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Welcome to Mitchell’s Plain

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Ludmila Ommundsen Pessoa

Chapter 3

The Miracle-like Engineering Adventure

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In the “Heartland of South Africa’s Coloured Community”

  • 117 There is an interesting analysis of the musical theme of the highly successful American TV series D (...)

1As Mitchell’s Plain emerges from the model project through a crossfade plan, streets and houses appear through a series of aerial views, also showing the film’s credits, accompanied by a lively musical theme going crescendo and functioning as a sonic frame. The music is composed within the tradition of the orchestral scoring for contemporary American television series117 with dominant electronic sounds. The use of a synthesiser conveys a sense of modernity which echoes the distinctive nature of the housing development, subsequently highlighted by the off-screen commentator:

“Mitchell’s Plain, one of the most exciting housing projects in the world, is situated in the heartland of South Africa’s Coloured community above 25 km from Cape Town and within the city’s municipal boundaries. A metropolis of a quarter of a million people in 40,000 houses is being developed here by the Cape Town City Council in cooperation with the Department of Community Development, which was set up to deal with the establishment of communities and the housing of all South Africans […] Mitchell’s Plain sprang up by an extensive stretch of land with a beautiful 9 km seafront between Muizenberg and the Strand.”

2The reports by the City Engineer’s Department do not support the idea that Mitchell’s Plain was either a choice or the choicest location as romantically implied by the use of “heartland”:

“Planning studies pointed out that topographical constraints and the need to conserve prime agricultural land meant that the remaining land close to the city which could be used for housing was rapidly diminishing. The only remaining large piece of land was the 3,100 hectares of the property known as Mitchells Plain, lying at its closest point about four kilometres beyond the then limit of urban development […] This area was accordingly chosen for the fulfilment of the program.” (Brand 1980a, 1)

3There were also surveys carried out before November 1974—the date of the decision to plan the first phase of Mitchell’s Plain—to determine and assess socio-economic factors such as place of employment. The instructive results prompted City Engineer Morris (1972, 2–9) to stress that “if this scheme [was] ever to succeed, it [was] essential that it [got] off to a good start. Prerequisite for this [was] the timeous provision of transport facilities particularly rail facilities at reasonable cost,” since “at least 43.6% and possibly even 50% of the household heads in Mitchell’s Plain [would] need to travel daily to places of employment in the Central City.” The commuters’ percentage increased to 58.3% with Paarden Island and Maitland, going up to 70.7% with Observatory and Wynberg. The location of Mitchell’s Plain was disadvantageous to a great majority of Coloured workers. In 1977, City Engineer Mabin (1977, 13–4) mentioned the results of these surveys again and repeated that “the success of Mitchells Plain [would] be largely dependent upon efficient rail transport.” Cee Jay Williams moved to Mitchell’s Plain in 1976. He served on the committee of the Westridge Residents’ association and later became the first chairperson of the Mitchell’s Plain Business Chamber: “We hated the daily exodus to our places of work, far from our homes,” he says (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 34).

  • 118 Technical Management Services (TMS) City Engineer’s Department, “1980 Census Statistics” (working p (...)
  • 119 City Engineer’s Department, “An Alternative Housing Policy” (1979), 22; quoted in ibid.
  • 120 Argus, 6 November 1979; quoted in Le Grange (ibid.).

4Employment opportunities and adequate transport were a primary concern. Only 29% of the residents of Mitchell’s Plain worked in or near the township during 1980,118 thus the costs of transportation and the commuting time involved were an additional burden to take into account. The documentary boasts railroad investments: “Right next to the city centre, the main railway station is near in completion. Altogether three stations will serve the town’s 30,000 to 50,000 daily commuters.” The flip side was the hardship commuters already residing in the area endured. They could not avail of a good public transport system—even though the rate of car ownership among the pioneer families was not low. Mitchell’s Plain Buses Services operated regular feeder services to Nyanga railway station and the Hanover Park bus junction, from which express buses would fan out to different directions, including Cape Town. Despite demands from the Ratepayers Association, there was no direct service to and from Mitchell’s Plain, although 35,000 passengers were conveyed weekly in 1978 (Financial Mail Special Report 1978, 31). In a dormitory town such as Mitchell’s Plain, creating job opportunities (the off-screen voice mentions 5,000 jobs and ten times more commuters) was alleged to induce an adverse effect upon Atlantis. At this growth point, the government promoted the development of industries.119 Cameron (1986, 80) also mentions evidence showing that the Cape Town City Council, where businessmen were increasingly represented since the early 1970s, was protective towards business interests within its jurisdiction, especially the CBD: “They have been accused of neglecting job creation and industrial development in Mitchell’s Plain because this would compete with their existing business interests.” In 1979, the work concern was such that Mitchell’s Plain residents organised a meeting of combined Ratepayers Associations to express disquiet.120 Up to June 1980, when the train service linking Mitchell’s Plain to Cape Town began operating, going to work was a labyrinthine journey. Mitchell’s Plain’s Liverpool-Portland Football Club chairperson Lutfeyah Abrahams recalls:

