Cape Town - From a rock outside Russell Agulhas’s two-roomed shack, we have a perfect view of how the haves and the have-nots live in what some well-off residents jokingly refer to as the “Republic of Hout Bay”.

It has been said time without end that Hout Bay is a microcosm of South Africa. It’s difficult to refute this contention. There are not many places where mainly white opulence and mainly black poverty are separated only by a strip of mountain.

For anyone wanting to see the Gini-coefficient – the gap between rich and poor (which is the widest in South Africa) – explained in a photograph, this is the place to see it. Our vantage point on the slopes of the Hangberg is in the middle of a sprawl of wood and zinc informal dwellings, separated only by narrow, rocky pathways.

The smell of shit from outside portable toilets wafts through the air. A dog chained to a stake in the ground barks furiously at us. A homeowner is involved in a furious altercation with another man whom he accuses of having stolen building material from outside his front door.

“Moer hom,” says Agulhas, before turning to me to explain: “The ‘tikkoppe’ are a big problem here,” he says. “They steal anything they can sell.”

Below the mountain, the formal housing area, also known as Hangberg, is typical of coloured townships in the Western Cape – rows of drab flats, the ubiquitous mobile shops painted in an assortment of garish colours, overcrowding, and a high rate of unemployment. But to the left of us, across the valley, are the mountainside homes of predominantly white Hout Bay. And what a difference….

Here, opulence is separated from poverty by just a kilometre or two. Many of the informal houses of Hangberg are up to 30 years old. Agulhas, who is a Rastafarian, and who goes under the name of Usher, says: “I built my shack here 20 years, and in that time, I’ve seen the housing shortage becoming worse.”

Usher arrived in Hout Bay in the early 1970s to live with his grandparents, after his mother and father had separated. His first home, he says, was in the valley.

In those days there was very little housing development. Hout Bay was essentially a fishing village. But when white people started moving in in greater numbers, the apartheid government began uprooting coloured and African people from their homes. “Our house was on a plot on which a garage was planned,” Usher says. “Our white neighbours signed a petition, asking for us to be allowed to stay. They said Hout Bay didn’t need another garage because there were already two in the community.”

“But the authorities refused to listen.”

“They wanted to move us to Grassy Park or Retreat. But my mother said: ‘No! We are from Hout Bay. So they moved us out of the houses and put us in these flats in Hangberg. Many coloured people lived in Hout Bay. By moving us from our homes, they took our pride away.”

Fifty-five-year-old Usher did not go to school – and for almost all his life he has been illiterate. But the housing battles in Hout Bay and, he says, his Rastafarian beliefs, have convinced him about the importance of education. “I’ve gone back to school. I want to be able to read and write,” he says.

Usher says his Rastafarian beliefs have persuaded him to “stand up for my people”. “There are about 100 Rastas in Hout Bay,” he says. “Even those who don’t wear dreads, carry us in their hearts.”

Hangberg has a serious drug problem, with many teenagers and older youth hooked on tik. But there is also a strong sense of unity among residents – and the glue that ties them together is the desire to own a house. Usher refers to the violent clashes between residents, on the one side, and police and Metro police, on the other, in 2010 as “the war”.

He points to a ditch, which he refers to as a “sloot”, running across the mountain. “They said: ‘This is supposed to be the boundary for the shacks. You can’t build on the other side of this sloot. But there was no space left. Where did they expect the people to live? They wanted those without houses to move to Blikkiesdorp.

“Our people ignored them and built beyond the sloot. Helen Zille sent in the Metro police to break down our houses. The authorities said the houses were fire hazards. We fought them. They shot at us with rubber bullets. Some of our people lost eyes.” 

It was cruel. They broke down houses and left the material there on the mountainside. When calm was restored, various parts of Hangberg chose residents to represent them on a Peace and Mediation Forum (PMF).

In 2011, the City and the PMF signed a peace accord, in terms of which residents would not build or rebuild above the “sloot”. In return, the City agreed to provide housing for those who were already living there at the time of the 2010 protests. Since then, the relationship between residents and the PMF has soured, with residents accusing the PMF of being lackeys of the City.

Very little housing development has taken place since the signing of the accord. Those with informal housing in Hangberg are living very much as they had lived before. In fact, a number of people have built dwellings above the sloot, in defiance of the agreement.

Usher says: “They promised us title deeds to our houses here on the mountain. But it’s seven years later and nothing has happened.”

“Without title deeds, we have no security. We can’t improve our dwellings.”

Interestingly, across the valley, houses for predominantly white residents have been built much higher up the mountain – and the obvious question is: why are the firebreaks on the “white” side of Hout Bay much higher than they are on the “coloured” side?

Equally intriguing is why, generally, 24 years into South African democracy, apartheid spatial planning is still practised in Hout Bay? 

More than 7 000 mainly coloured people are crammed into Hangberg; across the valley, the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement has more than 20 000 African residents. The prime residential areas in the town is home to mainly white residents. Touching on this, Usher points out that during “the war”, Metro police confronted his neighbour, a Kenyan, and asked him why he was living there.

“You should be in Imizamo Yethu,” his neighbour was told.

* Dougie Oakes is the Opinion Editor for Independent Media.

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