In 1976, the human remains in St James Cemetery, Langebaan, were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere. Several fancy buildings are now found on the land where St James Cemetery (together with a church and school) once stood. One of the buildings is named Skeleton Lodge.
One must assume that some thought went into the naming of Skeleton
Lodge. Whoever decided on the name must have known that the building was
erected on a site that was once a cemetery.
Perhaps the name “Skeleton Lodge” is a macabre attempt at
witticism. But for those whose dead loved ones’ remains were dug up and reburied
in a mass grave on the other side of the town, the name probably has another
Playing with names is one of the ways in which people in positions of power display their belief in their superiority over others. Throughout history names have been used to demonstrate triumph. Names have also been used to ridicule and shame groups who have been conquered. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the names given by owners to their slaves in the Cape Colony. For example, Fortune was a common name given to slaves as an ironic reminder of their lack of wealth. Other popular sources of slave names were characters from classical history and mythology such as Titus and Cupido; similar names were also given to the slaveowners’ livestock and pets and when the slaves came into contact with their namesakes the joke would be revealed. These names survive today in the surnames of many Coloured people.
Growing up on the Cape Flats, one can see how those naming
patterns were also extended to places such as Valhalla Park, Lavender Hill and Heideveld.
Beyond Cape Town, Sophiatown was renamed Triomf (literally, Triumph) after the
forced removals of Black people who had to make way for working class White
Skeleton Lodge’s name plays an unintended purpose. In what is
otherwise a town that has whitewashed its cruel past, Skeleton Lodge serves as
a reminder of the people who lived, played, worshipped, learned and died in
Langebaan but who are no longer wanted in the “nice” part. What might have been
intended as a joke is not funny.
Less than 2km from Die Watergat, the Langebaan pub
where Eben Etzebeth is said to have been involved in a racist incident, lies
Marra Street – named after a pioneer in the establishment of the town.
A descendant of the original Marra, Santeo Marra, has
been involved in a struggle for the past 24 years to reclaim property which
belonged to his family in Langebaan. In
the 1960s, at the age of six, Santeo’s family left Langebaan to settle in Cape
Town. They built a home in Athlone but the family returned regularly to the
properties in Langebaan. They returned to the main house for holidays and
rented out the cottages to the local people, who continued fishing and other
In 1966, the area demarcated as Langebaan A was
proclaimed an area for occupation and ownership by members of the white group.
This area included the property owned by Santeo’s family.
The Group Areas Act notoriously targeted communities and individuals who had documented proof – title deeds, lease agreements, etc., – to the property of which they were being dispossessed. Through this process huge tracts of land in areas which are now out of the reach of ordinary South Africans were taken from black people and handed to white people. In the Western Cape alone, prime property, which now falls in exclusive residential areas such as Constantia, Kirstenbosch, Claremont, and Zonnebloem (District 6), were declared white group areas and black people were forced to move. (See my article on Tohira Kerrike.)
Some of the first targets of the Group Areas Act in
Langebaan were the dead. 87-year old Faye Smith recalls a meeting that was
called in the local church hall to announce that the buried remains of Coloured
people in the local cemetery would have to be exhumed to make way for a new
road. “I pray that the ghosts of everyone who is dug up comes to haunt you and
your families,” shouted one old woman at the white officials who came to make
the announcement. The remains of everyone who was buried in the cemetery next
to St James’s Church were reburied in a mass grave in the black section of
Father James Van Staden, who was the Anglican
priest in Langebaan, points out that the destruction of the cemetery was
preceded by the demolition of St James Church school and the church building.
Those black people who owned property in the newly
declared white area of Langebaan were caught between a rock and a hard place.
They could either sell their properties at greatly reduced prices to white
people or they would have their properties expropriated by the state. Some
considered deals whereby they would transfer ownership to a friendly white
person in the hope of retaining some privileges. But such deals were fraught
with risks. Tenants lost all rights and were summarily evicted.
In 1967, Santeo’s
father, John Michael Marra, was forced to sell his property for R3,200. The
same property was resold for R20,000 in 1973 and again for R67,500 in 1982.
John Michael Marra died in 1987. By 2002, the asking price for the property was
In addition to losing the property, the townspeople lost their sources of income since the rights to the properties included fishing rights. The fisher folk were left destitute. Quality of life deteriorated and among the incalculable costs of the dispossession of land was the emotional trauma suffered by many of the older folk.
great-aunt, Gertrude Smith, grew blind and bitter in her old age in Athlone –
more than 120km from Langebaan. When she died in 1970, the beach on which she
played as a child was reserved for white people and she could not even set her
feet on it again one last time.
The Commission of the Restitution of Land Rights
was established in 1994 to deal with cases such as those of the Marra family.
As early as 1995, they submitted their claim. They are still waiting for
finalisation. In that period, two of Santeo’s siblings have passed away.
The options available to the remaining two are
accept a cash offer which will be far below the current market price of the property,
engage in negotiations with the current owners on the “willing buyer, willing
seller” principle, which is generally accepted to have failed elsewhere, or
accept alternative land of appropriately the same value in the area. They have
opted for the third alternative. The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights
acknowledges the legitimacy of the claim. As late as 2005, it claimed that they
had requested the Saldanha Bay Municipality for a land audit report in order to
proceed with settling the claim.
Descendants of Marra have been engaged in a long
struggle to claim what is rightfully theirs. It’s another South African
reality: people dispossessed of their properties who are yet to see justice
done. Meanwhile, other claimants are growing older and dying without any
restitution in sight.
Langebaan is still largely divided along racial
lines and any effort to return black people to the areas from which they were
forcibly removed just over 40 years ago is met with resistance. The
Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture says, “On the
confiscation of African land, the Europeans erased most evidence which Africans
seek to use to prove lawful customary ownership of their ancestral lands.
Graves and residential sites of Africans on some European farms were
deliberately destroyed to wipe out evidence in many cases. The ancestors of
Africans who were evicted from their lands could neither read nor write.
Therefore, it is very difficult for their descendants to prove that they ever
lived on the so-called ‘European farms’.”
But if a case as clear and simple as this of the Marra family has dragged on more than 25 years after the end of Apartheid, how will the ones with no evident paper trail ever see conclusion?