Defend Truth


Idle SANDF land in Cape Town could accommodate 67,000 homes, reducing the housing backlog


Adi Kumar is the executive director and Nick Budlender a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Perhaps the most shocking failure of intergovernmental collaboration on housing is that 668ha of high-potential land in Cape Town is sitting largely vacant and underutilised under the custodianship of the Department of Defence.

President Cyril Ramaphosa used urban land reform as one of the main focuses of his electoral campaign during his first five-year term. In the most recent State of the Nation Address, the President did not emphasise the role of urban land reform as vigorously, but did point out in no uncertain terms the commitment to use state land for housing and human settlements.

His statement included saying “as we undertook the State of the Nation Address last year, the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure has finalised the transfer of 14,000 hectares of state land for housing”.

While all this is very positive news, little has actually been done to use this land for housing. All political parties admit that the housing crisis is getting significantly worse, as is so clearly visible in the increasing number of land occupations and the now-common sight of families being forced to live on the streets in cities across the country.

The national government owns vast amounts of public land in our cities, but so far little of it has been put to more productive, efficient and just use. At the centre of this failure to act on public land are the national Department of Human Settlements and the Housing Development Agency.

The national government owns enough vacant and underutilised land in Cape Town to deliver hundreds of thousands of homes and materially reduce the housing backlog.

For example, a recent joint civil society submission to the presidency, building on decades of activism from a diverse range of groups, has demonstrated that 67,000 homes could be built on the Ysterplaat, Wingfield and Youngsfield Military Bases alone.

This land could be used for affordable housing and mixed-use developments that would benefit the poor and working class, aid social and economic inclusion, and generate a spatial form that is significantly more sustainable and efficient.

Instead, what initially looked like encouraging progress on the release of underutilised public land over the last few years has seemingly been hamstrung by the failure of different government departments and entities to work together.

Perhaps the most shocking failure of intergovernmental collaboration in this regard is that 668ha of high-potential land in Cape Town is sitting largely vacant and underutilised under the custodianship of the Department of Defence.

If the land was developed instead of sitting practically empty, these sites would have a major impact on Cape Town’s housing and segregation crises.

The Department of Defence argues that it still needs the entirety of Youngsfield Military Base, Wingfield Military Base and the Ysterplaat Airforce Base for its own operations. This is a bold claim, as anyone who has ever driven past or visited these sites will tell you.

Much of the land on which these sites sit was granted to the military by the Graaff Trust around the First and Second World Wars during a period when almost no consideration was given to the housing needs of the majority. We now live in a democracy.

Quite simply, having four military bases sprawled across desperately needed public land in the centre of Cape Town in the midst of a major housing crisis makes no sense at all. If there was genuine commitment and urgency that matched the scale and intensity of our housing crisis, different government departments would come together and develop a solution that puts the land to better use.

Despite repeated attempts to find out more from the Department of Human Settlements about this land release, we have not seen any progress or received any updates.

This also comes off the back of an inexcusably slow process of policy reformulation. South Africa is meant to be undergoing a dramatic housing policy shift. However, there is little clarity about when it will come into effect, or indeed if the changes that have been announced over the last few years will still be implemented.

There is wide agreement among national, provincial and local governments that the National Housing Code and housing policy need to be amended, based on our current economic and social context. The amendments have been in the pipeline since 2016, but nothing has been shared for public comment.

So, when the national department raises the issue of land occupations to explain why delivery proceeds so slowly — it is truly an oxymoron. There has been no delivery on existing commitments, no action on land released, and yet punitive measures are meted out left right and centre.

This is unacceptable! Our housing system is failing, and thousands upon thousands of people have little choice but to occupy land if they want a home for themselves and their families. Nobody occupies a piece of land unless they have no other options, and until the government recognises this, we will continue to see the growth of informal housing completely outstrip that supplied by the formal market.

We need a new approach to housing delivery in South Africa that is imbued with the necessary urgency. If we don’t get such an approach, then we will continue down a destructive path from which it will be increasingly difficult to recover. DM


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  • andrew farrer says:

    CoCT and WC provincial Gov should just do what the people do and “occupy” that land. anc will never give the land as then WC will provide housing in a good area . . . = political win for DA, so, again/ as usual anc says fuck the poor!

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    Would would be the point of releasing these 668ha to the Western Cape government or the City? They would just put up houses and make themselves the heroes of the story. Far better to nurture the housing crisis for as long as possible and use it as a stick to beat the Province and the City.

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