Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, land and housing inequalities remain marked – and highly contested. With a current backlog of 2.6 million families waiting for some form of social housing – whether fully or partly state-financed – in the country’s urban centres, this is an issue that’s about more than national budget allocations. While the government takes its time to figure it out, poor and working-class housing activists, a majority of whom are black or brown women, are using direct action to bring about change.
Although housing inequality is a country-wide issue, Cape Town is where the legacy of spatial apartheid is most clearly visible. During the 1960s, under the apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act, the state forcefully removed over 100,000 people racialized under the categories of Black, Coloured and Indian from the city’s central neighbourhoods. In the infamous case of District Six, the government razed the entire neighbourhood, which housed 60,000 people, to the ground. They were displaced to the periphery of the city, to an area called the Cape Flats, which comprised newly constructed neighbourhoods of low-quality and overcrowded council flats and houses. These remain, to this day, severely underdeveloped and underserviced. The displacement still continues, now through the ‘market forces’ of gentrification.
Salt River and neighbouring Woodstock, two suburbs a stone’s throw from the central business district (CBD), have for decades been bustling communities, and were two of the three neighbourhoods in the inner city where people of colour could remain and purchase property during the apartheid era’s forced removals. Until a few years ago, housing here was affordable for poor and working-class residents of colour. Then the City of Cape Town offered tax incentives to property developers to build specifically in those areas, leading to spiralling property values, raised rents and skyrocketing rates – and finally a plague of evictions.
‘Evictions in areas like Woodstock and Salt River are clearly defined for us as current-day forced removals,’ notes Chrischene Julius, acting director of the District Six Museum, ‘echoing the tactics used by the apartheid State, although there is no overt “race policy” to justify the acts.’
Reclaiming the city
But not all those evicted have left. Some 700 people, members of the housing activist movement Reclaim the City (RTC), occupied an unused former public hospital in Woodstock in 2017 and transformed it into their home. They gave it a new name honouring an anti-apartheid civil-rights leader – Cissie Gool House.
Karen Hendricks, leader of the RTC Woodstock chapter and a resident of Cissie Gool House, says: ‘In Woodstock, families were often able to rent in the same home for many years, which allowed traditions to form between our generations. Our inheritance was our place in the community; this place is what we received from our parents and grandparents.’ Hendricks was evicted when her house was sold to a European developer and is now an Airbnb property.
RTC are demanding that the City builds affordable housing for poor and working-class people on this land that had stood empty and unused for 20 years – both here and in their two other current occupations of unused public buildings in prime locations. To counter the erasure of black and brown people, RTC occupations are renamed to highlight significant anti-apartheid activists.
The group has held some innovative protests in the past few years, including occupying the Rondebosch Golf Course, which takes up 46 hectares of land but has only been paying 1,000 rand ($69) a year in rent on a colonial-era lease signed in 1937. After many objections, the City finally implemented a 10,000-rand annual tariff for the golf course – monthly rent for a three-bedroom house in the same neighbourhood averages 15,000 rand. RTC also held a protest at the Old Biscuit Mill, one of the first upscale developments in Salt River and home to one of Cape Town’s most expensive restaurants as well as a weekend market selling luxury food and goods. The protest was to ensure that the upper-middle-class patrons knew that in the road next door nearly an entire street of people were fighting eviction.
Mandisa Shandu is the director of Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), which translates as Dare to Know, an activist organization and law centre working closely with RTC to fight the state’s discriminatory housing system in court. Her response to the City’s line that gentrification stems from market forces is: ‘When the City talks about the free market, it’s really a liberal way of talking about whiteness, privilege and access, and about protecting that. Almost every corner of Cape Town has a story of people being historically displaced.’
One of NU’s better-known actions was at Tafelberg, an unused piece of state-owned land in the upmarket, mostly white, seaside suburb of Sea Point, where an unbroken row of apartment blocks, Airbnbs and expensive restaurants lines the promenade on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. For two decades grassroots groups have been fighting for housing in Sea Point.
While the City was planning on selling the Tafelberg site to a private school, NU argued in court that this was a perfect location for affordable, low-cost housing. The City went to great lengths to fight back, claiming that the only land available to accommodate people was in areas on the periphery of the city, up to 30 kilometres from the CBD. Hendricks sees it differently, saying: ‘[What can be considered] decent affordable housing is in well-located areas, close to the CBD and economic and social opportunities.’
‘The City’s alternatives are distant, underserviced, isolated areas,’ says Shandu. ‘It is telling of how the City does or doesn’t see poor people.’
In August 2020, after much public scrutiny, NU won the case. The victory was huge for the thousands of working-class people of colour who work in Sea Point but live far away, and spend approximately half their income on long commutes. However, at the time of writing, the land remains unused.
Radical care collectives
Further south along the Atlantic coastline is another historically whites-only beachside suburb: Camps Bay. The area is notorious for its ‘Instagrammable’ opulence, with an abundance of houses rented short-term by affluent overseas visitors that stand vacant for much of the year.
In late 2020, the self-described ‘radical care collective’ We See You occupied one such property, a luxury six-bedroom ocean-facing villa. The group of seven queer, black or POC artist-activists gained access by booking it via Airbnb. They then stayed on past their paid three days and launched a public campaign bringing attention to several intersectional struggles, including a shortage of safe spaces for queer people during a national lockdown and the exclusionary cost of private rentals.
After being served with an eviction notice, We See You attended court to seek, as they put it, to ‘queer the law’. Generally empathetic, Judge MJ Dolamo issued a verdict that allowed them more time to leave than the property owners wanted but said law enforcers could forcibly remove them if they did not leave by the agreed date.
At the villa, on the penultimate day of their three-week action, one of the collective, Xena Scullard, said: ‘Being in a space like this really brings home the very deep levels and layers of exclusion and erasure – the fact that we can only come in to visit but not to stay.’
While the occupation received much solidarity, particularly from strong local networks of LGBTQI+ non-profit organizations, the local press and commentators across the political spectrum were divided on the group’s tactics. By daring to occupy in a privileged suburb, We See You unmasked transphobia, homophobia and the fragility of questioning private property rights.
We See You looked for inspiration to an active occupation in Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populated city. This venture is named Azibuye, which translates as ‘let them come back’. Five artist-activists took up occupancy of a privately owned yet abandoned multi-storey mansion in Linksfield Ridge in mid-2019; two of the group, Masello Motana and Evan Abrahamse, have persisted with the occupation to create a site for radical education projects.
Above the makeshift entrance is a sign announcing that Azibuye is an ‘exercise in self-determination’. Painted on a wall in blood red, under the title ‘LAWS OF DISPOSSESSION’, are the Regulations and Acts which inscribed the fascism of apartheid ideology into law.
The occupiers are cultivating the land with gardens that privilege indigenous plant life and are finding ways to live sustainably off the grid, with a rainwater collection system and solar panels.
To heal the wounds of the brutal inequality caused by apartheid’s spatial policies, activists in the housing movement have had to show bravery, imagination and resilience in the face of local and national government’s privileging of the middle and upper classes. Occupations, protests and litigation are critical in the struggle. But moving forward, Shandu emphasizes that equally vital, ‘in a context where it feels impossible to resist, is building a resistance of consciousness to shake the status quo’.
Ben Verghese is a writer, researcher and primary-school teacher based between Cape Town and London. Ilham Rawoot is a Cape Town-based writer and activist with Justiça Ambiental/Friends of the Earth Mozambique.