Over the weekend of 12 to 14 March 2021, long built-up tensions around the construction of a temporary shelter for fire victims on the Masiphumelele sports field erupted in violence: about 200 structures were torched, the police used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the angry crowd. It was not the first protest action in this conflict, but so far the worst.
City of Cape Town ward councillor Felicity Purchase described it the next day as “politically charged and barbaric”. One of the young protesters, Vuyo (17) responded: “No, that’s not true. We invited her and other officials many times to listen to us. But they just ignore us. We already lost one sport field… this is the last one and we will defend it.”
If we look at the history of this conflict – was it really unavoidable? Are there still possible solutions to go forward, beyond more police protection of the shelter structures against angry youth and more division in the community?
What has happened so far: just a week before Christmas 2020, a devastating fire in the Wetlands informal settlement area in Masiphumelele burned about 1,000 shacks to the ground, and more than 4,000 people were left homeless.
Much hope was created when Minister for Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu visited Masiphumelele on 22 December with a number of high-ranking housing officials from the City of Cape Town. She promised the community in the presence of a number of journalists that this time “long-lasting solutions to the housing problem” will be realised.
She mentioned that 2,800 homes were planned, set up with fire-resistant material, probably in two-storey buildings, each flat with a value of R64,000. Access roads would be part of it and each road would have its own fire hydrant. The total costs were estimated at R200-million. In January, contractors would put in the first services. All 2,800 structures should be completed by April 2021. During construction time, for those in need, a TRA (Temporary Relocation Area) would be provided as soon as possible. So far it sounded for many Masiphumelele residents, not only the fire victims, like a dream come true.
Shortly after the site of the fire was cleared of rubble and debris, people were stopped from again erecting what had previously been totally overcrowded and unsafe structures. A number of NGOs were assisting in supporting the fire victims during these challenging weeks with food, clothing and even temporary accommodation, well-coordinated by the church-based Living Hope, in cooperation with others like Masicorp, Masi Creative Hub and Precious Lives Matter.
The city needs to be applauded for managing to get crucial national funding for their plans of setting up emergency structures to assist those most in need to avoid continued staying in churches or with friends or families under the most overcrowded conditions, which is especially dangerous in the time of Covid-19. But why on this sports field?
Even as many residents were realistically accepting that 2,800 homes would never be completed by April, the real trouble started when – without further consultation with those using the sports field every day of the week – this area was fenced and the first temporary shelters were erected on the only sports field left in this community of more than 40,000 residents.
Protests were voiced immediately and city officials were invited to meet those most concerned. Nobody questioned the need for temporary shelter for the fire victims, but many raised their concern about young people in danger from drugs and crime if there are no positive alternatives for them. Without any doubt, sports like soccer and rugby can be such alternatives.
When asked by the media, the Mayco member for Human Settlements of the City of Cape Town, Malusi Booi, said that the use of the sports field would be “only temporary” and once proper homes will be built, “the field will be rehabilitated for sporting use again”.
In Masiphumelele, the abbreviation TRA (for Temporary Relocation Area) has a bad taste – too many times these temporary sites have become permanent. And this is what the young protesters fear most. No detailed plan about the 2,800 homes has been revealed so far. It has been mentioned that part of the national funding is for such proper housing in Masi… but when and where this will realistically be done has not been made known to the public so far (if we accept that Minister Sisulu’s promise was honest, but not worked out in detail then).
Masiphumelele youth rugby coach, Fundile Frank Charlie, known in the community for his tireless efforts to get young people involved in regular sport and a most peaceful and reasonable neighbour, wrote to Purchase two days before the latest violent action: “Nobody knows how many months those houses erected in Masiphumelele sports field will be there. We all respect the right of people to have shelter, but I strongly believe an alternative arrangement could have been made. Already, this community is ravaged by social ills, but the city continues to rub salt to the wound by undermining what sport has been achieved in Masiphumelele by occupying the only recreational centre it has.”
Again – why was the sports field chosen by the city?
It is not true that there is no other space. There is land, owned by the city, close or even adjacent to Masi. One such land is erf 5131, bigger than two sports fields, directly behind the presently contested area. For years, the city has blocked any kind of expansion of Masi. Erf 5131 has the advantage that it does not directly border other communities but borders the nature reserve. Community leaders have been working for years to allow this land to become part of Masiphumelele, even with a positive environmental impact assessment (EIA) completed a while ago. Now could be the perfect opportunity for all – the community of Masi and the City of Cape Town to work together on such a plan.
It furthered tensions when Mayco member Malusi Booi said after the first protest action mid-February, during which protesters blocked the main road (Kommetjie Road) leading to Masi: “So one must weigh up is football or lives more important?”
In a more detailed statement Ward Councillor Purchase said after the latest riots: “We believe that last night the old leadership with a few more known instigators of trouble rounded up children and gave them wheelie bins of stones to throw at law enforcement and the security company who were protecting the 350 new temporary structures which would have to be handed over to recipients today… Today the intended beneficiaries and unhoused fire victims were encouraged to go and find the stolen building materials within Masiphumelele. We managed to have three truckloads of materials brought back on site.”
She praised the “newly formed leadership” for assisting in these efforts – but is the way forward to divide this community again and again into “good and bad” leaders, chosen by the city?
Of course, sports facilities and shelter are both urgently needed – but should not be pitted against each other, especially in a community where resources for young people are already so limited.
One of the fire victims wrote on the Masiphumelele Facebook page: “As Masi community we want a better future for all — so people, let’s be united and not be divided by the municipality. This is our land, our children have the right to fight for what they want, but also the fire victims have rights. If we fight together it will be better rather than pointing fingers.”
Please finally allow the extremely overcrowded community of Masiphumelele to extend to areas that will create no conflict with others, but will allow care for the fire victims and, at the same time, respect towards the sports facilities for the youth in Masi. DM
Dr Lutz van Dijk is a writer, historian and human rights activist. He wasn’t allowed entry to South Africa until 1994. Since 2001 he is a founding co-director of the HOKISA Children’s Home in Masiphumelele (www.hokisa.co.za). His book A History of Africa (preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu) is told exclusively with African voices. His novel Themba was made into an international movie in 2010.
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