“In 1980 my husband and I moved to Portlands in Mitchell’s Plain. We were newlywed and it was difficult to buy a house. […] We heard about houses in Mitchell’s Plain, went to the housing office in Silversands and in April 1980 we moved into the house we still stay in. There was no town centre—nothing. Transport was inadequate. I had to take a bus to Manenberg and then to Nyanga station, and then a train to Epping to get to work. But life had to go on.” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 63)

  • 121 The figures are the following (SA 1970 boundaries): Total: 21,794; African: 15,340; Coloured: 2,051 (...)

5The documentary situates Mitchell’s Plain “in the heartland of South Africa’s Coloured community” on a map of the Cape Peninsula, giving a mixed impression of the size and importance of the Coloured community. The 1970 Census established that while the Coloureds comprised 9,4% and the Whites 17,3% of the total South African population (21,794 million),121 they respectively comprised 61% and 39% of the total population of 01 region (South) of the Western Cape (Brand 1976,1). The visual manoeuvre blurs the demographic weight of the Coloureds at both levels. The Mitchell’s Plain enclave, as represented in the documentary, is more representative of their contemporaneous condition of isolation and powerlessness:

“The coloured community was a marginal group in that it never formed more than about 9 per cent of the South African population throughout the twentieth century. Although constituting a significant minority, it did not enjoy anything like a commensurate level of influence or power under white supremacy. A heritage of slavery, dispossession and racial oppression ensured that coloured people lacked any significant economic or political power as a group and that by far the greater majority consisted of a downtrodden proletariat. Under white minority rule, the coloured community had no meaningful leverage to bring about change in the society, to reform it or to influence the way in which it was governed […] Trapped by their condition of marginality, the coloured community found its options for social and political action severely constrained. Their assimilationist overtures spurned by whites, and joint organization with the African majority either not a practical or attractive option, the coloured community was left isolated and politically impotent.” (Adhikari 2006, 484–5)

6The film suggests that Mitchell’s Plain is located by Table Mountain. As the off-screen voice evokes the “heartland” of the Coloured community situated “within the city’s municipal boundaries,” the camera zooms in on the demarcated Mitchell’s Plain area on the Cape Peninsula map, then crossfades into the magnificent flat-topped perspective of Table Mountain from Table Bay (figures 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3). A layperson (e.g. a foreign national) could infer that Mitchell’s Plain is in the foothills of Table Mountain and that the picturesque Cape Town harbour with its developed foreshore area is False Bay. In this laudatory ploy, the word “heartland” and the image of the thriving bay cannot fail to impart a special status to Mitchell’s Plain. Coloured housing is represented as a cultural object with an economic purpose instead of a segregated territory with a political design. Factually, the heartland is the Cape Flats, whose topographic name is much less romantic and exposes the reality of a vast monotonous expanse swept by the winds:

“The Cape Flats, some 400 square km (150 square miles) in extent, form a broad, sandy isthmus connecting the Cape Peninsula to the mainland […] The Cape Flats are composed mainly of sand with inter-layered clay bands. The sand extends to depths of over 30 m below the surface and rests on an uneven foundation of Malmesbury rocks and granite. These surface materials were mainly deposited as beach drifts, subsequently added to by wind action.” (Taylor 1972, 637)

Fig. 3.1 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (1) - Mitchell’s Plain & False Bay

Fig. 3.1 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (1) - Mitchell’s Plain & False Bay

Fig. 3.2 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (2) - Mitchell’s Plain-Table Mountain

Fig. 3.2 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (2) - Mitchell’s Plain-Table Mountain

Fig. 3.3 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (3) - Table Mountain & Table Bay

Fig. 3.3 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (3) - Table Mountain & Table Bay

7Experiences influence perceptions so that the faraway expanse could play on people’s imagination, as in the case of Cee Jay Williams. He came to know the place in a professional capacity and acknowledges the appeal because of the socio-political context:

“My first contact and association with the new development came through my position as employee of Central Installation Works, a plumbing company based in Athlone Industria. They won the tender to provide all the plumbing work on site. When I visited the area it resembled an oasis in the middle of the desert—white sand, fynbos and nothing else. This should have put anybody in his or her right mind off, but if you struggled the way most of us did it seemed like paradise in the wilderness.” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 33)

  • 122 “District Six was officially renamed Zonnebloem. The Minister of Community Development reported tha (...)

