Defend Truth


Almost 18,000 soccer fields — that’s how much public land is lying unused in Cape Town

Almost 18,000 soccer fields — that’s how much public land is lying unused in Cape Town
Residents living in the Cissie Gool House (former Woodstock Hospital) protest outside Cape Town High Court on 22 April 2021. It is reported that the residents of Cissie Gool House are challenging the City who want to conduct a survey of the over 900 poor and working-class occupiers. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Like many South African cities, Cape Town is in a profound, historically rooted housing crisis.

All three spheres of government claim, without putting forward any evidence, that there is a shortage of public land available to build well-located, affordable housing. But, is this true? 

To create an evidence base and push back against what is plainly an unsubstantiated narrative, Ndifuna Ukwazi and OpenUp have developed an online interactive map which demonstrates how much vacant and underutilised public land there is in each neighbourhood in Cape Town. 

This map, which was manually developed over several years, clearly demonstrates that there is more than enough publicly owned land available to help address our housing backlog and desegregate our city.

To put things in perspective, there is more vacant and underutilised public land in Cape Town than in the entire area of Barcelona.

public land

Cape Town, like many South African cities, is in a profound, historically rooted housing crisis. At least 350,000 families are on the housing waiting list, with many more people being forced to live in unsafe, inadequate homes that are far from schools, hospitals, jobs and other crucial services. 

At the same time, the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid, combined with a highly exclusive property market, means that Cape Town is perhaps the most racially segregated city anywhere on Earth. 

Only 25% of Cape Town households can afford the cheapest home on the market, which is a shocking and concerning statistic.

What can be done to meaningfully address this situation, reduce the backlog and build decent homes? 

A large part of the answer lies with the transformative value of public land. For too long, public land has been viewed by the government as an asset that can be sold for a short-term cash injection, or as an untouchable resource whose main purpose is to bolster the balance sheets of various state entities.

Instead, because it is already owned by the government and can be sold at a discount, using public land to build affordable and mixed-income housing is perhaps the simplest means of reducing the backlog. 

The map demonstrates irrefutably that an enormous amount of a potentially transformative resource is being squandered amid a profound housing and segregation crisis.

When used intentionally and strategically, public land is a powerful tool. It is cheaper to develop than buying private land; it can be sold at a discount to enable maximum affordability; it can enable hundreds of thousands of homes to be built and, if used wisely, it can catalyse the development of entire dense and inclusive neighbourhoods and guide investment for more equitable outcomes. 

We hope that our map will help to make these sorts of arguments. 

This is only the first version of the map – not every neighbourhood has been mapped yet and some issues are still being ironed out. 

Wherever possible, we used the City of Cape Town’s online tools to identify property owners on the understanding that the municipality should have the most accurate data on public land within its boundaries. 

This also means that all data used already exist in the public realm, albeit in an inaccessible format. 

The lack of consistent and accurate publicly available data means that the map took a long time to produce and is not perfect, but we hope to update it over time and add more information.

Of course, not all of the land detailed in the map is suitable for affordable housing. Some of it is environmentally sensitive, some of it is already planned for development, and some of it may be better suited as a site for a clinic, hospital, community garden, school or other important service. 

However, what the map demonstrates irrefutably is that an enormous amount of a potentially transformative resource is being squandered amid a profound housing and segregation crisis. 

The City of Cape Town alone owns vacant and underutilised public land roughly the size of 9,500 soccer fields (and that’s just the land we found)!


The living conditions in the Overcome Heights informal settlement near Lavender Hill in Cape Town on 28 July 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Flat-out refusal

Public land is publicly owned – this means it belongs to all of us. The role of the government is to use this land in the best interests of the people. 

Instead, there has been a failure to use public land in an equitable, efficient or sustainable manner. All three spheres of government own considerable land in Cape Town, but none of them is properly maximising its true potential to transform the city.

