Opinionista Helen Zille 24 April 2017

From the Inside: Crossing the line between debate and defamation

In politics, robust discussion comes with the territory. But there have been times over the past few weeks when I wondered where the point of forthright engagement ends, and defamation begins.

A column authored by Reclaim the City (“Zille’s contempt and lies on Tafelberg a threat to democracy”) crossed the line.

The article claims to be a reply to my previous column, in which I set out the Western Cape government’s plans to build affordable housing on well-located land throughout the province, and the range of criteria we use to assess possible land usage.

In reply, Reclaim the City (RTC), using the most extreme language, fails to engage the substance of my analysis, while refuting arguments I never advanced, and attacking statements I never made.

The string of personal insults and unsubstantiated invective is designed to get readers to support the conclusion that the sale of the old Tafelberg school to a trust (for its continued use as an education institution) is “such a scandal” that I should “never be allowed to recover from it”.

This baseless allegation is bolstered by complete fabrications, such as the claim that a press statement announcing the decision to proceed with the Tafelberg sale was being circulated “in DA structures” before the provincial cabinet had met to discuss the issue.

I cannot let all this misinformation stand without challenge, lest anyone actually believes it.

RTC’s misdirected “analysis” seeks to rubbish the Western Cape cabinet’s assessment of the financial model for development on the usable portion of the site (1.1ha). This assessment, supported by technical experts, led us to conclude that the site did not meet the combination of criteria required for viable affordable housing on high-value land. These include, among other things, sufficient scale (a large site), maximising government subsidies, and sufficient opportunities for private sector cross-subsidies.

Whenever the Western Cape cabinet considers disposing of land, we consider all government’s competing priorities and challenges, and weigh up possible uses on a case-by-case basis. Thus, on the same day that we announced that the sale of Tafelberg would proceed, we also announced our plans for the development of affordable housing on two other high value sites in the city — a former nurses’ home near the Waterfront; and the old Woodstock Hospital site.

Subsequently we also reported on the good progress we are making with plans to develop the 22ha Conradie Site for affordable housing, among other uses.

So why is RTC obsessed with the small developable portion of the Tafelberg site?

If well-located land for affordable housing were really the issue here, surely RTC would be focusing on much larger sites, such as Culemborg, owned by Transnet, which the city has for years earmarked for affordable housing development. This site is almost 50 times the size of Tafelberg, and development there would add enormous value to the city, while providing a large number of affordable housing units. But Transnet refuses to release even part of this enormous site that extends over approximately 160ha in total.

And what about District Six, which continues to proceed at a snail’s pace, as three spheres of government wade through a swamp of obstacles, in an attempt to combine restitution with the prospect of further affordable housing opportunities, appropriately cross-subsidised by private sector investment?

Instead of helping us address these real constraints to the development of affordable housing on prime inner-city real estate, RTC resorts to baseless personal attacks, three of which I rebut below:

  1. Zille said that national Treasury instructed provinces to asset strip”

I have never said any such thing. In my article that RTC claims to be rebutting, I did not even allude to the national Treasury’s instruction on how to deal with the fiscal crisis we were (and are still) facing.

The facts are: Following the unmandated national wage agreement with public service unions in 2015, which was far above the maximum we had been told to budget for, provinces faced significant budget shortfalls.

We engaged national Treasury (during Minister Pravin Gordhan’s tenure) about how to deal with the crisis. Treasury responded as follows:

With prevailing fiscal constraints it is impossible to fully cover the shortfall that both national and provincial governments now face as a result of the wage settlement. As such, provinces must re-allocate their budgets to cover any shortfall over the 2016 Medium Term Expenditure Framework.”

Treasury further instructed provinces to “investigate how and where their budgets can be reprioritised to accommodate the (new) baseline reductions”.

We followed up with intensive analysis of every departmental budget. The Department of Transport and Public Works was also requested to find ways of leveraging some of our existing property assets to help balance the books, in accordance with the Treasury instruction.

In approaching the provincially owned sites, we took great care to adopt a holistic approach – despite the fiscal crisis. We did not merely approach our landholdings as potential sources of revenue, but considered their value for the purpose of achieving different government priorities on a site-by-site basis. At no time did we ever consider resorting to “asset stripping” – nor were we instructed to.

The Tafelberg sale will bring in R135-million (which was estimated to be above its market value at the time of the sale). We planned to use this specifically to complete the upgrade of a building in Dorp Street to house the provincial Education Department, thereby investing in an appreciating asset rather than spending R50-million each year in rental. We had planned to do this on the basis of a public private partnership, with the full support of national Treasury, who knew precisely what we intended to do with the proceeds of the Tafelberg sale.

However, in recent weeks, Treasury’s attitude seems to have suddenly changed, and it would be interesting to know why.

  1. Zille said that Tafelberg is not in an urban restructuring zone’

I did not even allude to this issue in the article to which Reclaim the City was supposedly replying.

However, it was raised during a cabinet discussion, in an assessment by independent legal counsel of the issues raised during public participation.

The legal point was simply this: Tafelberg does not qualify for the state subsidy required because it falls outside the current urban restructuring zone. Obviously there is a process through which this can change, but when we had to consider whether to resile from the Tafelberg sale, the site did not qualify for state subsidies, nor had the process to change this designation been initiated. (This process is not in the hands of the province.)

  1. Zille said that the site is not viable for affordable housing development’

What I actually said about the 1.1ha of the Tafelberg site available for development was this: Our assessment of the financial modelling indicates that this is not enough land to meet the requirements of affordability and viability.

That is factual. The minute of the cabinet decision shows exactly what factors we considered in coming to this conclusion, a discussion preceded by presentations from technical experts.

The minute reads:

While cabinet accepts that social housing is notionally an option on any piece of land owned by the Western Cape government, the value of the land which has been achieved in this sale, the high construction costs acknowledged in the public participation process, the acknowledgement out of the public participation process that extensive cross-subsidisation is required to render the project financially feasible, and the inherent land use restrictions which apply to this site, including inter alia heritage and zoning requirements, render this specific site sub-optimal for social housing.”

All of these factors are underscored by the fact that neither the City of Cape Town, nor any other social housing agency, submitted a proposal for such use of the site when it went out to tender.

So what is this really about?

At least part of the explanation may lie in the fact that the successful bidder for Tafelberg was the Phyllis Jowell Trust, which intends to develop the property as a Jewish Day School. RTC has vehemently opposed this, using a string of pejorative epithets, including race.

It is all so tediously predictable. Race-shaming has become a substitute for rational argument in South Africa. But I will not let it justify defamation. DM

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