Defend Truth


The Western Cape government has no excuse not to develop social housing on the Tafelberg property


Dr Jonty Cogger is an attorney at Ndifuna Ukwazi Law Centre.

The Western Cape is dragging its feet and throwing up legal challenges to developing social housing in Cape Town’s inner-city despite promises by Premier Alan Winde that land would be unblocked.

Thozama Adonisi has been living and working in Sea Point as a domestic worker and nurse since 1985. Despite living in the area for 37 years, she does not have any place to call home in Sea Point.

As property prices increased, Ms Adonisi, like many others, moved from home to home. Despite this, she has always hoped that the government would one day build affordable homes for the working class in the inner city, and not just on the periphery. This would finally mean that she would not be displaced repeatedly, first under apartheid and now under high land and rental prices.

The Tafelberg property, (which formerly housed the Tafelberg Remedial School) situated in Sea Point, is one of the most strategically located publicly owned parcels of land in Cape Town. In 2016, it became a site of contestation for many working-class people when the Western Cape Provincial Government sold the land to a private buyer, the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School for R135-million.

The Province’s sale of the site launched the campaign and social movement Reclaim the City which sought to radically alter the way land and housing is delivered in the city. At the heart of this struggle is the confrontation of an ideology that pushes increased privatisation and commodification of public land — public land is, increasingly, viewed through the narrow lens of economic terms rather than being acknowledged for its transformative potential.

Despite close to 4,000 submissions and enormous public support for the release of Tafelberg for the development of social housing, the Province chose to proceed with the disposal of the site for a short-term cash injection. Reclaim the City and Ndifuna Ukwazi challenged the short-sighted decision in court.

In 2020, in a successful court challenge, the Western Cape high court set aside the sale of Tafelberg and also declared that the Province and the City of Cape Town were in breach of their constitutional and legislative obligations to advance equitable access to land and affordable housing by redressing the legacy of apartheid spatial planning in central Cape Town and its surrounds.

Despite this landmark victory, at present, the Tafelberg property sits vacant pending the Province and City’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) — with the Province suggesting that the appeal is a stumbling block for development of the site.

But this is less than genuine. The sale was set aside by the high court and no leave to appeal for this discussion was granted. The private school that planned to purchase the site withdrew from the sale agreement. This is all to say that there is no legal barrier to developing social housing on the Tafelberg property.

The only barrier is a self-imposed denial that the Province and City should be obliged to build social housing in Cape Town’s central city and surrounds as a way to redress the spatial legacy of apartheid. It is an act of resentment to the circumstances where 1) the social movement Reclaim the City succeeded in challenging their sale; and 2) judicial intervention and oversight overturned their short-sighted administrative decisions.

All the while, the effect of their appeals is to entrench the exclusion of working-class black and coloured people residing in formerly whites-only areas, much to the dismay of Ms Adonisi and thousands more.  

The main contestation in this matter, which is still to be decided by the Supreme Court of Appeal, is whether the Province and City have an obligation to address spatial inequality through the development of social housing in well-located areas. While the constitutional obligation will be tested in the appeals process, our contestation has always been a victory for a racially (and class) divided society.

Our democracy and electoral process is not merely to elect political parties into power. It is for our elected parties to demonstrate leadership and empathy to address the decades of generational trauma caused by apartheid, which has been compounded by a property market that excludes close to 90% of black and coloured people from living in the inner city. This is a matter of political leadership — a commitment to demonstrate that the leaders can take bold decisions with public land that is in their custodianship.

At a constitutional level, the Province and City’s denial of their spatial justice obligation holds strong affinity to the exclusionary land practices of colonial and apartheid regimes. Cape Town is one of the most unequal cities in  the world. Like many towns and cities in South Africa, Cape Town is racist by design — meaning that the presence of black and coloured labourers served the interests and needs of a small white immigrant population.

The perpetual conundrum of the apartheid mindset was how to maintain spatial exclusivity in whites-only residential areas and economic hubs while also maintaining a source of cheap black labour. The full might of the state machinery was used to reinforce spatial segregation of races in terms of segregationist laws, policies and policing. Homes were demolished, people forcibly removed and access to whites-only areas strictly policed.