8As the documentary unreels, Table Bay fades and gives way to a panoramic view of Table Mountain with the unmissable Disa Towers (figure 3.4) and District Six (figure 3.5). In 1966, it was declared a White-only area, thus forcing removals to townships on the wastes of the Cape Flats and Mitchell’s Plain. Du Pré (1994, 88) remembers that “In the 1960s, one of the reasons advanced by the then Minister of Coloured affairs for the removal of coloured people from District Six,122 was that the area was too good for the Coloured people: ‘Why should Coloured people live there? They don’t appreciate the view. The area should be given to whites who can appreciate it.’”

Fig. 3.4 Panoramic view - Disa Towers (on the left)

Fig. 3.4 Panoramic view - Disa Towers (on the left)

Fig. 3.5 Panoramic view - District Six (empty space on the left) – Disa Towers (on the right)

Fig. 3.5 Panoramic view - District Six (empty space on the left) – Disa Towers (on the right)

From the Desert to the Metropolis with Mr Dudley

  • 123 The term is used in the nineteenth-century sense of nostalgia with its tenuous link with the Orient (...)

9Contrary to the city of Cape Town, Mitchell’s Plain could not be characterised as a historical place since its construction only started in the early 1970s. Hence, the clever association of the word “heartland” (conjuring up exoticism,123 virgin tribal lands) and the picture of Table Mountain (i.e. a sacred place for the Khoisan people and the original site of the Dutch settlement in the mid-seventeenth century). This association determines culture, tradition and heritage as essential parameters in the identity of the housing development. Mitchell’s Plain was a progressive model breaking with the notorious austere and monotonous townships of matchboxes. As concisely advertised, it is offered as a state-of-the-art project combining investment and sensibility:

“For the Mitchell’s Plain project, the Department made lands available at a low-interest rate to the Cape City Council through the National Housing Fund and the Council, in turn, planned and developed the townships and sold the houses to prospective Coloured owners at a very low deposit and with subsidised bond interest rates. […] With the accent on house ownership rather than rented accommodation in Mitchell’s Plain, a wide variety of designs is offered to prospective buyers. After a survey of potential owners’ tastes and preferences, the planning division of the Cape Town City Council created no less than 70 house designs for Mitchell’s Plain. The positioning of the houses on the stands was planned to provide the maximum variety and privacy. In addition to the shops in every township, a large central business complex is being built by the Department of Community Development. This centre, which will cost more than R15 million, will eventually form the heart of the new city. It is expected that more than 5,000 people will be employed in its shops and offices. […] Altogether, 40,000 workers are employed in building the town, and many opportunities for enterprises have been created.”

10The project is framed as the success story of modern man over adverse nature:

“Mitchell’s Plain sprang up by an extensive stretch of land with a beautiful 9 km seafront between Muizenberg and the Strand. Large parts of the area had to be evened out with bulldozers. Because of its sandy nature, the ground had to be stabilised with straw and rolled firmly to provide excellent building stands. When Mitchell’s Plain is completed, 15 million cubic meters of earth will have been moved to make room for 160 townships with about 250 stands each. A building tempo of 700 houses a month, that is to say, 33 houses a day, was maintained […] This brickworks was built to provide the millions of bricks needed for the new town.”

  • 124 This is often read as central to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 narrative of Robinson Crusoe. In Grapard and H (...)

11Mitchell’s Plain is thus rooted in a socio-environmental drama featuring geological conflict and technological resolution. Here an “enormous” bulldozer (rendered all the more impressive by a low-angle shot) manages to conquer a seemingly endless sandy expanse (figures 3.6 and 3.7). There, an army of ant-like workers deals with the house bases (figures 3.8 and 3.9), whereas executives are busy at the brickworks (figure 3.10). The project is staged as resourceful and exemplary, an illustration of the fundamental relationship between man and nature, i.e. the massive power of natural forces testing the abilities of people and nations to respond to them. It forms the South African version of how “mankind with his incredible technology has conquered many problems in the twentieth century” (the exclamation opening the documentary). Set against this background, the word “metropolis” contributes to the creation of Mitchell’s Plain as a robinsonnade, namely the birth of civilisation within the logics of the rational economic man,124 whom Mr Dudley eventually incarnates. He is the project manager of Model Development Company, building thousands of houses in a deserted and sandy location—thus bringing life to it. The figures speak for themselves:

“Development Company has been building houses for the last 20 years, and we went in for this contract here at Mitchell’s Plain, a contract of 4,960 houses. We completed that in 33 months. At present, I am busy with another 165 houses, and in the middle of this month, I intend going on to another 2,500 houses. That’s our project at present in Mitchell’s Plain.”

