- Interview by
- Sean Jacobs
Cissie Gool was a legendary political activist in Cape Town. She helped found the Non-European Unity Movement—a group of black (read also coloured) activists, who actively campaigned against the country’s racist government in the mid-20th century. Her father, Abdurahman, founded South Africa’s first national-level black political organization, the African People’s Organization. Mr. Gool also became Cape Town’s first black city councilor in 1904 when some classes of black people still had a vote. Cissie herself became a city counselor in 1938 until 1951. By then the government struck coloured representatives from elected office and stripped coloureds of the right to vote. She represented District Six, a cosmopolitan, mostly working-class coloured ghetto on the edge of the city center. She also lived there. After the white supremacist National Party gained power in 1948 it quickly made laws to prevent the “mixing” of the “races.” This included destroying communities and neighborhoods like District Six. Footnote: the “liberal” City of Cape Town stood by doing nothing. Cissie died in 1963.
By the beginning of the 1970s, District Six was reduced to rubble, its residents dumped in dormitory townships across the Cape Flats. Some were lucky to relocate to Woodstock, the next suburb over from District Six. Despite apartheid, Woodstock developed a reputation as a defiantly mixed neighborhood, not just racially but also because of the different economic classes of people living there. Most of its poor, black, and coloured residents were renters. It stayed like that until the advent of democracy in 1994. Fast forward to the present when Woodstock became the subject of gentrification. Food markets, new high-rises, and Airbnb apartments began to dot the suburb. It was not long before working-class residents of the area were being squeezed out by greedy landlords. The same began to happen in other neighborhoods with working-class black and coloured residents abutting downtown Cape Town, such as Bo-Kaap and parts of Sea Point.
The Cape Town City Council, controlled by the white-led Democratic Alliance (DA), openly sided with gentrifiers. The DA also did not have a policy for any affordable housing in areas close to or in the city center. This is when many of the coloured residents voted for it. The main opposition party in the city, the ANC, which governed nationally and held the mayoralty during the early 2000s, is riven by factionalism and hardly has time for residents’ struggles. Cape Town has a deep tradition of social movements and it was one of these, Reclaim the City (started by activists with backgrounds in the ANC and the post-apartheid AIDS movement), that began to organize these residents and introduced a new strategy: occupation. In 2018, Reclaim the City began a series of occupations of public facilities, including an abandoned state hospital in Woodstock. The new community called itself Cissie Gool House.
In the media, and for the middle classes occupation is mostly about breaking the law (and attendant anxieties about crime). But what happens inside a housing occupation? The filmmakers Dylan Valley and Annie Nisenson made No Place But Here, which first came out in 2023, and has been doing the festival rounds. In this interview, Dylan and Annie talk about housing struggles in South Africa and about why they decided to use VR or 360 media to immerse the viewer inside the occupation as well as challenge gentrification and the capitalist logic of home ownership.
What inspired you to make the film, “No Place But Here”?
I made a documentary called Azibuye, about an occupation in Johannesburg. I realized through making this film (which was kind of an experiment) that VR worked really well for taking people into unique spaces. I knew about the Cissie Gool House (CGH) occupation and was naturally drawn to it. I saw Annie’s film on CGH and knew it would be great to work together.
I moved to Cape Town to study documentary film at UCT. I wanted to learn and understand more about the spatial and economic legacy of apartheid and how people were resisting this legacy, and I was introduced to Cissie Gool House and the social movement, Reclaim the City. After some time of being involved in the occupation, I made a student film at Cissie Gool House.
Why did you choose to tell the story using VR? What is useful or unique about the approach? I’ve seen you mentioned before that this kind of technology has been used by the real estate industry to sell houses and that you wanted to invert this.
VR allows for immersion inside spaces. Since so much of the story of this occupation is about the building itself, it works to have the viewer inside the building. It also can give you the feeling of visiting someone instead of watching a film about them. When I was looking to buy a house in Cape Town (I am also part of the problem), I saw real estate companies using 360 technology to sell houses, specifically in Woodstock, where No Place But Here is set. It’s great to be able to use the same technologies to challenge gentrification and the capitalist logic of home ownership.
As Dylan mentioned, this idea of visiting the occupation really appealed to us. In Cape Town, many people have heard of the occupation, but they’ve never gone inside or attended any of the events there. VR felt like a vehicle to bring people inside and to have the opportunity to know the place and people and to understand the objectives better.
Access to this technology is not as widespread, whether in the developed world or even less so in Cape Town where the film is set, and even less among the subjects of your film. Has that changed?
It’s not very widespread but we are hoping to bring this kind of tech to the people. You can also watch 360 Video via YouTube on your phone. So the basic version of the technology is not as inaccessible as it may seem.
Dylan, I know you’ve been featured in a number of African VR showcase and development programs. Can you talk about efforts to fund and promote VR, extended reality, and immersive technology on and about the continent? Can you talk a bit about these different programs (and their effects). I am thinking of Imisi 3D, Africa No Filter and Meta, and Electric South, for example.
There is a small but growing community on the African continent of XR creators and organizations with some cross-collaborations happening. The fund that supported No Place But Here was initiated by Meta and Africa No Filter. Electric South (SA) and Imisi 3D (Nigeria) offered support. Six films or experiences from around the continent were selected. It was great to be a part of this dynamic cohort.
What has been the reception to the film?
