At exactly 11am, a guard walking off shift notices about 150 activists spilling into the parking lot of Rondebosch Golf Club (RGC):
“It’s them, I know the red; they want housing here.”
It has been almost a year since Reclaim the City (RTC)’s first action on the course for Human Rights Day in 2019 and they clearly made a lasting impression.
A long banner reads “Redistribute this land. Redistribute all public land. Reclaim the City” and a scout is sent out to find the ninth hole. Once located, this modest patch of close-cropped green grass is seized. A faded yellow flagstick is courteously set aside and in its place the recognisable red and white of Reclaim the City is raised.
What unfolds for the next 80 minutes or so is what many news stories missed, yet it is crucially part of how this protest contributes to a broader, ongoing campaign to challenge unjust disposals of public land by the City of Cape Town. Reclaim the City first activated Rondebosch Golf Course as a site of protest on Human Rights Day 2019. Now, a year later, we reflect on why they returned.
“Activists Occupy the Rondebosch Golf Course”: roughly six news stories in three days all repeated some variation of this foreseeable headline. The action on Saturday 29 February prefigured, but almost did not inform it. Each piece correctly captures the issue being raised: activists object to the renewal of a lease that grants a piece of public land the size of 45 rugby fields to a private golf club, for only R1,058 per year. But while the message behind the protest is made plain, the meaning within it is lost. Occupying also meant strategically using the site as a schooling space for those hours, but this is not seen in the stories.
In a research report published by Ndifuna Ukwazi in 2019, it was revealed that the city regularly renews hundreds of leases on prime public land to private companies and associations for next to nothing. While the nominal rental paid annually is deeply jarring, the real issue is the failure to redistribute this land for affordable housing in the face of an acute housing crisis.
In Reclaim the City’s golf course protest last year, a number of people carried placards that read “Families pay R1,000 every month for a backyard shack”. This year, to deeper public awareness of the problem, our intention was to make the reality of the spatial as well as economic injustice even more apparent. The city could raise rentals for golf courses and it would not solve the problem of access to well-located land for low-income households.
The Game of Life in Cape Town
Watching the protest from above, one would have witnessed the group flow to the edges of the putting green, forming a broad circle around the hole that most golfers were aiming to complete before breaking for lunch at the clubhouse. About 20 people broke away from the others and cobbled together in an almost straight line in the middle. From above, their formation looked like an incomplete heart, about to break slightly more.
Back on the ground, a series of statements were read aloud. This was not a list of demands, but rather a set of descriptions inviting participants to reflect on their personal experience of space. In an adapted Spatial Privilege Walk, the straight line that stood firm at one side of the green scatters.
“If you grew up in a rural setting, take two steps back.”
“If you regularly travel for an hour by public transport to get to school or work in the morning, take one step backward.”
“If you live in an area where, should you call the police, they would not hesitate to show up, take one step forward.”
“If your family was evicted or displaced before, take two steps back.”
Five people held a character card that they regularly consulted. They completed the walk as though they were a different person, uncertainly stepping towards the front, clearly torn by the contrast between their own realities and the elite avatars on the cards. A handful of supporters and allies of the protesters also moved forward, but most of the others soon started falling behind.
“It’s a reflection of a miniature life,” said Shandee Cupido, a young man who lives with his family at the Cissie Gool House occupation in the Old Woodstock Hospital.
By the end of the activity, even the scattering of golfers who weren’t studiously ignoring our presence would have been able to see a few things. The eventual positions of participants, though emerging from questions about class privilege and space, was starkly reflective of race, for one. Second, when handed a plastic putter and ball from a toy golf kit, those nearest the back stood no chance of making the shot; they could barely see the hole. Meanwhile, participants up front were within inches of their aim.
“The hole was opportunities,” commented RTC leader Karen Hendricks in a multilingual discussion after the exercise. “All those that were behind, it was exactly as if they were far from the city. The further you are, the worse your access to opportunities.”
Rondebosch Golf Club is a site of privilege
The course itself tells a story of privilege. It is a stones’ throw from excellent hospitals, a good police precinct, two functioning transport lines and a number of the city’s best schools. It is also, distastefully, across the road from another golf course that sits on public land.
