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Welcome to Mitchell’s Plain

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Ludmila Ommundsen Pessoa

Introduction

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“There is nothing so universally intelligible as truth.
It has a thousand meanings, and suggests a thousand more.”
Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (1883).

  • 2 The estimated population of South Africa stands at 59,62 million, according to the 2020 mid-year po (...)
  • 3 “Crime Statistics: Integrity.” South African Police Force. https://www.saps.gov.za/services/crimest (...)
  • 4 Also conveyed by the image of the Coloured gangster in documentary films such as Devil’s Lair by Ri (...)
  • 5 See “MEC Anroux Marais Unveils Provincial Heritage Site Plaque at Rocklands Community Hall, 20 Aug. (...)

1Who cares about Mitchell’s Plain? Mitchell’s Plain is one of South Africa’s largest townships,2 located about 30 km from Cape Town. If you publicly mention your intention to go there, you would instantly be told: “You’ll be shot.” Mitchell’s Plain ranks among the top three in community-reported serious crimes and the worst precinct for drug-related crimes.3 For most people, it is synonymous with gangsterism and drugs. Yet, it has more to offer than sensationalist stories of violence.4 During apartheid Mitchell’s Plain was a strategic site for both the National Party government and the liberation movement. Opportunely, its heritage has started to be reclaimed as it holds a critical place in the histories of townships and ethnic minorities, which illuminate the interpretations of national history in South Africa. On 20 August 2019, the Rocklands community complex—the Community Hall, the library, the Memorial Square and the Community Healthcare Centre—was declared a provincial heritage site as the birthplace of the United Democratic Front (UDF). A year later, on 14 October 2020, the iconic Rocklands Community Hall was declared a national heritage site5:

  • 6 “The Memorial is a living entity, breaking through the cemented foundations of apartheid, and in so (...)

“The UDF was launched at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain on 21 August 1983 to oppose the apartheid government’s rule. Filling the gap created by the banning of the liberation movement and the imprisonment and exiling of a number of cadres, the UDF together with other organisations became a key vehicle in the struggle for democracy. Within a few years the UDF built a national following of over 3,000,000 people, representing hundreds of affiliates, including religious groups, student and youth organisations, trade unions, civic organisations, women’s organisations and many other bodies opposed to apartheid.” (“The United Democratic Front (UDF) Memorial Storyboard” 20206)

2The UDF was a key actor during the years of rebellion. It “helped build an unprecedented organisational structure from the local to the national levels” (Seekings 2000, 3). It “played a vital role in bringing the banned African National Congress (ANC) back on the center stage of South African politics, thus paving the way for its unbanning and for the subsequent stage of negotiating and power sharing” (Van Kessel 2000, 2).

  • 7 Please note that the “racial” terms used in this book correspond with official terminology and are (...)
  • 8 Jan Brand (March 1925 Mossel Bay, South Africa–July 2010 Sydney, Australia) became Cape Town’s City (...)

3Ironically, this major stronghold of the UDF was a “model township” planned in the 1960s and designed in the 1970s by the apartheid government. It was much publicised at national and international levels. Mitchell’s Plain was intended for the Coloureds.7 “[T]he term ‘Coloured’ in the South African context refers to those people often described in other societies as mixed race, mullatoes or half-castes” (Lewis 1987, 1). Prime Minister John Vorster held an official opening ceremony in 1976. Two years later, on 5 May 1978, the housing scheme was the subject of a special report of 32 pages in the Financial Mail. The top business magazine, which enjoyed national and international circulation, heralded “a new era in mass housing” (“Mitchells Plain, a New Era of Mass Housing” 1978). In 1980, City Engineer Jan Brand earnestly declared that South Africa had received “much favourable publicity in the foreign press and influential foreign circles as a result of visits arranged to Mitchells Plain”; he pointed out that “220 foreign visitors and 760 visitors from South Africa were, during 1979, officially conducted on tours around the Plains” (Brand 1980a, 15–6).8 These visitors represented a third of the 674 foreign visitors who, according to the Information Service, “came to the Republic at their own expenses and approached the Information Service at the suggestion of its overseas offices for assistance in arranging interviews, seminars, conferences, etc. They included journalists, politics, clerics and, in particular, investors” (Department of Information Report 1979b). The Information Service would spare no effort in propaganda. Motion pictures conveying tailor-made realities were valued as an “important aid in promoting South Africa’s public image”: in 1979, “seventeen films were made and circulated,” and eight were “still in various stages of production […] [among which] Mitchells Plain” (ibid., 23–4). The documentary film Mitchells Plain was commissioned for worldwide distribution (Brand 1980a, 16) and released in the wake of the Information Scandal when Pieter Willem Botha assumed South Africa’s premiership under the guise of the genuine reformer. It opportunistically echoes the language of the new government in defence of professed Christian and “civilised” values.

