Haifa, Port Elizabeth: A Tale of Two Cities


The South African city of Port Elizabeth has one of the worst records of forced eviction during the apartheid-era. The racially motivated dispossession and removal of black people by South Africa’s white apartheid-regime has been part of the city’s history since the turn of the twentieth century.

During the 1950s, tens of thousands of people were affected by slums clearance legislation which was used to implement the aims of racial segregation. Since 1960, many more were removed from an estimated 3200 inner city properties in terms of the Group Areas Act. All in all, some 70,400 people – constituting more than half of the city’s total black population at that time – were affected by racist law and policy in this way.

The Palestinian Arab population of Haifa experienced the same. In 1948, out of the 70,000 Palestinian Arabs who used to call Haifa home, only 3,566 Palestinians were allowed to stay. The remaining population were in constant fear on their lives and properties, many of them witnessed the looting of their homes and properties. With land routes cut off by Zionist forces, the mass majority of Haifa’s population, numbering at least 35,000, were pushed into the sea.

These evictions brought with them a heavy toll of hardship and suffering. This is not only because of the material loss they involved. They meant a loss of community. Apartheid robbed Port Elizabeth’s black people and Haifa’s Palestinian Arab residents not only of land and housing, but also a way of life. Once the city’s majority, Palestinians now constitute 12 percent of Haifa’s current residents.

The loss was not only a loss for those who lived in these cities. The forced evictions have also left a deep scar on the body and the psyche of the cities. Today, well after the end of apartheid rule, and more than 50 years after the Palestinian “Nakba” (catastrophe), the legacy lives on in both cities’ segregated urban structures – a series of “islands” in which communities are separated not only by income and identity, but also by physical and geographical chasms and buffer zones. Also left behind are the physical scars of the removal – large patches of prime land, razed of people’s homes and standing empty until today.

Like District Six in South African Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth’s South End and Fairview were areas that, for all their hardships, deprivation and real difficulty, offered a place of belonging in the heart of the city for Port Elizabeth’s black citizens. 

Similarly, in the neighborhood Wadi Salib in Haifa, Israel has put old Palestinian homes for sale. Today, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who settled in Haifa constitute about a quarter of the city’s population. They are moving into a renovated neighborhood with a Middle Eastern flavor, but there is almost no trace of the well-off Palestinian families who lived in the neighborhood before 1948.

In Wadi Salib, no longer the homes of the many thousands of Palestinians who were expelled can be discerned, because the bulldozers have eradicated them. They have even taken the building stones to use in other neighborhoods in Haifa. Today, both in South African Port Elizabeth’s South End and Palestinian Haifa’s Wadi Salib, those living communities are no more.

What can be done about this legacy of injustice, dispossession and historical suffering?

One avenue is offered by South African’s Restitution of Land Rights Act (Act 22 of 1994). This Act allows South Africans who have been forcible removed or dispossessed because of racially discriminatory laws or government practices to claim restitution. The Act emphasizes that the rights of all those affected are to be taken into account. Instead of simply being forced removals in reverse, the Act tries to resolve claims by agreement. In terms of government policy, the Act was meant to be used in a way that promotes reconciliation and heals the wounds of apartheid.

Port Elizabeth residents started to make claims on dispossessed land in late 1992, when claims were still being handled by the South African Commission on Land Allocation. Most of these claimants had been removed from four neighborhoods in the heart of the city – South End, Korsten, Fairview and Salisbury Park. A group of claimants from Port Elizabeth formed an organization to develop a practical way of resolving the legacy of forced removals, the Port Elizabeth Land and Community Restoration Association (PELCRA). It charted a bold way forward in resolving urban land claims. It focused on group based and development-oriented restitution.

Instead of time and resources being wasted on trying to resolve huge numbers of individual and separate claims, they are used in a focused way to resolve large numbers of claims at the same time. Instead of pursuing individual claims for monetary compensation or restoration of the original land, the claimants pooled their resources to create an opportunity for development that will leave a lasting legacy for Port Elizabeth as a whole. And, most importantly, claimants have participated in developing this solution from the beginning.

PELCRA developed a vision for the possible resolution of claims. The group would not pursue restoration of specific plots of land to their original owners, instead, the group pursued the restoration to claimants of land rights in serviced land. In this way, the claim would be used to facilitate a development process that would contribute to the growth of Port Elizabeth as a whole, and would be an investment for future generations.

The group showed that their claim was affordable. They established the value of their claim and how much their proposed resolution would cost. Secondly, they also came up with a proposal that made broader development sense for the city as a whole. In 1999 PELCRA’s proposal was accepted by the South African Department for Land Affairs. Since then, other groups in South Africa – in Fransschhoek, in Simon’s Town, and in Deysselsdorp – have also walked a similar path. This is just an example of how measures of justice can be brought to the victims of removal through the claims process and how a group claim provides the impetus for the creation of a development proposal that benefits a whole city, while at the same time ensuring reparation to the claimants.

However, in Haifa and other Palestinian towns and villages, Israel’s racial discrimination is daily life of most Palestinians. Since Israel is a Jewish state, Israeli Jews are able to accrue special rights which non-Jews cannot do. Palestinian Arabs have no place in a “Jewish” state.

In Israel, forced eviction of Palestinians has emerged as a growing pattern in mixed towns. Notably, Haifa used to be the thriving port city of Palestine’s coast with 70,000 indigenous inhabitants in 1948. After Israel’s establishment, its Custodian of Absentee Property assumed the homes and properties of Haifa’s original population, then a 1951 law provided for them to be passed to a “development authority” that, in turn, sold them to the Israel Lands Authority. This has made it impossible for original owners to restore their properties, and the Israel Lands Authority has leased them to the residents as “protected tenants,” many of them once squatters made homeless during the war.

These residents are already the subjects of institutionalized discrimination, whose neighborhoods receive less than one-fifth of the budgeted municipal services that their Jewish neighborhoods enjoy. Now, these low-income survivors of ethnic cleansing, are being evicted in a wave of speculative real-estate development that has the biased support of local Israeli judges.

The responses made by South Africa to human rights abuses emanating from the removal policies and apartheid policies respectively, shed light on what Israeli society must necessarily go through before one can speak of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East and an end to its apartheid policies.

The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda) and ElectronicIntifada.net

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