Opinionista Malusi Booi 8 November 2020

Building occupations by Reclaim the City a major obstacle to social housing in Cape Town

Contrary to the slogans, the toxic legacy of the unlawful Reclaim the City occupation campaign is one of the biggest obstacles to the building of social housing on well-located sites that are both suitable and viable. If these properties are not vacated by all the RTC occupants, redevelopment, including the provision of social housing units, is impossible.

“BREAKING”, began the tweet by Reclaim the City (RTC), as this Ndifuna Ukwazi-coordinated campaign group staged a land invasion of one of South Africa’s most valuable State-owned properties, the Helen Bowden Nurses Home adjacent to the V&A Waterfront.  

“SOS – All Reclaim the City supporters to Helen Bowden site (c/o Beach Rd and Granger Blvd) right now. Our comrades have occupied the building but have been caught. We are calling all supporters to the site now to support and protect them from the police. This is real! Go! Go! Go!” read the remainder of the tweet, ending off with the cellphone number of an organiser. 

The date was 26 March 2017. Four days earlier, on 22 March, the Western Cape Provincial Cabinet had announced that social housing units would be built at this provincially owned Green Point property, and that social housing construction would be a condition in the transfer of a second site, the old Woodstock Hospital, to the City of Cape Town.

Both of these properties were unlawfully occupied in an organised act which has derailed the planned social housing construction on these sites ever since. 

Ndifuna Ukwazi’s RTC campaign absurdly billed this lawlessness as a “protest” against the Western Cape Government’s decision not to build social housing on the nearby Tafelberg School property in Sea Point, which the province had deemed too small to be viable for public housing, a case which is now the subject of appeal proceedings.

RTC’s actions are not “protests”. Rather, these coordinated property invasions were a destructive and desperate attempt to unlawfully appoint themselves as gatekeeper and arbiter of these properties, the disastrous consequences of which are only more apparent three years later. This is an organisation that does not represent the broader public, does not account for public money or national housing processes, but purports to decide who benefits from housing and who should not.  

The RTC Constitution articulates an explicit intent to invade property, with a clear objective to “support the expropriation of property which aligns with the vision, objectives, principles, and values of Reclaim the City”, notwithstanding the fact that land and property invasions are illegal. 

Instructions on how to then manage an unlawful occupation are detailed, including the election of leadership structures (called a “Chapter” or “Committee”) to preside over the invaded property, which is termed a “House”. These were the titles and auspices assumed by the writers of a recent column in Maverick Citizen, which attempted to justify these RTC actions in the CBD (“DA must build houses in Cape Town instead of blaming the poor for being poor”, 14 October 2020). 

“We need your support to sustain and build the occupations at Cissie Gool and Ahmed Kathrada House. Please donate to: [link provided]”, read an RTC tweet on 20 April 2017, referencing names given to the Green Point and Woodstock properties.

“Wednesday evening learning to successfully occupy in urban areas #cissiegoolhouse #buildhomesnow,” reported a tweet on 3 May 2017 by an “occupy movement” partner from a First World country attending a trendy “learning” session at one of the properties in those heady early days. 

And from there, things got worse as this sorry situation began to escape these groupings, with reports of rampant criminality taking hold at these sites, including assault, rape, murder and mob activity alongside reports of resident bosses enforcing the repressive environment created at these prime state properties which had, tragically, been earmarked for social good.  

Engagements with occupants have revealed that many are paying “rent” to self-proclaimed leadership factions within these properties, gate-keeping access to the site as and when they deem fit. Demands by the state for occupants to move have been met with steadfast resistance so far, with some occupants having been misled that they are entitled to a flat in Sea Point for free for life.  

Contrary to the slogans, the toxic legacy of the RTC campaign is the biggest obstacle to the building of social housing on well-located sites in urban centres of the metro that are both suitable and viable. If these properties are not vacated by all the RTC-enabled occupants, redevelopment, including the provision of social housing units, is impossible. 

The city and Western Cape government have forged ahead elsewhere, teeing up the historic “Better Living Model” (BLM) affordable housing project in Pinelands, an inner-city feeder suburb. In District Six, the Western Cape government has already built a hospital anticipating the return of thousands to the CBD via the national government-led process, and the city is hosting extensive engagements with residents about a new spatial vision for District Six, called a neighbourhood plan or Local Spatial Development Framework.  

In total, there are more than 2,000 affordable housing opportunities in execution in and near urban centres across the metro. We should always remember that Cape Town has many CBDs and areas requiring well-located housing opportunities, not just in the central Cape Town area.  

The city, for its part, spent 95% of the available human settlements grants in 2018/19 despite the many challenges of housing delivery, including unlawful occupations. And in 2019/20 the City spent 94% out of sheer commitment to improving lives given that at least a third of the year was heavily affected by Covid-19 and lockdown regulations. These funds are also spent on the basis of unqualified audits in contrast to the dire corruption we see elsewhere in the country. 

The city’s draft Human Settlements Strategy, out for public comment, foresees a range of innovative accommodation types and partnership-driven developments in urban centres across the metro. 

Ndifuna Ukwazi and other NGOs in the same stable seem to share the zealous and misleading notion that land invasions are an acceptable alternative in many instances, and that the rule of law should seemingly be relaxed in this regard.   

Underpinning this laissez-faire stance on unlawful occupation is the disingenuous idea that governments can simply build enough houses quickly to deal with the housing waiting list, seemingly using the endless public funds and wherewithal of a perfectly enabling human settlements legislative framework set by a competent and well-resourced national government.  

There are no overnight solutions to the country’s housing challenges, which require true leadership from people serving the greater good and not their own narrow interests. 

We can all agree that deep and fundamental reforms are required to the South African human settlements framework. Solutions can and must be found. We can only implement these in a lawful, fair and systematic manner, with a sense of purpose, dedication, and urgency.  

In the case of the Helen Bowden and Woodstock Hospital properties, we need all parties or organisations driving the reform process – even those who drove the initial invasions – to now step in and ensure that they too are part of the solution. MC/DM 

Maverick Citizen has offered Reclaim the City a Right of Reply and will publish it as soon as it is submitted.

Malusi Booi is Mayco Member for Human Settlements in the City of Cape Town.

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