Fig. 3.6 Bulldozer

Fig. 3.6 Bulldozer

Fig. 3.7 An endless sandy expanse

Fig. 3.7 An endless sandy expanse

Fig. 3.8 Workers and house bases (1)

Fig. 3.8 Workers and house bases (1)

Fig. 3.9 Workers and house bases (2)

Fig. 3.9 Workers and house bases (2)

Fig. 3.10 Brickworks at Mitchell’s Plain

Fig. 3.10 Brickworks at Mitchell’s Plain

Fig. 3.11 Mr Dudley (Model Development)

Fig. 3.11 Mr Dudley (Model Development)

12Meeting the challenges of nature (sandy area with dunes) and the urges of culture (organization and order), Mr Dudley (figure 3.11) exerts rational control over a project that needs to be achieved within determined objectives, evincing traditional labour’s virtues (proven experience and performance).

13The undeniably impressive pictures of achievement in Mitchell’s Plain need some qualifications. In the late 1970s, Cee Jay Williams worked for a plumbing company and looked for a house with his wife. He evokes an illicit manoeuvre by the authorities concerning the constructions:

“We were so excited with the prospect of owning a brick house that we went to the visitor’s information centre in Dagbreek Hall week after week. Upon inspecting the building materials, I discovered that the contractors were not building according to plans. My hackles were raised. The community worker in me took over, and I started pointing out to prospective buyers that what was on the plans was not what was being built. People started getting jittery, and the officials grew irritated with me. Did this stop me? No. All the faults were rectified within a few weeks.” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 33–4)

14Willie Simmers arrived in Mitchell’s Plain in 1979. He was one of the founding members of the Rocklands Ratepayers Association and the Cape Housing Action Committee. He was later actively involved in forming the Mitchell Plain’s Crisis line and the Mitchell’s Plain Community Advice and Development Project. Like many others, home ownership was a key factor in his decision to relocate to Mitchell’s Plain. He mentions the disappointing quality of the houses and some unanticipated nuisance. “The houses were not well built. Mine was a semidetached house, but it was mine. I was very proud. There were so many bushes and spiders as big as dinosaurs. We found snakes in our homes. We began to live in fear of these animals attacking us,” he says, while his wife Veronica ironically adds, “I had to cross a dune from Rocklands to Woodlands to get a bus at an ungodly hour” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 73).

  • 125 This is revealed in “Contractors: All of a Sudden a Big Bonanza” in Financial Mail Special Report ( (...)
  • 126 “The Coloured Development Corporation was founded by parliamentary statute in 1962 to provide finan (...)

15Model-Morris (Pty) Limited was a prominent contractor in the Mitchell’s Plain project. Model Development formed a consortium with RH Morris—the oldest contractor in South Africa—and held the controlling interests of Model-Morris. Yet, Mr Dudley’s company was not the only nor the biggest contractor in house building for the project, so one may wonder why Model-Morris was explicitly chosen and cited in the documentary film. There were three main contractors. As recorded by Brand (1980a, 24), the biggest was Besterecta (5,200 houses, then 827 houses and eventually 6,440 houses), Morel-Morris came second (5,000 houses, then 165 houses and 2,500 houses), and Ilco Homes ranked third (4,600 houses then 2,500 houses). Model-Morris was the only big contractor that had always been working with Coloured people. Besterecta and Ilco Homes were working with Coloureds for the first time.125 That difference was meaningful enough, especially within the propagandist perspective of the film, as Coloureds probably did not hold such managerial positions at Besterecta and Ilco Homes. The interview with Mr Dudley conveys the impression that the Coloured community is in charge of and managing their own project in their own territory (i.e. “heartland”) up to the highest level. Paradoxically, in opposition to the other interviewees in the documentary, Mr Dudley’s status or position is not indicated by the off-screen voice or by himself. Fred Harris headed up Model Development. He is praised in one of the articles of the 1978 Financial Mail Special Report (e.g. “one of the six coloured artisans himself a mere 23 years ago when the group started a building company by scraping together R216… Harris, an almost legendary success story within the coloured community, is a prime mover for business and professional education” [Financial Mail Special Report 1978, 29]). Harris’s smiling face adorns the Coloured Development Corporation Limited advertisement, showing a row of houses in Mitchell’s Plain (figure 3.12).126 The smartly dressed Mr Dudley does not introduce himself; he nonetheless refers to the twenty-year experience of the company using the inclusive “we,” indirectly positioning himself as one of the founders. If the objective was indeed to stress the involvement of the Coloured community in their own housing development on their own lands—a visual promotion of some ongoing Coloured economic empowerment—then Fred Harris was not dark enough for the role—all the more so vis-à-vis foreign audiences.

