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"But this has always been our home" - the pain of forced removal

Updated on October 18, 2012
Painting by Marc Chagall, himself from a poor East European village much like Anatevka
Painting by Marc Chagall, himself from a poor East European village much like Anatevka

From Tsarist Russia to South Africa

"But this corner of the world has always been our home. Why should we leave?" Tevye "I have some advice for you - get off my land!"

How many times in the history of the inhumanity of clearances, forced removals, ethnic cleansing or whatever it is called, has this cri de couer been heard, this anguished howl of pain from the heart?

I have just watched Norman Jewison's brilliant screen adaptation of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof , and was incredibly moved by the scenes when the constable comes to tell the people of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia that they have three days to sell up their houses and property and leave. No alternative accommodation offered.

It was moving for me in that it is so reminiscent of the forced removals that happened in South Africa under the apartheid regime, which destroyed so many communities. among the more famous of the communities destroyed in South Africa were District 6 in Cape Town, Sophiatown in Johannesburg and Cato Manor in Durban.

In all some 3.5 million people were uprooted from their land and homes between 1948 and 1990, people who, like Tevye, could say "this has always been our home.

History and memory

Some could, like writer Bloke Modisane, in his autobiography Blame Me on History (1963), articulate the pain of the murder of a community: "Something in me died, a piece of me died, with the dying of Sophiatown; it was in the winter of 1958, the sky was a cold blue veil which had been immersed in a bleaching solution and then spread out against a concave, the blue filtering through, and tinted by, a powder screen of grey; the sun, like the moon of the day, gave off more light than heat, mocking me with its promise of warmth - a fixture against the grey-blue sky - a mirror deflecting the heat and concentrating upon my in my Sophiatown only a reflection."

A little later he describes the scene: "In the name of slum clearance they had brought the bulldozers and gored into her body, and for a brief moment, looking down Good Street, Sophiatown was like one of its own many victims; a man gored by the knives of Sophiatown, lying in the open gutters, a raising in the smelling drains, dying of multiple stab wounds, gaping wells gushing forth blood; the look of shock and bewilderment, of horror and incredulity, on the face of the dying man."

Another writer who experienced the horror of forced removals was Don Mattera who saw Sophiatown destroyed when he was still a young lad, and wrote about it in his autobiography Memory is the Weapon (1987): "The people moved and took with them all their broken dreams; all their high expectations and hopes and the fragments of things dear and prized. I looked on helplessly as many of my best friends, and my enemies too, boarded the army trucks with their families. they weaved and laughed mechanically - many were not aware of the full political implications of their exodus. Those who were cried uncontrollably as we kissed and hugged."

Mattera, like Modisane, felt that part of him died with the death of Sophiatown: "Something was dying inside of me; small and unnoticeable, but dying nonetheless. Perhaps it had something to do with the change and decay around me. Or the sweet memories that had gone with the twilight."

The people from Sophiatown were moved to a desolate area in the veld to the south of Johannesburg called, somewhat ironically, Meadowlands. As is so often the case in South African life a song was immediately written about this, Strike Vilakazi's "Meadowlands," which became a huge hit in South Africa and beyond.

The song, understood by the government to be in favour of the removals, was in fact an ironic protest against them. The song incorporates many of the resistance slogans used at the time of the struggle to prevent the destruction of Sophiatown: "Ons dak nie, ons polla hier (we are not leaving, we are staying here)".

These sound so much like the protests of the people of Anatevka: "We will defend ourselves. We won't go."

And that sad comment, "After a lifetime, a piece of paper, and get thee out," as one of the villagers remarks.

Note on the video- isn't it ironic that the only version of this song I can find on YouTube is by a white group from Australia? Huh!!!

