Cape Town’s Cissie Gool House residents reveal what sets their unlawful occupation apart from building hijackings
The recent deadly fire in a hijacked building in Johannesburg drew attention to the proliferation of unlawfully occupied sites in South Africa’s inner cities — a symptom of what activists have called a ‘housing crisis’. Not all these occupations operate in the same way, however. At one site — Cissie Gool House in Cape Town — residents have taken an organised approach to turning an old hospital into a home.
In the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, just below the curve of Nelson Mandela Boulevard, stands Cissie Gool House, formerly known as the old Woodstock Hospital. The state-owned building in the heart of the city was occupied without permission in 2017, after being closed down and left vacant.
The occupation has since become home to about 1,000 residents. Old treatment rooms and ambulance garages have been transformed into living quarters; washing lines hang suspended above empty parking lots; and a banner hangs proudly on an outer wall, bearing an image of anti-apartheid activist Zainunnisa “Cissie” Gool, the community’s namesake.
The recent fire that tore through an illegally occupied inner-city building, 80 Albert Street, in Johannesburg, and resulted in over 70 deaths, drew attention to the issue of “hijacked buildings” within the city, many of which were run by exploitative syndicates.
Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Joburg shuttered task team that should have cleaned up building in which 73 died
However, while the factors underlying the development of these hijacked buildings and Cissie Gool House are similar — affordable housing shortages and a need to be close to centres of work — residents of the Woodstock occupation maintain that their way of life is different from many of their Johannesburg counterparts.
“This occupation is not a hijacked building… I want to be very straight about it — the people in South Africa see occupations as criminal hubs; they see occupations as hijacked buildings. What they don’t see is that there is a housing crisis, one, and two, they actually don’t see that these are real people living inside these occupied buildings,” said Karen Hendricks, a resident of Cissie Gool House and a chapter leader of the housing rights group, Reclaim the City, in Woodstock.
“In Cape Town, because of the housing crisis, people had no choice but to occupy buildings, and some to occupy pieces of land. The government has always been failing the people… because of the apartheid legacy and the apartheid spatial geography of Cape Town.”
The occupation of the hospital in March 2017 was driven by a Reclaim the City campaign, after the Western Cape government decided to sell Tafelberg property in Sea Point instead of releasing the land for social housing in line with activists’ demands. The old hospital is owned by the provincial government and prior to the occupation, it had been vacant. According to GroundUp, the hospital had been identified as well-suited for affordable housing as far back as 2002.
Carl Pophaim, City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for human settlements, described the takeover of the old Woodstock Hospital as an “orchestrated building hijacking”, followed by “subsequent calls for financial contributions to ‘sustain and build’ the illegal occupation”.
“In October 2018, the Western Cape high court granted the city an order interdicting and restraining Reclaim the City from ‘inciting persons to enter or be upon the property for the purpose of unlawfully occupying or invading’,” he said.
The occupation as a home
Hendricks moved into Cissie Gool House in 2018 after being evicted from the home in Woodstock she had shared with her family for many years. She lives there with her 16-year-old son, who was 10 when they first moved in, and her 78-year-old father.
“[In 2018], I could never imagine turning the occupation into a home for myself and my family, but that is what has happened in the interim,” she said.
“What makes Cissie Gool House different to any other occupation or space that is called hijacked would be that at Cissie Gool House, people who were evicted and people who needed to be close to the economic and social opportunities of our city… have taken the initiative to move in here and turn this space into a home, for residents who would otherwise have been left homeless.”
The effort to turn the old hospital into a homely space is reflected in residents’ paintings on the walls of the lobby – large orange flowers and a sign declaring, “Welcome”. In a communal hall overlooking part of the garden, people have hung photographs of marches and meetings led by members of the community.
The communal hall has many uses. Residents hold meetings there, and one elderly man uses it for children’s lessons on the Qur’an. Several weddings and funeral services have been hosted in the space. Along with the photographs hung across the room, there are posters from previous demonstrations the occupation has organised.
Cissie Gool House is a largely women-led community, according to Hendricks. Many of the residents are mothers, acting as primary caregivers for children and elderly parents. “The occupation is named after a woman, and the occupation does actually have the qualities of a woman — so, the caring qualities and the caring nature of the occupation,” she explained.
“We believe where people live matters. And so, as a collective and as a community staying here, to us what is really important is the role of women, too, in our community. Hence we do have continual programmes… to build our movement, and also to build a women leadership within the occupation space.”
Fahdielah Isaacs, another resident, was evicted from her former home in Hanover Park at just 20 years old, after the death of her mother. She moved into Cissie Gool House with her boyfriend, now husband, in 2018, and has since had two children. She has found the other women in the occupation to be very supportive.
“The only thing that’s different for me from other occupations [is that] when you need advice or you have any problems, there’s always someone you can speak to and there’s always someone you can depend on,” she said of Cissie Gool House.
During Daily Maverick’s visit, several women, including Hendricks, referred to Isaacs’ newborn baby as their “grandchild”.
