jimi Matthews, Mr Michael Worsnip, Dr Iqbal Surve, Mr Brian Isaccs,  Mrs Mary Burton  and Miss Zubeida Vallie was accepted immediately.  Their willingness to share their experiences in addition to personal support is acknowledged  with my deepest gratitude and respect.

My self-appointed family of SACTWU have been an unending source of  much needed support of my work for the past few years. So Mr Andre Kriel, thank you.

I have been lucky in working with an exceptional team.  These productions are the result of many months of far too many phone calls, late nights,  juggling schedules, almost always accompanied by extreme highs and lows. Without  the vision of Andrea Shaw, my remarkable editor and friend, the energy and creativity of my Director of Photography, Adile Cook and the patience and exuberance of my production  coordinator, Jade Nair, tonight would not have happened. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

It is the magic of the South Peninsula High School band under the guidance of Mr Boesak that brings me joy. For it is through their passion, creativity, hard work and imagination that we able to hear these notes of promise. A promise that is built on the sacrifices of fellow students of thirty years ago and one that compels us to imagine an altogether new way of being.

In closing, perhaps we can return to  the event that has come to be known as Purple Rain and see beyond the dye – to a moment when we were  marked and saturated by a unifying colour – purple. For a brief moment, we were not ‘black’, ‘white’ or ‘coloured’. It is this moment that must give me hope. A hope that on a  balmy  October day some thirty years from now,  we will reflect on this moment as one that marked a shift, a rupture, so never again will our past demand  a ransom from anyone that is too high to pay for a freedom that we so deserve.