For instance, a joint civil society submission to the Presidency, building on decades of activism from a diverse range of groups, has demonstrated that up to 67,000 homes could be built on the nationally owned Ysterplaat, Wingfield and Youngsfield military bases alone. 

We need to break with the current mindset and approach, which has allowed public land to sit idle for decades.

There has been progress on Wingfield, but flat-out refusal to use either Ysterplaat or Youngsfield. In the case of Ysterplaat, the main reason put forward that the land can’t be developed is that the President occasionally needs to land his plane there, which seems like an odd priority compared with how many families could be housed on the site.

However, it is not only these very large pieces of public land that have potential. 

A study from the African Centre for Cities argued compellingly that vacant land surrounding schools and other public services could be used to increase both the affordability and density of Cape Town’s housing, while making these spaces safer and more vibrant. 

Quite simply, we can and should do a lot more with the significant amount of public land available.

Ultimately, we need to break with the current mindset and approach, which has allowed public land to sit idle for decades. Public land is poorly administered with little overall strategic plan. 

Much of it is controlled by departments and government entities who have no plans to use it, yet continue to resist any attempt at putting the land to more productive and just use. 

The land release process needs to be urgently streamlined and the state needs to follow through on its obligations in terms of housing and tenure security. 

Putting public land to better use is not only a question of justice – it is also a question of economic development, productivity, job creation and environmental sustainability. 

We cannot afford to continue down the current path of inaction and stasis. 

We hope that our map will help to highlight what is wrong with the approach to public land and assist us in collectively imagining how we could use it differently. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    What, and no mention of the hundreds of thousands of economic refugees from the Eastern Cape and other provinces streaming into Cape Town?

  • Johan Buys says:

    “ Public land is publicly owned – this means it belongs to all of us”

    This is where Butlender has the whole concept entirely wrong. My council might own a vacant piece of land with no services and that is public open space. That does NOT in any legal sense anywhere in the world mean I can go pitch a tent / shack there to live in.

    These activists and their lawyers should first answer their complicity in obtaining non-eviction orders for their clients that let them stay on in safety hazard hijacked buildings. Does non-eviction from a death trap go in the legal victory column?

    All that said : that District Six has not been resolved in thirty years is an absolute disgrace. Resolved in regard the land claims but also resolved in building quality affordable homes close to places of work.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Headline photo – protesting against the city wanting to survey the occupants of an illegally hijacked building that pay “rent” illegally to an organisation that wants to capture more buildings. Go figure

      • David Mitchley says:

        Using photos of piles of rubbish to illustrate the conditions people live in is really unfair to the CoCT. The city didn’t dump the rubbish there, the people who live there dumped it, and then they expect the city to clean it up – how’s this for an idea – clean up your environment yourselves.

        • Ben Harper says:

          Good point – they all cry about lack of services yet they attack municipal workers when they do go there and yes, they are the cause of all the dirt and rubbish – dump it over the fence and suddenly it’s not their problem it’s the city’s problem

  • R S says:

    To the authors and the organisations that they belong to: do we have the money to develop these spaces? If the govt said they will develop all the land that they possess, do they have the money to actually do it?

  • V L says:

    What a massive effort – thanks to everyone who was involved in creating this resource. Now it’s on each of us to put it to good use.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    Funny how certain reporters & the media always target he city Cape Town and never P.E./KZN or Jhb!!! It seems to me they only targeting CT as it’s the only best performing province in the whole of SA!!! Why is it that the media always target the best performing City and say nothing about the state of the corrupt run ANC government departments??????

    • Caroline de Braganza says:

      Cape Town is the murder capital of the world. Building affordable housing would create safer communities with easier access to work opportunities and help grow localised economies thus reducing the number of young people joining gangs as a means of survival.

      Articles have been published on the lack of housing and problems in other cities of South Africa are out there uf you care to read them.

      Clean audits are no measure of success for the quality of life for the majority of the population.

      The party running the Western Cape is no different from the ANC in boasting of its successes but failing to address its failures.