  • 9 Christine Boyer (1994) describes a series of different visual and mental models by which the urban (...)
  • 10 I had the opportunity to realise this when I screened the film in Mitchell’s Plain in March 2019. T (...)

4Meanings that individuals and groups assign to places are sustained by diverse imageries through which they are seen and remembered (Boyer 1994).9 It is undeniable that the recent heritage landmark in Mitchell’s Plain contributes to celebrating its cultural history and, as such, to reinforcing feelings of belongingness based on a shared history of the liberation struggle. The creation and use of space is a political act, and “places make memories cohere in complex ways” (Hayden 1995, 133). Mitchell’s Plain was chosen for the national launch of the UDF “to emphasise the UDF’s appeal for the support of the Coloured South Africans” (Seekings 2000, 54). This choice becomes all the more meaningful when set against its creation as a “model” housing development by the apartheid regime and its use as cosmetic ammunition in the official propaganda war worldwide. Ironically on 20 August 1983 “fifteen thousand people, young and old, black and white, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, people of all faiths” (Boesak 2009, 115) met in a place devised as a segregated dormitory suburb far removed from the White areas of Cape Town as well as isolated from the other racial communities. This study is the first to address the origins of Mitchell’s Plain through the critical and historical perspective of the documentary Mitchells Plain (1980) proposed by the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Information. The film is unknown to many Plainers, including people who were relocated in the township or born there of parents forcedly removed in the 1970s.10

5The South African film industry is one of the oldest in the world, and its documentary tradition dates back to 1896 and the Anglo-Boer War. In the late 1980s, South African media scholar Keyan Tomaselli (2014, 11) drew attention to the fact that cinema was historically playing “an important role in presenting apartheid as a natural way of life,” with incontestable effects on the South African social mosaic. Apartheid’s successive governments recognised documentary films as powerful tools. They used them to promote South Africa’s public image at home and abroad. These documentaries were made available in most European languages to counteract what they deemed adverse publicity in and outside the English-speaking world. Produced through the Department of information and later through the National Film Board, these films were presented under the pretext of narratives serving historical and educational functions while advancing political interests. As such, they necessitated “a particular approach that would come to typify South African documentaries for decades” in the “traditional BBC style characterized by didactic, voice-of-god narration in simple, binary representations with subjects typically reduced to stereotypes” (Pichaske 2007, 132). The documentary film Mitchells Plain is no exception. The viewers are invited to a discovery journey into a miracle-like engineering adventure “laying the foundations of a new society.” Non-White people—migrants forced by work-related circumstances to live in slums or local families stuck in overcrowded housing estates—are offered the opportunity to reside in state-of-the-art housing developments, such as Mitchell’s Plain. The “metropolis” in the “heartland of South Africa’s Coloured community” emerges from the sand in a sort of Promised Land. Three residents are interviewed and talk about their sea-change experiences with much enthusiasm: Mrs Rinehart, a housewife, does not worry about the future of her daughters any longer, Mr Claasens, a self-made man, is planning the expansion of his bookshop, and Mr Arendse, a salesman, feels fortunate to have got a modern three-bedroomed house so easily. Those who move to Mitchell’s Plain can only live happily ever after in their sweet homes. The documentary film is politically cautious in its discourse strategy. Semantic acrobatics circumvent the truth without elaborating lies; there is no linguistic reference to the three racial categories instituted by the 1950 Population Registration Act, although Whites, Africans and Coloureds are present as social actors. Ingeniously, the word “township” is mentioned but does not refer to the segregated place that was a prominent feature of the South African landscape. Apartheid is presented as a most progressive way of life, with Pepsi, Gillette, and baseball offered as evidence of an anti-Marx lifestyle revolution.

  • 11 An ox wagon for Transvaal Province, a woman with an anchor for the Cape Province, two wildebeests f (...)
  • 12 The transcript of the documentary is in the appendix.

