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Prime Cape land battle lines drawn

Members of Reclaim the City and residents of the Cissie Gool House demonstrated outside the Cape High Court last year. The City of Cape Town was applying for a court-ordered survey of families living in Cissie Gool House. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).

Members of Reclaim the City and residents of the Cissie Gool House demonstrated outside the Cape High Court last year. The City of Cape Town was applying for a court-ordered survey of families living in Cissie Gool House. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).

Published Jan 9, 2022

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Members of Reclaim the City and residents of the Cissie Gool House demonstrated outside the Cape High Court last year. The City of Cape Town was applying for a court-ordered survey of families living in Cissie Gool House. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).

The battle lines have been are drawn. Civic, conservation and land activists fighting for access and use of well-located, prime land to redress spatial injustice are not backing down.

The Western Cape High Court has seen several cases challenging the custodians of public land, including the City, as well as provincial and national governments, over access to land for affordable housing.

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In a landmark case,  the Observatory Civic Association and the indigenous Khoi organisation, have taken the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT) to court, seeking an interdict to stop them from steaming ahead with construction on the River Club site.

The global tech giant, Amazon, is the main anchor in the development and the activists have called on the company to end its "colonial indifference".

A protest against the Amazon/River Club development, was held in November, ahead of the court case now scheduled for January 19 to January 21. Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

The case is now set to be heard this month, from January 19 to January 21.

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The case is just one of many that have challenged decisions by authorities on the use of well-located land to redress what is known as spatial apartheid.

Last year, the Western Cape High Court set aside the sale of the site and expressed concern that the provincial government had "adopted a reactionary response” when it was challenged about the absence of “a planned long-term programme" that would begin to address the effects of spatial injustice in central Cape Town and the absence of affordable housing.

The authorities appealed against some aspects of the judgment and have yet to make a decision on the future of the 1.7 hectare site, located close to job opportunities, public transport routes and social amenities.

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Thousands of poor and working class people struggle in the city for access to decent land and housing. And despite promises by authorities,in 2019, Cape Town’s official housing backlog stood at 365 000 households.

The city itself recognises that the demand far outstrips the scale of supply and it will take 70 years to respond to the current backlog.

Ndifuna Ukwazi, an activist, and a law centre that seeks to advance urban land justice in Cape Town, said in their report, City Leases, that land which should be prioritised for redistribution was instead used in an "inefficient, exclusive and unsustainable" manner.

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"Most of the remaining, well-located public land owned by the City, province and national government in Cape Town, continues to be captured by a wealthy minority. It lies empty or is just underused given its potential.

“Collusion, budget cuts and a lack of imagination often sees our best land disposed of to the private sector," the report charged, adding that even where there was political will, the financial instruments to develop mixed-income public housing were not well developed.

"Capacity in the City is limited or non-existent and planned projects take many years to move from feasibility to bricks on the ground", said the report.

In September 2017, former mayor Patricia de Lille launched a social housing development in the Central Business District (CBD), Woodstock and Salt River.

Eleven sites identified, were either vacant or derelict. The sites included a vacant plot opposite the Woodstock Hospital, a parking lot in Newmarket Street near the Good Hope Centre, the Food Lovers site in Roeland Street and a vacant plot in Pickwick Street in Salt River.

At the time, the City said the sites would yield at least 2 000 social housing units in several mixed income developments.

However, 28 years since the end of apartheid, neither the province nor the City has completed a single affordable or social housing development project in central Cape Town.

Attempts to regenerate the Woodstock-Salt River area have led to evictions of long-time residents, high rentals and protests by residents being driven out of the area.

One such resident is housing and social activist, Bevil Lucas, who calls Cissie Gool House in Woodstock his home. Along with hundreds of others he moved into the old Woodstock Hospital building five years ago and renamed it after the anti-apartheid and civil rights leader.

"We are still living in the house. We don't know what will happen this year. But we've come a long way in making our voices heard," Lucas said.

The occupation at Cissie Gool House and Ahmed Kathrada (formerly Green Point Hospital) began as a protest over the sale of the Tafelberg site by those who couldn’t afford high rentals.

The City is starting 2022 with a big challenge, one that newly-elected mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis used as a big ticket in his election campaign.

"We expect the new leaders to honour the commitments made turing the election campaign. They promised improved delivery of social services – and housing is integral to those.

“They are public representatives and are entrusted to respond to the needs of communities," said Lucas.

More than 300 families live in the Cissie Gool building. They have clean and transformed the building that had fallen into disrepair.

A lecturer in environmental and geographical sciences at the University of Cape Town, Dr Suraya Scheba, said: "Work is funded through a maintenance fee and draws on internal skills. These have been accompanied by collective practices, including communal gardening and a kitchen, and internal organisational structures that are key sites for democratic experimentation.

“However, these efforts could be strengthened if state agencies actively worked to imagine and realise a healthy and thriving community through collaborative engagement. ”

Scheba described the country’s colonial and apartheid history as "violent racialised" dispossession, resulting in segregated and unequal urban space.

"Because of the centrality of land and housing to the colonial and apartheid projects, the post ’94 period has been defined by a focus on the construction and delivery of state-subsidised housing to low-income households.

"However, despite the redistributive efforts, the consequence has largely been the continuation of apartheid geographies, because the state-subsidised housing programme has mostly utilised cheap vacant land on the urban edges, distant from livelihood opportunities," said Scheba.

The consequence was that poor, largely black, communities continued to live on the peripheries of the city.

Scheba said the housing programme had not managed to integrate housing into a more complex ecosystem of networked infrastructure, mobility flows, and social infrastructure.

Alongside state-subsidised housing efforts, housing through the private sector remained increasingly unaffordable.

"The treatment of land as an asset and role of the market in determining access, is contributing to an increasingly exclusionary city. The cumulative impact of these factors is that a large percentage of households cannot access the formal housing market.

“Hence, people engage in make-shift practices to maintain a foothold in the city, including land and building occupations," noted Scheba.

The City's new leaders promised to "start building the future", a Cape Town that would "roll back poverty", and "overcome the long shadows of the past".

Hill-Lewis and Mayco Member for Human Settlements, Malusi Booi have their work cut out for them to deliver on the "vision".

The City and Booi, spent most of the last term fighting land occupations in court.

Scheba's advice to them: Instead of labelling occupation practices as criminal, they should be understood as a consequence of a systemic challenge, one that was global in scale and defined by a housing unaffordability crisis and "displacement of people in the name of housing speculation".

Lucas, and the thousands of residents who had been on the housing waiting list for over three decades, are still waiting for authorities to leverage public land to build an "intergrated" city.

"They must engage us. We can give input on what can be achieved," he said.

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