Twenty-seven years after the formal end of apartheid, the majority of black and coloured residents of Cape Town continue to live in the long shadow of apartheid racial ideology, on the outskirts of the city far from social amenities and economic opportunities.

The enduring legacy of spatial apartheid is characterised by Prof Francois Viruly as the 40x40x40 syndrome — a 40m² house, situated 40km from work, and with transport costing up to 40% of a household’s income. Living on the outskirts of Cape Town in a small home using a significant chunk of income travelling long distances into work is designed to maintain a perpetual poverty trap. The chances of upward mobility are slim.  

An obvious way to remedy this disgraceful legacy is to develop strategically located state-owned land, like the Tafelberg site and others, for affordable housing. How else are the majority of our people expected to compete economically if they are denied access to well-located affordable housing?

Despite this available solution, the Province and City are adamant that they alone should decide what happens on public land and will expend millions of rands of taxpayers’ money on legal fees resisting the high court ruling that public land in central areas should be used for the development of social housing so that people denied access can have better lives. 

Where does the buck stop? The sale of the Tafelberg property (like all public-owned land) was a political decision by then Premier Helen Zille. Apartheid’s ideology of racial exclusion was a deliberate choice pre-1994, and it is a deliberate choice now to continue this legacy. Incumbent Premier Alan Winde inherited this decision and is complicit in continuing the delay of sorely needed social housing at Tafelberg.

The Premier has promised on multiple occasions to “unblock” the Tafelberg site and other land held by the Province for the development of social housing. In the Western Cape Provincial Legislature on 25 July 2019, the Premier promised that “where the Province is involved, the minister or ministers responsible will commit to unlocking where we can [public land] blockages” and assured MLPs that the Province would “push as hard as [they] can on, for instance, Tafelberg or Helen Bowden” for inner-city land for the development of social housing. 

On 29 August 2019, the Premier reiterated his commitment to unblocking the Tafelberg site for social housing in the provincial legislature, stating “yes I did commit to it… we are working to try and find a solution and not 10 years’ worth of extended litigation”.

Premier Winde clearly wants to develop social housing on Tafelberg. He has continued to reiterate his commitment to inner-city social housing, like Founders Garden in his recent Opinionista in Daily Maverick. Yet he and his government continue to wage fruitless litigation on this matter when he could be taking concrete steps towards realising the promise of spatial justice.

What are his excuses for not developing social housing at Tafelberg? We appeal to the premier to demonstrate leadership and show commitment to developing Tafelberg and many other publicly owned parcels of land for affordable and social housing. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    So, in short: turn Cape Town into a slum as we have in all the other metropolitan areas that have been taken over by low income households and the money simply moves away. Also, show me a successful city anywhere in the world where low-income earners are able to afford anywhere near a downtown area. We are not that special.

  • Pat Collett says:

    I would suggest Jonty tries to find out who the interested parties are who are blocking the change of use. You may find it’s a group of developers who have their own agendas. Publication of that information may help.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I doubt this comment will ever see the light of day under the new 3 x review rules.
    Nevertheless, here goes … I don’t understand why a prime site like this has to be set aside for low cost housing. Yes, low cost housing is an imperative for our country – but does it have to be so expensive? Have you any idea what can be done with redeployment of that R135 million into a low cost housing budget, particularly one in an area that is not so expensive?
    All you will do with the Tafelberg project is cause the surrounding areas to immediately devalue in commercial terms – affecting hundreds of families. And don’t cry racism – this is a fact. Low cost housing schemes bring with them their own social and environmental impacts which are usually costly and difficult to manage.
    I wholly support the appeal on this ridiculous judgement.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    I suppose the COCT is scared of a precedent being set if they are seen to back down. I hope the DA will exercise leadership and facilitate transformative development on this wonderful site.

  • Paul Fanner says:

    Repetitive, repetitive , repetitive . This article could be two thirds shorter

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