Telling Mitchell’s Plain’s stories

The community attended the screening of Mitchells Plain on Wednesday March 6.

While the people of Mitchell’s Plain were dealing with the burdens of living under apartheid, the government of the time was telling the world a different story about the area.

A documentary called Mitchell’s Plain was part of the propaganda used to rebrand the scandal-ridden state and convince the local and international community that apartheid was on its way out.

The almost 20-minute film, made in 1980 by the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Information, failed to show the hardship experienced by Mitchell’s Plain residents who had been displaced under the Group Areas Act of 1950, from areas such as District Six, Claremont and Bellville, and sent to live far from job opportunities and industry.

Now a new project is being put together that seeks to counter the narrative that was pushed by the documentary and allow people to tell their own stories.

Behind the project is Dr Ludmila Ommundsen Pessoa, senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Normandy Le Havre in France, who started taking an interest in Mitchell’s Plain and its people in 2008 when she became the director of Alliance Française and set up the oral history project, Mitchell’s Plain A Place in the Sun, with the Artscape theatre CEO Marlene Le Roux.

The first step in the project was screening the film for the people of Mitchell’s Plain and asking them how they felt about it.

Nostalgia filled the room on Wednesday March 6 when the Blaqpearl Foundation hosted the screening of the movie at the Alliance Française, in Portland.

“The 1980 propaganda documentary must not remain recorded in history as the only narrative about the roots of Mitchell’s Plain. Another narrative must be set up to counter this documentary which can remain as an illustration of apartheid propaganda but not a documentary about the reality of Mitchell’s Plain,” said Dr Pessoa.

“Mitchell’s Plain is an important place. It cannot continue to be seen as only a place of gangsterism and drugs. All the more so since Mitchell’s Plain played a very symbolic role in the struggle with the launch of UDF at the Rocklands community centre in 1983 – an important event in the history of the struggle which many foreign visitors to South Africa are often sadly unaware of,” she said.

Mitchell’s Plain’s history and the stories of its people are important assets, especially for the younger generation.

Dr Pessoa said the research is only starting. “People should definitely watch the documentary first before they can decide if they want to get involved.”

The research will be carried out in a partnership between the University of Normany Le Hav, the Blaqpearl Foundation, which uses arts to help youth cope with the harsh realities of life, and Michael and Natasha Bell who created Mitchell’s Plain Online, which is a website that highlights the positive stories in the area.

Janine Overmeyer, the founder of the Blaqpearl Foundation, said as a passionate researcher and community activist she strongly shares Dr Pessoa’s view of the important role the community has in the history of South Africa.

“I wish it was a good representation, but from my experience growing up in Mitchell’s Plain, I never knew or experienced what I watched being depicted in the short film. I don’t think our community has ever been as perfect and safe as shown in the film.”

Desireé Evon, 63, from Westridge, said she moved into Mitchell’s Plain when she was 19. “I remembered how I had to travel in the hard and harsh conditions. Your hair was always big because of the wind, you were blown away, walking in the rain, using one bus to get to Mitchell’s Plain.

Gaynor Dankers, 58, from Montrose Park, said this documentary had many holes in it. “Mitchell’s Plain was not safe, what you saw in this film, it never happened. They showed Westridge as the ideal community. Dr Pessoa needs to be careful and be ready for the questions that will arise with this film.”

Craig Matthews, 36, from Beacon Valley, said we should tell our own stories. “They romanticised Mitchell’s Plain. At some point we should be telling the stories to our children who come after us.”

Dr Pessoa said: “I personally believe that this 1980 documentary should be screened in all the Mitchell’s Plain high schools as a part of a special history lesson on Mitchell’s Plain during the days of apartheid (for Youth Day or Heritage Day for example). During this lesson, the community’s elders should be invited to talk about their experiences to the youngsters and future leaders. The knowledge of our own history is essential to understand the present and shape the future.”