6Documentary film theoretician Bill Nichols (2017, 10) defines documentaries as films that speak about “the historical world directly rather than through an allegory.” Although relying heavily on real footage and testimonials—indexical images as evidence of the world—“they may represent the world in the same way a lawyer may represent a client: they make a case for a particular interpretation of the evidence” (ibid., 30) before the viewer, using rhetorical techniques in “ways designed to move or persuade us” (ibid., 88). Mitchells Plain opens with a silently respectful shot. The introductory sentence names its official maker (“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Information presents”). It is set against the old South African state coat of arms, a quartered shield allegorically representing the former Transvaal, Cape and Natal provinces and the Orange Free State11 with its Latin motto “Ex Unitate Vires” (“Unity is Strength”). No sooner does it disappear than the viewer enjoys the noisy launch of the European rocket Ariane into space on 24 December 1979, followed by its ascent in the sky, then sees the American Landsat 3 satellite gravitating around the world, and finally planet Earth from space. An off-screen male voice with an English accent energetically comments upon these latest technological developments of the 1970s: “Mankind, with his incredible technology, has conquered many problems in the twentieth century. He thrusts out into space and makes ghost-like satellites to travel into eternal circles as his slaves. And when from space he looks back at his home, he sees a romantic blue ball” (Mitchells Plain 198012).

7The opening scene is devised to capture the audience’s attention. It sets the tone for the whole film and provides the viewers with the key to deciphering the constructed narrative. How could the beginning of Mitchells Plain trigger the viewer’s curiosity? By inscribing the housing development within the discourse of science and progress. Indeed, at the end of these introductory lines, the off-screen commentator conjures up a vexing paradox: “And yet, back on Earth, he is struggling to provide decent living space for a fast-growing world population.” The remark is intentionally provocative to frame a dramatic issue. The purpose is to expose the tragic and derisive duality of mankind. While amazingly capable of “conquering” outer space with rockets and “enslaving” high-tech machines such as satellites, he is desperately “struggling” for “living space.” The comments are couched in aggressive terms. The earthly struggle for life is much more intense since man’s “incredible technology” makes him see Earth as a “romantic blue ball” from space—a deceptive quality. Survival seems to be at stake and dependent upon ways of believing and seeing. The imagery transforms an inconvenient truth into a sign of progress: how does space technology compare with the management of people and spaces? This is a fundamental—and biased—question. It is related to the politics of a government guided by the ideology of apartheid and relying on a system of institutionalised racial segregation stemming from the 1950 Population Registration Act and Group Areas Act. In 1980, in a context of growing international criticism of apartheid policies sparked by the 1976 mass shootings in Soweto and the murder of Black consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1977, the beginning of the documentary Mitchells Plain keeps the audience mesmerised up to the end of the film. The concluding scene is reassuring: “Alongside the blue depth and foam-tipped crests of False Bay, Man with his skill is painting a living colourful picture of a happy community. Like Ennerdale, Eldorado park, Atlantis and Phoenix, this is a nation’s answer to a worldwide problem that is also threatening our people, thus laying the foundations of a new society” (ibid.). The new South African townships are allegedly comparable with the series of technological breakthroughs made in the USA and Europe and, as such, beneficial to a world under the threat of an “annoying need for housing.” Within such an axis of civilisation, it is evident that “South Africa hails the future with confidence” (ibid.).

  • 13 According to Mr Trevor Moses, a film archivist at South African National Film and Video and Sound A (...)

8The 1980 documentary film Mitchells Plain is an old narrative history of South Africa. As Etherington rightly remarks, “if historians do not set about writing new narrative histories of South Africa, the old ones will survive,” and “many of the ‘old’ histories clearly serve the interests of formerly dominant social formations whose day will not come again” (Etherington 2001, x). Up to this study, the Department of Information’s visual propaganda about Mitchell’s Plain has survived without any counter-perspective. Could this unique record of Mitchell’s Plain’s origins and its residents’ lives be archived without any contextualisation? This pioneering work on Mitchell’s Plain’s origins has been undertaken in line with the values of history in the South African context “to understand and evaluate how past human action has an impact on the present and how it influences the future” (Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education 2008, 7). By addressing the birth of Mitchell’s Plain through a critical study of the eponymous documentary film, it is intended as a contribution to the history of South African townships and the history of ethnic minorities within the crucial and growing field of heritage studies.13

  • 14 The collection of narratives of people of who have lived, worked and made an impact on the developm (...)