16It is worth noting that while the aerial view of Mitchell’s Plain (figure 3.13) suggests a barren expense of sand, Mitchell’s Plain was not built on a lifeless desert. At the Snape memorial lecture delivered at the University of Cape Town in 1980, Director of works Riley specified that soils and vegetation were of poor quality. He added, “grys and rib buck, together with tortoises abounded in the area and no effort was spared in an attempt to capture as many of these as possible for relocation in the Silvermines and Cape Point Reserves. […] There were a number of deaths, however, from sheer fright. It was not a particularly pleasant task but the best in the circumstances” (Riley 1980, 7). Incontestably, the issue was well beyond the documentary’s purpose.

Fig. 3.12 Fred Harris (Model Development) - Financial Mail Special report on Mitchell’s Plain 5 May 1978 (back page)

Fig. 3.12 Fred Harris (Model Development) - Financial Mail Special report on Mitchell’s Plain 5 May 1978 (back page)

Fig. 3.13 Aerial view of Mitchell’s Plain

Fig. 3.13 Aerial view of Mitchell’s Plain
  • 127 This is stressed in Richter (2012, 228–9).

17One may feel a sacred mystery permeating this aerial view, reminiscent of the giant bird scratched into the stark desert floor in Southern Peru and part of the Nazca lines. The impressive tableau of giant animals and plants with intricate patterns was drawn by an old civilisation that existed between 200 BC and 600 AD. These lines attracted much attention and sparked scientific debate following the release of Chariots of the Gods (1968) by Erich von Daniken, who saw them as airstrips for alien spacecraft. The controversial book sold about 40 million copies worldwide in 30 languages within a decade.127 In the context of the 1970s popular culture, the Nazca-lines-looking foundations of the Mitchell plain mark the new development among exceptional places for remarkable people, a strong symbolic approach to the conclusion of the documentary, the new housing estate as “a nation’s answer to a worldwide problem that is also threatening our people, thus laying the foundations of a new society " (my emphasis).

A Metropolis in the Promised Land

18When Prime Minister Botha addressed the Transvaal National Party congress in September 1980, he stressed that civilisation, Christendom and economic strength were “the main priority facing the country” (Dynamic Changes in South Africa 1980, 12). He pledged, “I want to take millions of Coloured Christians in South Africa with me in my struggle against Godless Communism which will destroy everything in South Africa if it gains the upper hand in the country” (ibid.) The interviews of Mr Dudley, Mrs Rinehart, Mr Claasens and Mr Arendse are framed within this perspective so that Mitchell’s Plain becomes something more inspiring than a simple set of physical attributes: it is the locus of civilisation, Christendom and economic strength.

  • 128 New Revised Standard Version: “1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as th (...)
  • 129 “Calvinism produced a historically unique salvation constellation which put saving ethically above (...)

19Indeed, Mitchell’s Plain results from a colossal barren and sandy area of “15 million cubic meters of earth” transformed by “40,000 workers […] employed in building the town” with the “millions of bricks” provided by a brickworks built for this purpose. As narrated, the nascent “metropolis of a quarter of a million people in 40,000 houses” is inscribed in what looks and sounds like an act of defiance that is not devoid of Biblical overtones. It echoes the story of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis (11:1-9),128 in which the descendants of Noah construct a city in a plain with references to bricks and bitumen, i.e. modern materials as opposed to old-fashioned stones and mortar. The story offers an opportune parallel with a housing development based on a new approach to planning and engineering. While Babel is planned with the sin of pride, represented by the attempt to erect a tower with its top in the heavens, Mitchell’s Plain is built within the virtue of investment, a highly regarded value in the Protestant ethic.129 Mitchell’s Plain must throb and, thus, live within the glory of the economy: “A large central business complex is being built by the Department of Community Development. This centre, which will cost more than R15 million, will eventually form the heart of the new city” (my emphasis). The narrator repeats the same figures. Worthless sandy soil rhetorically turns into worthy and solid investment: “15 million cubic meters of earth” are moved and replaced by a business centre of more than “R15 million.”