Living by the rules
The perimeter of the Cissie Gool House site is monitored by city-contracted security personnel. No one can access the property without being signed in by a resident. According to community members, the city has prohibited any new people moving into the old hospital.
In April 2021, the Western Cape high court granted an order allowing the city to conduct a survey identifying and counting the people living on the site. However, residents claim that the outcomes of this survey have not been made available to them. When Daily Maverick requested the outcomes, the city stated it was “internal data”.
Within the community itself, residents live by a set of 22 “house rules”, according to Hendricks. Most of these are centred on conducting themselves well in the space; working together as occupiers; and ensuring the safety of all community members.
“What has been really amazing is that we have actually built different structures of leadership within the occupation, to address the social problems that we face every day, and also to address the political question about housing,” said Hendricks.
The rules include a curfew of 9pm and a policy of reporting the presence of visitors. In Isaacs’ view, these rules are important as they maintain order within the community.
There are also shared responsibilities among residents. For example, Faldilah Petersen, who has been living at Cissie Gool House since 2019, has duties in the communal garden. It is named the Noor Tofie Garden after Isaacs’ late father-in-law, the man who founded it.
“It’s not just about watering the garden; it’s not just coming to see if everything’s okay in the garden. We have to give in our input working in the garden, because there’s other things we… need to do like the replanting of other plants that also need to go into the ground,” explained Petersen, who used to work alongside Tofie before his death. The garden is used to grow vegetables to feed community members in need.
Safety and security
Life at Cissie Gool House is not without its challenges. In early 2022, a fire broke out and caused damage to one of the rooms. While no one was hurt, community members needed to band together to deal with the effects of the blaze, and ensure the family who lost their home was safely relocated.
“As a collective, we could deal with the fire and the effects of the fire, and we were able to put the family who had lost their belongings and their home… in another section of the occupation… We’re always working on safety plans, on how to see to it that everyone has a roof over their heads,” said Hendricks.
Petersen told Daily Maverick that some members of the community had completed fire safety and first aid courses, in an effort to improve resident safety at Cissie Gool House.
“We are trying to mobilise these people to learn and teach other people in the occupation about safety as well. So, if there is a fire in the occupation, what is the first thing to do? And where do they have to mobilise together, near to the occupation, and always see [about] your neighbour next door,” she said.
Maintenance is another challenge at the old hospital. When Daily Maverick visited the building, a number of windows were broken, and despite the efforts of residents, there were patches of peeled paint and water damage inside.
The occupation’s leaders have plans for the future of the space. One resident, Jameelah Davids, spoke of opening a coffee shop on-site and running cooking classes for people from the surrounding community.
“People can come into our little garden section and buy seedlings… That way we sustain what we have,” she said.
In June 2023, GroundUp reported that residents were holding a “Cissie Gool House Co-Design Exhibition” at the Cape Institute for Architecture, showcasing their vision of what affordable housing in Cape Town — and at the Woodstock Hospital site, specifically — could look like.
However, Hendricks said that the city had failed to engage with residents about plans for the site. She also claimed that between 2019 and 2023, Cissie Gool House had been raided by law enforcement five times, an experience that left community members feeling criminalised.
“The manner in which the raids are conducted is quite brutal. In fact, many of the raids… are quite brutal on women where women are bodily searched, young girls are bodily searched, and not just bodily searched but internally searched. I just feel like the raids have really been harsh, and that’s the city’s manner of dealing with occupiers,” she said.
Davids told Daily Maverick that raids by police and law enforcement had been traumatising for her son, who has autism. Her family, including her son and elderly father, moved into Cissie Gool House in 2018 after being evicted from their home in Woodstock.
During one raid, Davids said that law enforcement and army personnel told people to lie on the floor, including her father, who was over 80 years old.
“They made old people lay on the floor. I said I’m not doing it. You searched my place, did you find drugs? Did you find guns? You found nothing… I said to them [my father] is not well. He’s not going out on the floor,” she said.
Daily Maverick reached out to the City of Cape Town about residents’ accounts of the raids. Wayne Dyason, spokesperson for the city’s law enforcement, said officers were always required to conduct themselves in line with the law and the instructions contained within the operational plan.
“We observed no illegal action from the officers’ side. Anyone who feels he/she was unlawfully treated can report it to the South African Police Service for investigation,” he said.
In July this year, the city announced that it had secured heritage approval to undertake a social housing development with about 700 units at the Woodstock Hospital site. When asked about the city’s engagement with current residents at the site, Pophaim said court processes were underway regarding the property.
“Occupants have further refused to vacate to allow social housing development to proceed. The city has further been repeatedly advised by the current occupants of the Woodstock Hospital that they are now paying monthly ‘rental’ amounts to Reclaim the City,” he said.
“Woodstock Hospital has particularly favourable zoning rights, and the city is moving ahead with land release. We are determined to resolve the main obstacle and delay to developing Woodstock Hospital, which remains the orchestrated building hijacking of 26 March 2017.”
It has not yet been determined what will happen to the current residents of the site, he said, adding, “All legal and due process, as well as meaningful engagement requirements will be followed with all involved.” DM