9In post-apartheid South Africa, townships such as Mitchell’s Plain are still sites of struggle and resilience. This work further expands the oral history project Mitchell’s Plain, a Place in the Sun.14 It provides a guidepost for addressing some of the socioeconomic, cultural and political challenges that Mitchell’s Plain and other places in the country face today. It is consistent with the launch of Mitchell’s Plain’s first museum in December 2020 (Leitch 2020), a community-engaging place that encourages reflections through the creation and reconstruction of memory. This critical and historical perspective of the documentary Mitchells Plain (1980), made by the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Information, supports a culture that values and promotes the complexities of truth.

Notes

2 The estimated population of South Africa stands at 59,62 million, according to the 2020 mid-year population estimates (MYPE), with 80.8% in the Black African group, 8.8% in the Coloured group, 7.8% in the White group and 2.6% in the Indian/Asian group (See Statistics South Africa 2020). According to the 2011 census, the population of the Western Cape is 5,822,734 (48.8% of whom describe themselves as Coloured, 32.8% as Black African, 15.7% as White and 1% as Indian/Asian), Mitchell’s Plain is 310,485 (90.8% of whom describe themselves as Coloured) (Statistics South Africa 2012). Please note that since the first report on the construction of the new town in the Cape Flats, the name of the location has been spelt either Mitchells Plain or Mitchell’s Plain. In this study, the spelling varies according to the sources cited. Both spellings can also be found in the same source.

3 “Crime Statistics: Integrity.” South African Police Force. https://www.saps.gov.za/services/crimestats.php. Accessed 1 February 2022 [archive].

4 Also conveyed by the image of the Coloured gangster in documentary films such as Devil’s Lair by Riaan Hendricks (2013) or Incarcerated Knowledge by Dylan Valley (2013) or fiction films such as Call Me Thief [Noem My Skollie] by Daryne Joshua (2016) based on a true life story. See Jacobs (2018).

5 See “MEC Anroux Marais Unveils Provincial Heritage Site Plaque at Rocklands Community Hall, 20 Aug.” (2019) and Departement of Sports, Arts and Culture (2020).

6 “The Memorial is a living entity, breaking through the cemented foundations of apartheid, and in so doing reclaiming, as nature often does, the land and its history” (ibid.). It was designed to reflect and recount “the historical context in which the UDF was founded, and the fighting spirit of its members in their quest for a liberated South Africa” (ibid.).

7 Please note that the “racial” terms used in this book correspond with official terminology and are used for purposes of clarity. This usage does not imply acceptance of the underlying ideology of apartheid by the author. As Posel (2001b, 51) writes: “If apartheid’s racial categories were previously the locus of racial privilege and discrimination, these very same racial designations are now the site of redress.”

8 Jan Brand (March 1925 Mossel Bay, South Africa–July 2010 Sydney, Australia) became Cape Town’s City Engineer in 1975: “The 11 years that I was city engineer of Cape Town were very, very fulfilling […]. In 1985 the French Government conferred the Order of Merit on me, and in 1988 the South African Government did the same; I was the first municipal employee to be honoured in this way. My position as city engineer was, I believe, the very best any person could have wished to have. I faced many exciting challenges. Perhaps the most satisfying was the building of Mitchells Plain, a suburb with a population challenging that of Bloemfontein” (Brand 1999, 29).

9 Christine Boyer (1994) describes a series of different visual and mental models by which the urban environment has been recognised, depicted, and planned. She identifies three major “maps”: one common to the traditional city—the city as a work of art; one characteristic of the modern city—the city as a panorama; and one appropriate to the contemporary city—the city as a spectacle.

10 I had the opportunity to realise this when I screened the film in Mitchell’s Plain in March 2019. The screening was documented in two local newspapers. See articles by Lee (2019) and Leitch (2019).

11 An ox wagon for Transvaal Province, a woman with an anchor for the Cape Province, two wildebeests for Natal and an orange tree for the Orange Free State.

12 The transcript of the documentary is in the appendix.

13 According to Mr Trevor Moses, a film archivist at South African National Film and Video and Sound Archives (NFVSA), the NFVSA and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture are planning to digitise the entire collection—mostly the newsreels and documentaries.

14 The collection of narratives of people of who have lived, worked and made an impact on the development of the area is presented in Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux (2012). The project was financially supported by the French Embassy in South Africa and the South African Ministry of Social Development. Its context and specificities are described in Ommundsen Pessoa (2017).

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