20The church sequence adds another touch of the divine in the creation of Mitchell’s Plain and its preservation from extinction:

“Ample provision has also been made for the spiritual well-being [psalm singing by congregation followed by sermon told by priest:] ‘If you obey the commands of the Lord your God, which I give you today, if you love him, obey him, and keep all his laws, then you will prosper and become a nation of many people.’ Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven. In the spirit of this command, this church is transformed into a nursery school on weekdays, moulding the future men and women of Mitchell’s Plain.”

21The service is held at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (figures 3.14 and 3.15). It appropriately comes up towards the end of the documentary film. By then, the viewers have seen a vast sandy desert replaced by a business complex in progress and well-designed houses with pride-giving gardens. They are acquainted with Mrs Rinehart’s beneficial relocation experience (“It was such a change for me coming from Bonteheuwel to Mitchell’s Plain especially with my children”). They know about Mr Claasens’s success (“Two years ago I opened a bookshop in Mitchell’s Plain […] I must say that the business came very well. So much so I have decided to open one in the town centre”). The service centres on the blessings of obedience, as recorded in the Deuteronomy (Old Testament). These blessings are submitted to the Israelites when they are about to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, after wandering in the wilderness for forty years under Moses’s leadership:

“Deuteronomy covers a period of a single month only, the last month of the wanderings of Israel. It is composed mainly of three discourses, purporting to have been uttered by Moses to the people […] History and law are brought in to enforce the writer’s plea to the people to serve God faithfully.” (McKee 1899, 249)

Fig. 3.14 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (building)

Fig. 3.14 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (building)

Fig. 3.15 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (congregation)

Fig. 3.15 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (congregation)

22Just as Moses addresses his people for the birth of a new nation, the priest recites Moses’s words to his congregation as a new housing development is born. The verse uttered in the documentary metonymically evokes the importance of decision-making, choices entailing consequences:

“Today I am giving you a choice between good and evil, between life and death. ‘If you obey the commands of the Lord your God, which I give you today, if you love him, obey him, and keep all his laws, then you will prosper and become a nation of many people. The Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are about to occupy. But if you disobey and refuse to listen and are led away to worship other gods, you will be destroyed—I warn you here and now. You will not live long in that land across the Jordan that you are about to occupy.’” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18, GNB)

23As framed by the preaching, Mitchell’s Plain compares to the Promised Land, an image that admirably suits the aphoristic “heartland of South Africa’s Coloured community.” As such, the benefits of living there—as voiced by Mrs Rinehart and Mr Claasens themselves—are subsequently based on conditions: prosperity and growth can only be achieved through faith and obedience. Within the contemporary political context, this compliance with the law cannot fail to bring to mind the commands of Botha’s neo-apartheid, attractively phrased “separate development” and “plural democracy” and opposed to “Godless communism”—i.e. a destructive choice as the missing, yet discernible, part of the sermon suggests. Purposefully enough, the off-screen narrator takes over from the priest, thus ingeniously partaking of the piety of his function and transferring it to official authorities on whose behalf he speaks. He evokes “the spirit of the command” as the principle dictating the use of the premises of the church for a nursery and quotes Matthew 19-14: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

24Unquestionably, the classic image of the faraway place intertwining actual and imagined traits could appeal to those compelled to delocalisation under the Group Areas Act. As quoted above, Cee Jay Williams saw Mitchell’s Plain as a “paradise in the wilderness” in the early 1970s. A letter describing a stroll in the past by Mitchell’s Plain resident Rodney Brown, published in the 2016 edition of The Plainsman celebrating the 40th anniversary of the city, suggests that the new development was equated with the “promised land,” the place where dreams or hopes could come true:

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was summoned to be up at 6am on Saturday July 24 1980. A barefoot six-year-old, missing a front tooth, living with my granny in Kewtown. However, that day was extra special—we were going to move into our new house in Mitchell’s Plain. Granny asked me to navigate the truck driver from Macassar to the ‘promised land’ […]. Having settled in the ’Plain holds precious memories. I didn’t understand the euphoria but the excitement was insane. Growing up was easy, development was swift, and within months, many acquaintances and friends were made […]. There were only four areas, Westridge, Rocklands, Portland, Woodlands and old Strandfontein. Other areas were already being built and potential for growth was huge. Our new home town was going to be famous. […] There were only two ways into Mitchell’s Plain anyway. Traffic was non-existent. People wanted to live here. It was the ‘promised land.’ The turning point for every young person growing up in the ’Plain was the student uprising in the mid-80s.” (Brown 2016)

25The documentary features moments of sweet tenderness. A gentle milkman delivers milk to an earnest-looking little girl checking the change (figures 3.16 and 3.17). Excited youngsters cluster around jam jars in a supermarket (figure 3.18). Are these scenes intended to anticipate the blessings of obedience in visually associating Mitchell’s Plain with the land of milk and honey?