  • ilike homophones says:

    Why blame the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid,
    if the ruling government appears to do very little or nothing
    about the housing dilemma?

  • Peter Lor says:

    I agree with Vikki.loles: kudos and thanks to Budlender and Robyn Park-Ross for their initiative. It’s good to see people doing something positive — and a positive comment, instead of the tiresome invective and point-scoring which seem to follow most Daily Maverick posts. There is a great deal to criticize in our country, but righteous indignation is no basis for building a better future.

  • Gustav Diedericks says:

    While I agree that there are swathes of public land not utilized, I disagree with most of the article and it’s premise.
    No, Public Land does not belong to all, it belongs to tax payers. People that don’t pay tax don’t get to claim Public land or anything from the government.
    And even if you pay some form of tax, simply being poor and not owning land does not mean you are automatically entitled to Public land, or to any land for that matter. This Entitlement attitude is part of what holds South Africa back as a country and keeps it a Third World country (I wanted to say what Trump calls it, but I will not go down into vulgarities. That said, he is right).
    If poor people will start asking “Why am I poor?” and start looking at themselves as being the big problem, and then start solving it themselves, this country will be on the best track it can ever be to becoming a First World country. Poor people in this country are their own cause for their demise: they keep voting ANC, they take up bad habits such as drinking and doing drugs, they do not try and keep their families together (single parent households), they constantly wait for handouts or live off charity to get things they don’t deserve, they don’t think of their own legacy or try and strive to better themselves, and they don’t help their children to achieve and improve, and if they do get their children out of poverty they Black Tax them right back into it.
    It’s time we start speaking the real truth: Poor people are their own cause, and they should start working on bettering themselves instead of having this entitlement attitude.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Exactly, a concept lost on the bleeding heart liberals. Our constitution gives everyone the right to won land, it doesn’t say everyone has the right to free land

  • Gordon Oliver says:

    Thankyou to the authors of this valuable information. In most of the situation cited by the authors it must be realised that the dead hand of the ANC central government is responsible, as was the situation when the apartheid government was in office, for public housing nationally. Municipalities provide housing at the cost of central government, which means the latter carries responsibility for housing.
    Concerning the three airfields owned by the central government in the city of CT, it concerns me that a former mayor of CT, as a member of Ramaphosa’s cabinet, ie Patricia de Lille, has failed to take advantage of her position in the cabinet to argue CT’s case for the transfer of this land to CT, by stating that land is “owned” by the Military. No so, the Military doesn’t own the land, it “leases” the land from the Government which refuses to hear CT’s case for the airfields to be transferred to CT. Why is the Government sitting on this mis-used land, thereby denying thousands of Capetonians affordable housing? Gordon Oliver, Mayor of Cape Town 1989-1991.

  • Steven D says:

    So what happens when the unused land is developed and the housing units are occupied? Either more people will stream in from other provinces, the governments of which did not contribute to the construction, or the existing poor residents will move into the new units, leaving the existing shacks to be occupied by more people streaming in from other provinces…

    Housing needs to be provided, absolutely. But why develop more housing in a city where the existing resources are already stretched thin and which is on the border of a World Heritage Site? Why not develop housing in the cities from where people have come from, so that it incentivises them to stay there?

    • Sean Dayton says:

      People move to Cape Town for economic opportunities, not housing. Building housing in these other provinces won’t incentivise people to stay there – creating jobs and economic opportunities there will.

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    Even if there is land available where is the money going to come from to build proper housing put in sewerage, water and electricity, there is no limitless budget in any of the provinces to keep building for others free. The “free eveything” attitude needs to stop in this country anc created the monster.

  • Hans Van breukelen says:

    The number one problem we have in our country is the highest unemployment in the world. We can provide free housing and monthly handouts, but people will remain poor without jobs. If people have decent jobs, then they could afford decent accommodation, and not be beggars. However, our ANC government does not see unemployment as a problem…..😭

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