South Africa

South Africa

Letter to Editor: Zille wrong to blame the poor for the Cape’s housing crisis

Letter to Editor: Zille wrong to blame the poor for the Cape’s housing crisis

On Monday last week, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wrote an op-ed, which argued that it is poor black residents who are blocking access to land and housing in Cape Town. Here is why she is wrong. By Dennis Webster (SERI) and Daneel Knoetze (Ndifuna Ukwazi).

One moment in Noma, Pablo Pinedo’s documentary chronicling the Marikana land occupation in 2014, undercuts the premier’s arguments. The sun sets after a first round of state-led shack demolitions. Nomaliphathwe Gwele, a single mother, stands in an open field. She has lost most of her furniture and building materials to the city’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU). Her desolation appears insurmountable. After a long pause watching two young men who are trying to cheer her up, she joins them in breaking and clearing wattle trees by hand. She will rebuild her home here – successfully this time. This moment speaks volumes about the determination of the 300 000 families who do not have access to adequate housing in Cape Town.

The Marikana land occupation is just one iteration of poor and working-class black people’s struggles to access land and housing in a city designed to exclude them in perpetuity. Even considering rapid urbanisation and the critical housing shortage, successive governments have failed to take meaningful steps to upend apartheid patterns of segregation, recognise the long-term nature of informal settlements, grant security of tenure and stop stripping valuable well-located land for cash.

Zille’s account fails to take seriously the experiences of the thousands of people at the wrong end of Cape Town’s housing crisis. Rehashing an old motif, she positions the Western Cape Provincial Government as the victim of the occupiers of informal settlements around the city.

We should all ask, what leads Nomaliphathwe, a single mother of a disabled child, to risk everything and challenge the state’s security apparatus by joining a land occupation? Had Zille spoken earnestly to people at any of Cape Town’s informal settlements who came to be there as occupiers, she would find little evidence of the criminal, chaotic, free-for-all attitude which she describes in her account of how occupations start.

Occupations are not simply the outcome of “word going around”. These are desperate actions, yes. But, they are equally rational responses to the structural inequality which excludes poor black people from housing opportunities. At the sharp end of these features of the economy and property market comes eviction, which leaves thousands of people with no other option but to occupy vacant land elsewhere. These features include rapid urbanisation, driven by the economic opportunities of towns and cities; private sector capture of prime land; over-population in existing informal settlements whose boundaries are violently enforced by the ALIU; a housing shortage conflated by huge yearly shortfalls in delivery; the mass unemployment borne from peripheral existence and economic exclusion from the city, coupled with inflated rental prices for the most basic backyard dwellings. These processes culminate in overcrowding and rising rents in the few available housing options (backyard shacks, for instance), which in turn results in eviction. People do not spontaneously decide to occupy land. They are coerced into it.

Occupations are not “invasions”, and Zille should stop characterising them as such – the Constitutional Court has lambasted the state on more than one occasion for similar dehumanising, emotive and judgmental overtones. Occupations are not attempts to “leap-frog” the housing queue, as Zille would have us believe. The provision of alternative accommodation is a constitutional obligation for municipalities, and is not part of the same housing programme which supposedly underpins the “housing queue”. In other words, it does not prejudice anyone waiting for formal housing allocation.

The queue-jumping accusation was also invoked by mayor Patricia de Lille against Brenda Smith, a 75-year-old resident who has lived in her Bromwell Street house since birth, and her neighbours, who face homelessness as a result of eviction. For its part, the very concept of the coherent “housing queue” invoked by Zille has been debunked. She follows a long line of politicians seeking to create an impression that housing allocation is a rational process, which prioritises those in the greatest need, and those who have been waiting the longest. The housing queue is a false promise used to indefinitely appease poor people waiting for homes. The City of Cape Town itself has recently conceded in court papers that, at the rate at which it currently provides housing (about 6 000 units per year), it will take 70 years for someone who joins the “queue” today to benefit from formal housing. It is not a valid argument, but rather a rhetorical device invoked to silence residents who stand up for their rights and demand better service delivery, more meaningful engagement and structural change.