The "Wee mannie on Ben Braggie" - the monument to the Duke of Sutherland, perpetrator of vicious clearances
The "Wee mannie on Ben Braggie" - the monument to the Duke of Sutherland, perpetrator of vicious clearances

Highland clearances

This experience of forcible displacement was also the lot of many Scottish peasants in the 17th and 18th Centuries when the lairds decided to farm with sheep and so needed large grazing areas. To get these they threw people off the land they had been living on for generations, and these evictions were often achieved with extreme cruelty and with not regard for the wellbeing of those being moved. The remnants of their lives lie still all over Scotland in the form of the ruins of houses and villages.

One of the most notorious of the so-called "clearances" was that of the Sutherland estates in the decade from 1811 to 1821, during which some 15000 people were evicted from the homes they had occupied for generations, some of them being almost literally burnt out of their homes.

The significance of these clearances aroused in Karl Marx a degree of indignation that caused him to write in Chapter 27 of Das Kapital: "All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave."

The result, as Marx noted, was that "In the year 1835 the 15 000 Gaels were already replaced by 131 000 sheep."

The horror continues

The eviction of people from their homes has many rationalisations - economic, racial, social, historical and even biblical. A report from news agency Reuters on 3 August 2009 told of the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem: "Israeli police have evicted several Palestinian families from homes in Arab East Jerusalem and Jews have moved in, despite pressure from Israel's main ally, the United States, to freeze settlements."

The reason for these evictions? A court order based on land ownership claims in turn based on 19th Century documents.

And the violence of removals continues, according to the same report: "Police clad in black uniforms and carrying assault rifles cordoned off the area while the Palestinians' belongings were packed into removal vans."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that Jews have a biblical right to live anywhere in Jerusalem.

And a Palestinian woman echoes Tevye in Fiddler : "This has always been my home."

And so it continues - people asserting their rights over other people's homes and livelihoods, and the pain is the same each time. Each time the people concerned are left with nothing but "sweet memories that had gone with the twilight." And the struggle to find themselves again in a new place, having to start all over again, with less than they had before.


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    • profile image

      nozipho mirriam mabunga 

      4 years ago

      we are blinded by this new technology being on facebook, twitter and other social networks.i wish that the youth of today could really know the history of life and learn from it im really touched by your words Tony and keep writing love noceeeepow

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i am a learner at sharonlea primary we were learning about this

      i could not imagine to forced to move from home

      very painfull

    • profile image

      kat oluwakemi fink 

      7 years ago

      dear tony - very interesting & warm piece! i came across your work as my own writing is concerned with sophiatown and its legacy in the present. do you think we could get in conversation about how you found sophiatown & how the stories found you, why you chose it etc etc. many greetings from sophiatown, kat

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Glynnis - thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate that you took the time.

      History's lessons are very often not leaarned by those who make it. I have just been reading about Afghanistan where this is particularly true!

      Glad you found this piece useful.

      Love and peace


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I found this blog looking for more information on Bloke Modisane whose book (Blame Me on History) I have just finished. I discovered THAT via the documentary film on the DVD of Lionel Rogosin's 'Come Back Africa.' All fantastically interesting, particularly to a S African living abroad. Tony - the Youtube video of Meadowlands is at least 'out there' and the song is not dead. Perhaps it will inspire a S African version and come home. What I find so tragic and despairing is that these evictions in various forms continue - Palestine is a particularly infuriating example of injustice and man's inhumanity to man. I used to be told (in history classes) that one should never forget so that the mistakes of the past could never be repeated. Well, how wrong could that be. It seems that man is doomed to repeat his mistakes at the cost of so many innocent lives.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Trimar - thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I really appreicate it.

      Love and peace


    • trimar7 profile image


      8 years ago from New York

      You put the soul of men on the line in this article. Such heartless treatment of one man to another is beyond my comprehension. So difficult to read but necessary to understand. Keep writing and informing.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - yes, the same mentality exactly! Just a notch or three higher in the level of idiocy and evil!

      Thanks for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 

      8 years ago

      I can remember reading a book about Indian beggars living in shanty towns, coming home to find their entire community bulldozed. Aside from the emotional devastation, there is the reality of true desperation for those who already had nothing. Surely the people who chose to do these things are the same ones who set cats on fire for fun.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Habee - thanks for commenting. It is a tragedy and it seems never to stop.

