Reclaim the City

Protesters at Tafelberg.

The Tafelberg site in Sea Point, a rich suburb of Cape Town, has come to symbolize the vested interests that corrupt our state and maintain white property powers’ near-exclusive access to well-located land and housing in Cape Town. In December 2015, this prime piece of state-owned land was sold to a private buyer with no strings attached. Since launching in February 2016 the Reclaim the City movement has brought political, legal and researched objections to the sale. This campaign is a call for Tafelberg, and all suitable public land to be used to decolonize and desegregate the city, to redress the past and build the just and equitable society that our Constitution requires.

Census data shows that the race-based blueprint resultant from colonial and Apartheid segregationist spatial planning remains largely unchanged. A property boom in the Cape Town inner-city means that displacement continues to happen, albeit due to market forces, perpetuating our inherited Apartheid city design.  Inequality is so deeply etched into the geography of Cape Town ensuring the status quo remains intact. The city’s defining characteristic is one of “inverse densification”: a largely poor and working class black majority live on the urban periphery, in overcrowded settlements, far from jobs and with poor access to amenities and services.

On the other hand, well-located central areas, most of which were previously designated “whites only” areas, are characterized by low densities coupled with an acute shortage of affordable housing options, despite excellent access to amenities, services and employment opportunities.

It is against this backdrop that the sale of state-owned land, located in the heart of the city, to exclusive private interests must be challenged. Contestation around the Tafelberg site and sale is where these battle lines have been drawn. The Tafelberg Remedial School site is a property of 1.7 hectares, roughly the size of two soccer pitches, on Sea Point’s Main Road. It belongs to the Western Cape provincial government, which declared the site “surplus” to government’s service delivery objectives, in spite of a request from its own Department of Human Settlements that it be reserved for affordable housing. In late 2015, the province’s Department of Transport and Public Works, sold Tafelberg to a private buyer for R135 million.

The site was sold to help fund an unaffordable billion rand public-private partnership to build a new office block for provincial government. The then head of public works, who was instrumental in putting the site to the market, left his position and became a director of a property company which quickly snapped up a R90m building across the road from the Tafelberg site. Property moguls Lance Katz and Samuel Seeff demanded that the Sea Point Jewish community not engage on the issue of housing at Tafelberg claiming that it would be detrimental to “community interests.” Legislated bodies intended to exercise parliamentary oversight of property deals were in total disarray and have been reduced to “rubber stamping.” More fundamentally it revealed that the state’s archetypal approach to “urban regeneration” is deeply anti-transformative.

After a court order interdicted the sale of the site, an unprecedented public participation process brought the issue of spatial Apartheid to front and centre of civic politics through the campaign to #StopTheSale of Tafelberg. Finally, the fact that not a single subsidized housing unit has been built in the inner city and surrounds since the end of Apartheid 23 years ago is getting its due recognition.

2011 Census data shows a highly racially segregated Cape Town. Note the higher urban densities in Black and Coloured neighborhoods on the urban periphery. Source Adrian Firth.

A new public consensus is being built around the issue. Input from a wide range of stakeholders, from policy and development experts to working class residents under constant threat of eviction from central suburbs like Sea Point called for the site to be reserved for housing. In depth studies proved that social housing was feasible on the site. But instead of grabbing the opportunity to take a bold step to deal with segregation in Cape Town, the provincial government opted to continue with the sale citing a number of pseudo-technical arguments that have all been rebutted.

Since its launch in February 2015 the Reclaim the City campaign has directly confronted property power through the courts, in policy and on the streets. In response to Province’s decision to continue with the disposal the campaign has escalated to civil disobedience with supporters occupying two provincially owned sites which were vaguely “promised” for affordable housing in lieu of Tafelberg. As the battle for Tafelberg moves back to the courts, the campaign for this prime piece of land has already opened up the opportunity for a bold new urban politics in Cape Town’s center of power.

Julian Sendin

Julian Sendin is a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi in Cape Town, South Africa.

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