Fig. 3.16 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (1)

Fig. 3.16 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (1)

Fig. 3.17 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (2)

Fig. 3.17 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (2)

Fig. 3.18 Excited youngsters clustering around jam jars in a supermarket

Fig. 3.18 Excited youngsters clustering around jam jars in a supermarket

26There is no denying that the emphasis on the abundance of food conveys a literal meaning. There was a lack of essential stores at the inauguration of the new housing estate, even if, paradoxically enough, families had already been allotted houses and allowed to settle. Cee Jay Williams remembers:

“I moved into my house in 1976. Soon after moving in, other infrastructural things like paving and street lights were installed. We soon realised running to the Indian corner shop was a thing of the past as there were no shops in our desert town. It was only the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian shopkeeper and his daily travelling combi stocked with bread, cigarettes, milk and other essentials that saved our lives.” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 34)

27“In the spirit of this command, this church is transformed into a nursery school on weekdays, moulding the future of men and women of Mitchell’s Plain,” the off-screen commentator says over pictures of singing and playing children (figures 3.19 and 3.20). He then quotes the verse that relates to the moment when Jesus blesses children who, at first, are barred from approaching him:

“Then were there brought unto him little children that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them and departed thence.” (Matthew 19:13-15 KJB)

Fig. 3.19 Church transformed into a nursery school (1) - Singing children

Fig. 3.19 Church transformed into a nursery school (1) - Singing children

Fig. 3.20 Church transformed into a nursery school (2) - Playing children

Fig. 3.20 Church transformed into a nursery school (2) - Playing children

28Accordingly, the “future men and women,” those who have “suffered” (as pictured in slums and overcrowded older housing schemes), have been brought by their parents to a life-changing housing development. A project conceived by a benevolent authority (as rendered by Parliament voting “millions of rands for housing schemes” after “South Africans [having been] shocked to the core by conditions like these”).

  • 130 It is similar to “The Three Little Pigs,” as analysed by Bettelheim (2010, 41–5).

29The purported child-empowering move acquires all the more substantial significance as it follows the reading of the well-known Three Billy Goats Gruff, which fascinates a group of children in the library sequence (figures 3.21 and 3.22). In the folk tale, the billy-goats head for green pastures through a bridge and meet a troll which they eventually outsmart. It is about the progression of identity, involving physical growth (goats of different sizes) and mental growth (from patience to cunning) on the way to the other side (fertile land).130

Fig. 3.21 Story telling at the library (1)

Fig. 3.21 Story telling at the library (1)

Fig. 3.22 Story telling at the library (2)

Fig. 3.22 Story telling at the library (2)

30Although the Biblical verse names children—so reflected by the nursery scene—it is usually interpreted as also referring to those who have become like children, pure and humble at heart. It provides a smooth introduction to the smiling Arendse family whose experience follows. Accordingly, the interview of Mr Arendse is shaped by modesty and choice: “As you can see,” he says, “I bought a little place, a choice I’m just so proud of.” Businesswoman of the year in 2009, Venete Klein remembers feeling exhilarated when she settled into the new housing development: “We moved to Mitchell’s Plain when I was 16 years old. My parents had, until then, rented properties all of their married lives. The Mitchell’s Plain property was thus our very first ‘owned’ property. We were so proud of our new home. It was a maisonette, but it was ours” (Ommundsen Pessoa and Le Roux 2012, 24). However, the same “choice” was challenging for many. Rocklands Civic Association member Willie Simmers recollects, “Mitchell’s Plain was a dormitory town—no work, no factories, families locked their kids in their yards to go to work. It was hard” (ibid., 73).

  • 131 There is an overview of the history of the Islamic Society in Mitchell’s Plain in Letter to the Edi (...)

31Contrary to what the audience could understand, the Christian community was not the only denomination in Mitchell’s Plain. The Muslim community was well organised and then actively planning their places of worship.131 Moosa Aysen, President of Mitchell’s Plain Islamic Society, was one of the first people to move to Mitchell’s Plain in 1976. He formed the Westridge Islamic Society with the 17 Muslim families who lived in his area. In order to attract the Muslim community to Mitchell’s Plain, the Society “bought four plots of land for R2 each” in Westridge, Rocklands, Portland and Lentegeur to build mosques, “we couldn’t let the offer pass,” he says (ibid., 19). The first mosque, Majiedul Jumu’ah in Westridge, opened in 1982.