      Love and peace


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      8 years ago from Georgia

      Awesome hub on such tragedy - man's inhumanity to man.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Tom - thanks so much. Yes the pain of removal runs very deep, and unfortunately it is still going on here in South Africa. The rich and powerful want the land the poor and defenseless are living on and so it goes!

      Thanks for the visit and the comment - I appreciate both very much indeed.

      Love and peace


    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      Wonderfully written Tony....The cruelty of removing people from their homes seems to never end. There are always lame excuses and they are always greed driven.

      The pain of looking back and walking away...I believe, never leaves the land...ever.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Cindy - I am honoured by your comment. Thanks so much.

      Love and peace


    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      8 years ago from Cape Town

      I don't know why I only saw this hub now, but absolutely brilliantly written, Tony, excellent work!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks everyone for commenting - I really deeply appreciate it.

      Lisa - your compliment is sincerely appreciated too!

      Love and peace


    • lisadpreston profile image


      8 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Tony, You are a brilliant writer. One of the best I have read. More importantly, you exude love and compassion for human beings. Your writings express this vividly and is a great gift to the world.

      What a sad story. All too common now, even in America. People are forced out of their homes now because of the greedy banks and horrible economy. Sad. It is very sad and I worry for so many people.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      9 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      This is so sad, Tony, and well written. Your first paragraph was a great lead-in to your article.

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 

      9 years ago

      The greed of man - the greed of nations is truly sickening!

      I agree with Fastfreta, Tony, when are we going to see a book?

    • Paris Injeans profile image

      Paris Injeans 

      9 years ago from The Green Hills of Missouri

      It seems that since Adam and Eve were displaced from the garden of Eden mankind has not been guaranteed the sanctuary of home. Fiddler has such a special place in my heart, as does the Trail of Tears. My grandmother was French-Indian and often told me the story of a great-great-grandmother who walked that trail and gave birth along the way. She named her son Eagle That Walks because his freedom had been stripped away along with his home. Even in the U.S. people are being misplaced. There are many who know the meaning of blight for the sake of a new shopping center or roadway etc. Now there is the mortgage crunch. My heart goes out to anyone who is forced from their home. It has happened to me. We all beieve that 'it will never happen to me' until it does. Thanks for sweeping these things out from underneath the rug, they should never, never be there in the first place. THOUGHT PROVOKING, MEMORY STIRRING, AWESOME HUB!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all the comments - it is a truly dreadful side of life that people are kicked out of their homes, often the only places they have ever lived, just to satisfy some other person's needs. Justice is never served by such things.

      Fastfreta - I haven't yet but one is in the pipeline, thanks.

      Storyteller - I wish I knew more about the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

      Thanks again for the comments -all are truly appreciated.

      Love and peace


    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      Have to admit when I heard an 82 year old man was evicted after 50 years in the place I can't see how any argument can justify that?

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      9 years ago from Southern California

      There is a scripture that says, "man has dominated man to his injury." How true this is proven to be in those instances that you cited in your hub. I truly wish that you would write a book or have you? As usual a very good hub.

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Brings to mind the Cherokee Trail of Tears, among other American removals. Fiddler always makes me cry and this is the reason. Thanks for the hub.

    • dohn121 profile image


      9 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      "The problem with land is that no one isn't making any more of it." I'm not exactly who said this, but that is surely the truth. People with power and prestige rule over those who don't have the means to fight back. Thanks for sharing.

    • MindField profile image


      9 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      The cruelty of humans one for another never ceases to amaze and sicken me. We seem to be of two races on this planet - those with empathy and those without. How can we rid ourselves of the degenerate gene that finds pleasure in inflicting pain or death on others in myriad ways? It is a field of study that requires far more attention.

    • judydianne profile image


      9 years ago from Palm Harbor, FL

      Although I have moved quite often in my life, I cannot imagine being forced to do so....very painful.


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