So far so good. At the Lagos launch in Nigeria, I had some people relaying to me the mass evictions that have taken place in Lagos. The work resonated there in a way that I didn’t expect.
I had the same experience at the Rotterdam Film Festival. One of the audience members told me that she too had been evicted and that her community in south Rotterdam is experiencing gentrification similar to Woodstock. It’s something that is a global experience at this point. I thought that people would come and maybe find the film interesting and go, “Oh that’s happening in South Africa.” It was really affirming to hear that people were drawing connections to their own lived experiences even in the Global North, in a wealthy city, and that it moved them.
Dylan, this is the second film you’ve made about land and housing on the unhoused. The first was Azibuye, set in Johannesburg. What motivates this focus?
Land redistribution is such a key issue in post-apartheid South Africa. I always wanted to make a film that addressed land but didn’t have an entry point. When I visited Masello and Evan’s house [the main subjects of Azibuye] and chatted with them, I realized that occupations were a way that people have been addressing landlessness on a grassroots level for a long time. Using VR was a way to have people feel like they’re in the space and see how occupations like the one in Azibuye—the occupiers live in an abandoned mansion—are quite doable.
Before the film, were either of you aware of Cissie Gool’s own legacy as a disruptive political figure in the early part of the 20th century in very racist, backward Cape Town?
I only knew the name, but not much about Cissie at all.
It was through the occupation that I first learned about Cissie Gool.
What are the current status of housing, and housing struggles in South Africa, specifically in Cape Town?
I can’t speak with much expertise on the current status of housing struggles in Cape Town, as the majority of my work has been more focused on the housing occupation in Woodstock. Organizations like Ndifuna Ukwazi, Reclaim the City, and the Tshisimani Center for Activist Education, and University of Cape Town researchers like Suraya Scheba have a much broader and detailed understanding of what’s taking place across the city.
What I can maybe share from my learning from organizations and people above is that continued displacement and lack of housing in South Africa is due to a combination of factors, including the state’s failure to build affordable housing in well-located areas, a largely unrestrained and exclusionary property market, and an overwhelming housing need. All of this seems to be reinforcing the racial segregation and economic stratification built by apartheid policies. Social movement Reclaim the City is resisting as much the brutal market-led evictions, as they are calling for the state to expand access to affordable housing in well-located areas.
What are the differences in housing struggles in Cape Town and Johannesburg? I am asking as you made films in both cities, Dylan.
I think overall the struggle is the same as communities are facing gentrification and housing market speculation under the same neoliberal framework. I think in Cape Town it’s even more fraught due to the spatial violence of the Group Areas Act and how it successfully moved black people out of the city and far from resources. Due to the typography of Cape Town, where the wealthiest live on and around the mountain and close to the sea, there is a ring-fencing of these areas for the wealthy. Because Joburg is a somewhat decentralized city, people are still able to live closer to economic opportunities / jobs with less.
One of the things that is striking, and we get glimpses of this in the film, is the sense of “non-racialism” that seems to be operating among Cissie Gool’s black inhabitants; by this I mean between and among the coloureds and Xhosa-speaking residents (a solidarity or communalism that is rare in particularly Cape Town), but also between these residents and those immigrants and refugees from the rest of Africa. There are also white working-class residents. Can you talk about this?
I know the activists and residents of Cissie Gool House could share much more detail about how this came to be, and the kind of work they’ve done to create community, solidarity and democratic working-class politics. I will say that the residents of CGH and the broader RTC movement, supported by Ndifuna Ukwazi, have structures, a constitution, and supportive practices that support this. Everyone living in CGH depends on everyone else living there. Since occupying the building, residents have had to rely on each other to make the building fit for living and to defend the occupation. There is this emphasis on collective, not just individual survival.
I wanted to ask about the Cissie Gool community’s relationship to Woodstock’s other residents; I am thinking of how different groups relate to the occupation. So, I am curious about the different reactions of these groups: (1) other working-class residents of the area who are pressed by unscrupulous landlords and by gentrification; (2) the new classes of homeowners (both black and white) who often resent the occupiers; and (3) the city, governed by the DA, a party that exploits the racial fissures in the city and governs for real estate and, viewed from the outside, mostly for white middle and upper classes.
We actually tried to find neighbors who were critical of the occupation to interview for the film. We approached the Woodstock Ratepayers Association and even shop owners. People either supported the occupation or were ambivalent. I think those against it know that it would be an unpopular position to take and would be overtly anti-poor. No one with a conscience wants to look like a gentrifier. Woodstock is a mixed-income neighborhood and I feel people would know that that’s a bad look. If you don’t want poor people in your neighborhood, don’t move to Woodstock.
Finally, Cissie Gool House’s residents have plans for the building. Can you talk about this?
Since 2019, residents of Cissie Gool House, together with the support of NGOs, experts, and scholars have been gathering to co-design and re-imagine their occupation. Actually, it’s my understanding that the co-design process started in collaboration with the City of Cape Town until the City abandoned the process without ever providing reasons or clarity for why. Regardless, the residents continue this imaginative work, despite the City’s ongoing efforts to evict them. The City says they’re intent on turning the site into social housing; however, they have provided no assurances to the residents whether they will be included or evicted en masse. The challenges facing the residents are severe, including a devastating fire in early 2022 and repeated police raids. Nonetheless, the residents continue to maintain the building and the occupation. This is a community of working-class families, many with deep roots in Woodstock, where children are born and raised, people fall in love and people pass away. This is more than a plan for a building, this is a future.