Notes

117 There is an interesting analysis of the musical theme of the highly successful American TV series Dallas (1978–91) in Rodman (2010, 48–76).

118 Technical Management Services (TMS) City Engineer’s Department, “1980 Census Statistics” (working paper, 1987); quoted in Le Grange (1987, 61).

119 City Engineer’s Department, “An Alternative Housing Policy” (1979), 22; quoted in ibid.

120 Argus, 6 November 1979; quoted in Le Grange (ibid.).

121 The figures are the following (SA 1970 boundaries): Total: 21,794; African: 15,340; Coloured: 2,051; Indian/Asian: 630; White: 3,773. For more details, see Statistics South Africa (2000, “1.4 Population at each census by population group and gender, 1904–1996”). As stated before, the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act (National States Citizenship Act) of 1970 changed the status of Black people, who were required to become citizens of one of the ten self-governing territories (or Homelands). Therefore they were no longer citizens of South Africa.

122 “District Six was officially renamed Zonnebloem. The Minister of Community Development reported that when the area was proclaimed white, it was 94% coloured-occupied. 55,4% was owned by whites, 25% by coloured people and the rest by Indians” (Cooper Ensor and Cleary 1980, 499).

123 The term is used in the nineteenth-century sense of nostalgia with its tenuous link with the Orient, as analysed by Said (1978, 1): “The Orient was […] a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”

124 This is often read as central to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 narrative of Robinson Crusoe. In Grapard and Hewitson (2011), economists and literary researchers examine the uses of the mythical character in economics literature and modern texts since the publication of the novel.

125 This is revealed in “Contractors: All of a Sudden a Big Bonanza” in Financial Mail Special Report (1978, 29).

126 “The Coloured Development Corporation was founded by parliamentary statute in 1962 to provide financial aid and technical assistance to coloured business and entrepreneurs according to a ‘self-help’ principle.” (Lupton 1993, 41)

127 This is stressed in Richter (2012, 228–9).

128 New Revised Standard Version: “1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” “Focus on the Tower of Babel,” Oxford Biblical Studies Online: http://global.oup.com/obso/focus/focus_on_towerbabel/ [archive].

129 “Calvinism produced a historically unique salvation constellation which put saving ethically above spending, investing above saving.” (Ditz 1980, 627)

130 It is similar to “The Three Little Pigs,” as analysed by Bettelheim (2010, 41–5).

131 There is an overview of the history of the Islamic Society in Mitchell’s Plain in Letter to the Editor (2016) and Van Der Fort (2019).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 3.1 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (1) - Mitchell’s Plain & False Bay
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Titre Fig. 3.2 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (2) - Mitchell’s Plain-Table Mountain
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 193k
Titre Fig. 3.3 Crossfading from False Bay to Table Bay (3) - Table Mountain & Table Bay
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 196k
Titre Fig. 3.4 Panoramic view - Disa Towers (on the left)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k
Titre Fig. 3.5 Panoramic view - District Six (empty space on the left) – Disa Towers (on the right)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 178k
Titre Fig. 3.6 Bulldozer
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 203k
Titre Fig. 3.7 An endless sandy expanse
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 182k
Titre Fig. 3.8 Workers and house bases (1)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Titre Fig. 3.9 Workers and house bases (2)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 188k
Titre Fig. 3.10 Brickworks at Mitchell’s Plain
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 201k
Titre Fig. 3.11 Mr Dudley (Model Development)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 181k
Titre Fig. 3.12 Fred Harris (Model Development) - Financial Mail Special report on Mitchell’s Plain 5 May 1978 (back page)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 355k
Titre Fig. 3.13 Aerial view of Mitchell’s Plain
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 181k
Titre Fig. 3.14 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (building)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Fig. 3.15 Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Westridge (congregation)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 178k
Titre Fig. 3.16 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (1)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 199k
Titre Fig. 3.17 Milk-man delivering milk to little girl checking the change (2)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Fig. 3.18 Excited youngsters clustering around jam jars in a supermarket
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-18.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 197k
Titre Fig. 3.19 Church transformed into a nursery school (1) - Singing children
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-19.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 197k
Titre Fig. 3.20 Church transformed into a nursery school (2) - Playing children
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-20.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 190k
Titre Fig. 3.21 Story telling at the library (1)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-21.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 203k
Titre Fig. 3.22 Story telling at the library (2)
URL http://books.openedition.org/africae/docannexe/image/3974/img-22.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 190k

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