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Maverick Citizen: Response to Malusi Booi

Reclaim the City say City of Cape Town is wrong to blame them for its own failures to provide social housing

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 21: General views of Blikkiesdorp informal settlement near Delft on June 21, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. The area, also known as ‘Tin Can Town’ which was initially meant to be a Temporary Relocation Area (TRA), but has been housing residents for the past ten years, is now a subject of discussion after reports that the Cape Town International Airport is looking to extend its runway, thereby possibly affecting the residents of Blikkiesdorp. (Photo by Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

On Sunday 8 November 2020, City of Cape Town Mayco member for human settlements, Malusi Booi, published an ​opinion piece in ​Daily Maverick blaming housing activists for hampering efforts to build social housing on sites occupied by social movement Reclaim the City.

In his recent Daily Maverick opinion piece, Booi maintained that the “Reclaim the City occupation campaign is one of the biggest obstacles to the building of social housing on well-located sites that are both suitable and viable”. 

In addition to shifting the blame, the City’s response to our and other occupations across Cape Town displays a regrettable amnesia about the enduring legacy of landlessness, non-recognition of land and housing rights and tenure insecurity. 

This is compounded by deepening inequality, an unaffordable housing market and no immediately available solutions to an ongoing crisis of evictions and displacement. 

It is in this context that we, like thousands of others in the city, have had to make difficult choices to ensure some form of shelter for our families.

Booi mentions a “trendy learning event” in the “heady early days” of occupation. He may be referring to someone visiting our now well-known advice assembly – a gathering of tenants, activists and lawyers intended to build solidarity and to support families as they go through the often traumatic eviction process. 

Taking inspiration from ​La PAH in Barcelona​, ​these learning sessions offer people the knowledge and information needed to protect their right to housing, but in the early days, they were also a place where desperate families evicted from the inner-city sought access to alternative accommodation when it became clear that the City would offer them emergency accommodation nowhere closer than the Kampies, Wolwerivier or Blikkiesdorp informal settlements. 

As the scale of the displacement crisis became known to us, we responded. 

Since then we have invited the City into our spaces to engage on the serious question of what should happen to these families, and asked to be part of a more nuanced solution to protect their housing rights while allowing them to remain in place. This process was welcomed by City officials and led to various joint engagements aimed at co-designing Cissie Gool House. 

In 26 years of democracy, no social housing has been completed in central Cape Town. 

Despite the violent and traumatic legacy of apartheid, the City has failed to bring poor and working class people closer to economic opportunities, good schools, social amenities and decent public services. At the same time, too little protection has been afforded to those who – against every historic hurdle – have managed to hold onto housing in well-located areas around the inner city. 

An obvious example of this is the City’s failure to control rent.

Recently, the Democratic Alliance rejected the rent control policy in DA-led metros in their party conference. This is a clear indication that the party (and the municipalities it holds) believe that property rights of private owners should trump the very basic human rights of poor and working class tenants who increasingly face eviction and displacement. 

The impact of this is visible in areas such as Woodstock and Salt River which are undergoing gentrification; or in Sea Point where property values are soaring well beyond affordability. Rentals in these areas are skyrocketing, further pushing the poor and working class to the outskirts of the city where we will be out of sight and out of mind.

Cape Town is burdened with a housing backlog of over 365,000​ units, while both the state and private developers are unable or unwilling to provide sufficient affordable housing opportunities for the poor and working class in prime areas. The City owns vast tracts of land that it can release to address the housing backlog and begin to undo the legacy of spatial injustice. 

According to the City’s own policy, it owns 87,000 ​pieces of land, and while not all of this land is well-located or suitable for the development of social housing, much of it can be used to provide affordable housing. The City rolled out 11 sites earmarked for social housing development, but only one has proceeded.

It is against this context that Reclaim the City’s occupations – in Woodstock at Cissie Gool House and in Greenpoint at Ahmed Kathrada House – have provided homes to close to 1,400 people who could no longer afford to live in areas they have known most of their lives. 

For many of us who were on the brink of being made homeless, the City offered Wolwerivier, a relocation camp near the West Coast about 30km from Cape Town city centre. Unemployment, overcrowding and isolation are the main issues in Wolwerivier.

We work in the city as domestic workers, carers, nurses, petrol attendants, teachers and security guards. Some of us have lived in Woodstock, Sea Point and other parts of central Cape Town for decades. But with no affordable housing in this area, both Reclaim the City occupations have preserved people’s living heritage and dignity, allowing people to remain close to their work, schools and cultural and religious communities, and to develop a network of support that nurtures our well-being. 

In these occupations, people are still connected to their communities – a central component of what we mean when we say “where people live matters”. 

Staging two occupations that provide much needed shelter for people who would otherwise have been evicted and displaced cannot, as Malusi Booi suggests, genuinely​ be considered as stalling the development of social housing in Cape Town. This approach by the City creates divisions among communities where it should be helping to build bridges. 

Our occupations have built a refuge and sense of community for residents, with little dependency on the City. Many families from all walks of life have found safety, security and a place to call home here. 

Together, we have initiated programmes for residents, including women’s wellness circles and men’s meetings to combat gender-based violence, crèches, social support for the elderly and skills-based training like permaculture gardening. Throughout lockdown, residents worked to sustain soup kitchens with support from surrounding communities and Community Action Networks (CANs) and started up gardens as an on-site source of nutrition.

The elected leadership structure Booi refers to exists in recognition of the fact that communal living requires boundaries, house rules and democratic structures. While Booi’s allegations of “rampant” criminality are simply unsubstantiated, we do not claim to be exempt from the vulnerabilities and social ills that affect poor and working class communities more than others across the country. This includes substance abuse and related struggles. 

Our leaders and supporters dedicate vast amounts of energy every week to finding community solutions to these challenges, or building relationships with police and neighbourhood forums where necessary. 

We are not perfect but we are trying. We welcome more support and are always open to discussing our efforts. Social housing alone cannot address the housing needs of Capetonians. 

Our aim is to learn and change in response to the reality of housing needs in Cape Town. If the City is serious about restructuring and redressing spatial apartheid by ensuring that people are not pushed further to the peripheries, it will need to be flexible and start looking at alternative housing models, including the type of community driven housing we are already creating now. 

Proven models for community driven delivery of affordable housing that allow communities to control land and development exist across the world in the form of community land trusts, co-operatives and more. ​

La Borda, a housing co-operative in Barcelona, demonstrates how communities can create decent, affordable and ecologically sustainable accommodation, preserving affordable housing in perpetuity and avoiding the privatisation of affordable housing units. ​Caño Martín Peña​, a ​community land trust in Puerto Rico, highlights how community driven planning can guarantee tenure security in affordable and safe housing for occupiers. 

That we are here is not the primary challenge – the real challenge is how to carve a way forward. We need to work together to learn from these and other powerful examples of housing for the people, by the people, and make these models a reality in Cape Town.

Malusi Booi, you once visited our occupation and we would like to accept your invitation to meaningfully engage with us with a view to being part of a solution that focuses on dignified housing, builds a sense of community and restores the dignity of many of us who, if it were not for these occupations, would have had nowhere to go. 

We welcome anyone who wishes to visit the occupations and work with us to find a collective solution. DM/MC

Ndodana Hadebe is the house leader at Cissie Gool House, Reclaim the City. Karen Hendricks is the Woodstock chapter leader, Reclaim the City.

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  • To the authors of this: what you say can be true. It can also be true that your occupations are impeding development of social housing by the CoCT. It’s not an either/or situation.