As with evictees removed from inner-city buildings, those who have their shacks destroyed rarely access emergency housing programmes. Even if they could count on it, the notion that they would presciently engineer the loss of their homes, their autonomy and the investment made into building materials to take up residence in Blikkiesdorp, or one of the City of Cape Town’s other squalid relocation camps, is irrational.

Equally so, is Zille’s insistence that private landowners invite occupation on to their land, so that they may petition government to pay “top dollar” for otherwise unsellable properties. Yet, expropriation of private land, especially land where people already live, can help to alleviate the slow battle of housing delivery which the Premier so laments.  The Housing Act empowers the state to expropriate these pieces of land in order to meet the housing and basic services needs of the people who have been failed by both the state and market in this regard.

The Premier’s suggestion, presented without evidence, that people are more likely to occupy land once it has been earmarked for housing development is also erroneous. Land occupations usually take place on land which has been left vacant and unused by its owners. The Marikana informal settlement, now almost the size of Knysna, for instance, is made up of families who occupied seven unmarked and unfenced private properties after they were no longer able to afford the costs of renting backyard shacks.

In her characterisation of land occupations, corrupt community leaders and stubborn shack dwellers, the Premier suggests that the “vested interests” in Cape Town’s poorest communities represent the main barrier to housing delivery. She makes no mention of vested interests of property developers and the class of land-holding (mostly white) residents who own vast tracts of land in Cape Town. She does not address the internal failures of her administration’s land management and housing delivery programmes which aim to desegregate the city and province and bring poor black people closer to opportunity and amenities.

According to the National Association of Social Housing Institutions, for instance, both Zille and De Lille failed to deliver a single social housing development in or around Cape Town’s inner city, which remains inaccessible to low income households as a result. This, during a period of unprecedented development and the escalation of property prices in suburbs surrounding the province’s most important economic and job-giving node – the Cape Town CBD.

Zille has gone on to show spectacular failure at the helm of the Provincial government to manage the province’s substantial land portfolio. A decision on the future of the Tafelberg site currently sits before the Provincial Cabinet. Despite releasing a favourable feasibility study, her own Housing MEC has come out publicly against using the site for affordable housing.

In July last year, Zille failed to respond to an expose that Gary Fisher, her former head of Public Works and current adviser, had a R190-million conflict of interest in overseeing the sale of the strategic Tafelberg site in Sea Point to a private buyer. Fisher actively quashed calls, from Social Housing Institutions and from within the government where he served, that the site be reserved for its highest and best value: affordable housing development.

Zille fobbed off subsequent news that the site was sold, not to enhance service delivery in poor communities (as Donald Grant her MEC for public Works lead the public to believe), but to prop up a faltering and unaffordable mega-complex at the Dorp Street precinct planned in partnership with some of Cape Town’s biggest developers.

These are but illustrative examples of a style of governance which treats public land as capital assets rather than social tools for desegregation through housing. They show up a “developer” mentality and a government in active cahoots with developers towards creating an investor-friendly, market-led approach to land use and management. The suggestion then that it is the vested interests in poor communities which are holding the people of Cape Town at ransom is staggering in its arrogance and lack of introspection.

Housing is a constitutionally guaranteed right, not the “ultimate prize” as Zille puts it. The progressive realisation of that right for all is the prerogative and obligation of her government. While the mechanics of that delivery may be complex and contested, there are thousands of families who know better than anybody how slow and painful the realisation of the right to housing has been. At this juncture, while municipalities struggle to progressively deliver the homes to which their residents are entitled, accounts of that process would do well to take those experiences seriously. DM

Dennis Webster is a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) and Daneel Knoetze is the communications officer at Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Photo: A South African woman washes a rug on a street in the impoverished settlement of Masiphumelele in Cape Town, South Africa 18 June 2015.  EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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