R50 000 and homelessness

Last week Sunday I visited SA National Gallery in town. The current exhibition, Umhlaba commemorates the Land Act of 1913. I find it a strange thing to refer to the process of remembering the Land Act as a commemoration. I have always thought that commemorations are meant to celebrate rather than draw memories back into a dark past that still lives with us today.

A week before visiting this exhibition Mama had called me telling me about the new tv she had acquired. My mother is unemployed (and has been since I was 7 years old and thus depends on my sisters and I for support).I asked her where she got the money from and she told me my Grandmother's claim from the land commission had finally come and the money was divided amongst her and her sisters. I was seething with anger. Initially I thought I was angry because she had bought a tv and some clothes for her granddaughter, my niece, and had decided to save very little of the money she had received. But this is not the reason for my anger.

After seeing the exhibition I realised that I wasn't angry about my mother's foolish extravagance with the lump sum of money they had received, but rather I was enraged at the futility of this idea of land restoration. I calculated that my mother and her sisters received about R50 000. The R50 000 my mother and her sisters received is now a distant memory for each of them as they spent it on household appliances and buying something for their children and grandchildren. What the R50 000 will never do is restore the dignity my grandmother lost during apartheid simply because she was a black women, a single black mother with too many children. A problem for apartheid South Africa.

Two weeks before my gran passed away we had the longest chat I would ever have with her. It was our last conversation and I clung onto each word because I secretly knew the opportunity would never be afforded to me again. We spoke about many things. She also gave me a copy of her reference book, her dompas. We spoke about her experience of moving to Mdanstane in the winter of the 1960s and arriving to a small house that was not conducive to inhabit given the winter chill. She had been removed from an area close to town to Mdanstane, where she would have to commute many miles in order to get to work. When she told me the story I realised how she was still wounded by the experience. My gran had a macabre sense of humour and she often laughed things off easily, but there was no mirth in her voice when she told me about being forcibly removed from her home.

And all she was given posthumously was R50 000. It isn't about the money and it will never be about the money. People might be given financial compensation for the land they lost during apartheid or if they are lucky enough they might get some land back, but they will never be given back the dignity they lost when they became homeless in a country they knew as home. How do you compensate a nation of people whose families will always carry the burden of homelessness because that is the legacy apartheid laws left for them: pass books and homelessness?

My father is still in the midst of his land claim case for his family. Both my parents have been embroiled in land claims and one would think that that would make me happy. It doesn't. It is a cruel reminder of my own homelessness. If my parents have no sense of ownership (in the form of land or a homestead) in this country then I too am homeless and R50 000 will not give me a home. It has give my niece new shoes and my mother, hours of entertainment from her new tv connected to DSTV.


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