Rondebosch Golf Club was founded in 1911, still under the 1894 Glen Grey Act that set the legislative foundation for spatial division in South Africa (although its factual existence emerged alongside Dutch colonial expansion and dispossession long before). Its formation is sandwiched between the 1910 establishment of the Union of South Africa and the passage of the infamous 1913 Native Land Act a few years later. It was a time when law and taxation connected to land became increasingly critical tools for further curtailing black political, social and economic power.
The club first signed the lease for the use of the City-owned land on which it rests in 1937. Since then, it has stood witness, with no disruption, to the official start of apartheid, the enactment of the 1950 Group Areas Act, forced removals from neighbouring Black River Park, and the slow pace of land redistribution since democracy. One of its borders sits roughly along the line of Jan van Riebeek’s hedge, planted as a boundary between colonial settlers and “native” grazers.
Each atrocity in this history has concentrated or perpetuated the vulnerability of insecure and inadequate access to land upon certain communities, while entrenching land access for others. It has resulted in the deep spatial privilege and injustice our walk reflected. Privilege and power are intimately connected with the ability to systematically situate vulnerability away from a certain population, shifting it on to others.
Seizing space to open a conversation
When we unpack this full story, “Activists occupy Rondebosch Golf Course” emerges as factually accurate, but politically limiting. “Occupy” seems to be used more because it fits the narrative of land protest than because it meaningfully captures events.
In reality, activists also shared their biryani with security staff, activists negotiated a selfie with the public order police, and the children of activists learnt to putt from a resident golfer. Each interaction deepened learning about the systems of power that respond to citizen action, the complexity of class dynamics at work in any setting, the dynamics and values of group discipline, the human vulnerabilities of hunger, heat, and thirst.
We didn’t just “occupy” Rondebosch Golf Course; we turned the ninth hole into a learning ground for ourselves and anyone listening. This story of how the capture of exclusive space can open it up to change knowledge is so often left out in mainstream reporting, yet it is deeply part of what it means to occupy politically.
Perhaps all this meaning is hidden within that frustrating headline, but it is time we start surfacing it. To be an “activist” is in many ways not only about taking action to bring about political or social change. It also involves an ongoing process of changing the self and the collective through that activity. Whether explicit education components are incorporated or not, there is an embodied learning process intrinsic to any protest moment, from occupation to demonstration to blockade. These are visceral, felt experiences that are partially stripped of significance in the public narrative if we fail to express the way that they teach.
Levelling the playing field
We staged a privilege walk at the ninth hole of Rondebosch Golf Course to highlight how exclusive lease renewals on prime land like this replicate the pattern of privileging land-use for the few that has shaped Cape Town for too many years.
It is time we start really recognising what “privilege” means in this country, and that takes practical examples like these. At a public meeting hosted by Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City on Thursday 27 February, we established that in a room of 400 people allocated monthly incomes based on StatsSA’s Inequality Trends report, fewer than four people would be able to afford the R1,416.66 monthly cost of unlimited membership at the Rondebosch Golf Club. These people earned around R12,000 a month or more, but they were so in the minority that they expressed feeling “isolated”. Only the top 10% of people — those earning more than R7,300 per month — could even consider paying the daily play rate of R150. And half the room would be out of the game before it began; their income is less than R1,130 per month.
Golf itself recognises that for a game to be fair, we cannot compete from radically different positions. Handicapping is a system described by United States Golf Association Director of Handicapping Dean Knuth as “that almost unique apparatus that allows players of any skill level to compete fairly against one another on the identical field of play”. Though calculating a handicap is fairly complex, the principle is simple: It’s about levelling the playing field by allowing less experienced players more strokes per hole.
Our spatial privilege walk was uncomfortable to play and unsettling to watch because spatial injustice is in no way a game. Since 1994, South Africa has enacted a host of laws that set out to level the playing field when it comes to access to land and housing. These ought to be the handicap system to our history. But the City of Cape Town seems to forget the principle many of them might embrace in their Saturday golfing when it comes to the practical management of land.
It simply does not play fair. DM
The US government requires all homoeopathy "treatments" to specifically state that they do not work.