The struggle for affordable housing in Sea Point was served up as a case study at a conference for housing activists last week.
Housing activists from around the country gathered in Cape Town for what was dubbed an “Occupation School”.
It was hosted by Tshisimani, a centre for activist education, in association with the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and Ndifuna Ukwazi.
Site visits to areas such as Sea Point took place to highlight the challenges with property. Gavin Silber, co-ordinator of the programme, said the idea of the course was to use the city as a classroom and to see things first-hand.
“When we think about dispossession in South Africa we often think about it as a history textbook. What we thought was can we find a small piece of land in the city, one block, and use that as an illustration of how dispossession has manifested itself in different periods in history.
“The Tramway site is a fascinating site because the use of that area probably goes back thousands of years. There is evidence that the Khoi used the slopes of Sea Point as grazing grounds hundreds of years before the Dutch arrived.
Then in 1652 the Dutch arrived and that, according to Mr Silber, was the birth of private property in Cape Town. The city then decided to build a tram line in the late 1800s. In order to build the tram line, they needed workers at the end of the tramline to maintain it. “The very first residents of Sea Point were tramway workers. Under very tough conditions they laid the tracks under which Sea Point would be built. In the space of a few decades Sea Point became the suburb we know it is today, because of these workers.
“In the early 1900s the tram stopped. The workers remained on the tramway site until the Group Areas Act came into place. It was one of the first places where people were told to leave, 10 years before District Six. About 40 families were kicked off this land.
“In the 1990s it became a prime case of a failed restitution process. The land was lost to developers who are now making millions. You’ve got all these layers of dispossession.”
The Tramway site was one of the sites used as part of the Sea Point “people’s property tour” to look at how the area had changed over the years.
One of the activists who took part in the site visit was Edward Molopi , who works for the Socio- Economic Rights Institute (SERI) as a researcher and advocacy officer. He said the organisation works very closely with communities who are facing evictions in the inner city.
He said there were similar challenges facing residents in Johannesburg.
“It’s the challenge of rising property prices and increasingly the city centre being a space for the rich and affluent. It’s much more in Cape Town in the sense that a lot of it is out of the hands of the poor and working class.’”
However, Mr Molopi said it was becoming more difficult for working class residents in Johannesburg as well.
“There’s a lot of gentrification especially in places like Jeppestown and Braamfontein. All these areas are increasingly becoming inaccessible to poor people who don’t have millions of rands to spend on property.
“In Cape Town I almost see the trajectory that Johannesburg is headed into. We see evictions happening from time to time and that’s basically because they want to use those buildings for something else. What has happened here, a lot of people in Johannesburg have looked and wished that the same developments are happening. That ultimately leaves out working class people. It really just brings an awareness of how much more intense we need to be fighting for the rights of people. Gentrification, if it is done in a way where there is no intention to protect people who already reside in the area, when these developments come, they fall victim to it. The key message is that whatever developments come about, let us make sure that people who live in the area benefit and do not find themselves evicted because of those developments.”
Bevil Lucas, who is based in Woodstock and who is a housing activist at the Housing Assembly, said the diversity of discussion topics had given a sense of how big a challenge the housing question is. “It also shows what kind of politics is necessary to have an approach to deal with the housing backlog. I don’t think the local or even national government has an approach that is acceptable to even begin to address the housing problem.”
He said the conference had been good because there had been seminar discussions as well as practical site visits around the city to give a sense of what the history and challenges are.
“We did the history of Tramway and then today we visited the billion rand development on the site. I think that in the future it’s the kind of way you would want housing activists to get a feel of what the challenges are.
“Tramway’s history of the process of the removal of workers and the restitution and ultimately the sale of it, kind of expresses the challenges that exist. It also highlights the failing of government to assist communities in dealing soberly with the challenges around the restitution process.”
Mr Silber added that the reason they organised the conference was because the problem faced in Cape Town when it comes to housing and spatial segregation was more about power than policy.
“We know that there are policies that exist that can fix a lot of the problems we are facing but they aren’t being implemented. The question then becomes why and we would argue that there are powerful forces that don’t want the party to end and want the status quo to continue.
“In a place like Sea Point where some investors are making 20/ 30% returns on investment, there’s a very strong interest on them to put pressure on government to not regulate property. Not to put things like social housing at sites like Tafelberg. We believe these forces are not just in Cape Town but they are national and global. Property increasingly around the world is seen as a source of wealth creation rather than where people live. In order to tackle that problem we need to understand it.”
Mr Silber said the group had been discussing how cities are unequal, what factors create that inequality and what is the role of land in urban inequality. They also discussed the role of the state and what it can do to intervene. “All the organisations we have here are social movements and actively fighting struggles around the country to protect poor and working class tenants in cities. They are interested in understanding and addressing the systemic problems and that’s what we are doing here.”
He said that the leaders present at the conference could take what they had learnt this week back to their organisations and communities. “At the end of this we are developing a course guide and it is specifically intended for urban activists. We believe that the first step towards getting these problems addressed is through people power.
“What we’ve seen in Cape Town over the last year- and-a-half is a change in government approach to housing. I would say that is a direct result of people power, activism and people saying that the status quo can’t continue.”
Ntebaleng Morake, of the SJC, said the issue of housing was important to the SJC. Some of their members, who took part in Occupation School, had been involved in various occupations in Khayelitsha.
Last week, the Cape Town High Court ordered the City of Cape Town to negotiate with the land owners to buy a piece of vacant land in Khayelitsha, commonly known as Marikana.
The judgment was seen as a landmark decision to the reported 60 000 people occupying the land.
“The victory of Marikana was also very important. We know that because of structural inequality black people are still marginalised, landless, and homeless.”
She said it was good to connect with activists from all around the country who were facing the same challenges.
“It’s of the utmost importance to be a part of that. At the root of the struggles is the issue of dispossession, that isn’t addressed. What does it mean in 2017 to still displace people.”
She added that the judgment last week was very important to the SJC. “It symbolises a step towards service delivery towards the occupiers of Marikana. It means that we are a step closer towards bringing dignified services to black people. A step closer towards undoing some aspects of structural inequality and spatial apartheid that still exists.
“What matters right now is that no one is going to be forcefully removed. It means that people, in a small way, bridge the gap between someone that is wealthy and able to live in Sea Point and someone who is poor, black and dispossessed and lives in Marikana.”