Rising property prices in Cape Town continue to see families in Salt River and Woodstock evicted from rented homes and apartments. Refusing to leave their communities, residents are occupying vacant land to resist gentrification. Even though local government is slowly making provision for low-income housing closer to the city, the sharp rise in property prices in the City of Cape Town means that the legacy of apartheid spatial planning is alive and well, and the land debate must include access to affordable housing in urban areas.
This article is part of an ongoing special feature focusing on land, The Promised Land. Read more here, here and here.
On a grey morning in Cape Town, Nooraan Dreyer, 44, sits outside her wendy house, sipping a cup of sweet, milky tea. Her granddaughter, Amaan Achmat, 5, sits on her lap as a passing train screeches into the nearby train station. The informal settlement where she lives with her husband and their youngest son is named “Under the Bridge” for obvious reasons — it is quite literally under a bridge in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Salt River, 4km from the city centre. Under the Bridge has been occupied by hundreds of families over the past 20 years and more than 100 people live on the large plot in makeshift structures.
“I’m not ungrateful, but I miss living in a house,” Nooraan says.
There is no water, no sanitation and no electricity. The land belongs to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), and they do not supply municipal services. Many have found it a relatively safe bet because they’re not harassed by the local municipality or the anti-land invasion unit. It’s a bittersweet deal: No one bothers them but no one bothers with them.
Dreyer makes it home as much as she can. Photos of her family adorn the kitchen cabinet. Solar panels on the roof provide some light at night and enough energy to charge her cellphone. A large chained up honey-coloured dog outside her door warns of unwanted visitors.
Before moving to Under the Bridge, they lived just a few metres away. She can still see the brick and mortar apartment block she once called home from the informal settlement, the place they had lived for 11 years. They had a good relationship with the previous owner; they paid their rent on time and he would pop in for tea.
But when the property was sold to the current owner, it became clear very quickly that he wanted them out and the Dreyer family found themselves in an impossible position. They did not earn enough money to buy a house, and the soaring property prices in the area meant that they could not afford to rent anywhere else in Salt River either.
“We knew we were going to be evicted. When push came to shove my husband said look, this is the only alternative, we’ll have to get a wendy house and we’ll have to move,” she says.
Dreyer paid R6,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment for almost a decade in Salt River. In the past three years the price of a rental that size has doubled and many landlords request as much as two months’ rent upfront as a security deposit.
Dreyer is unemployed and her husband works as a painter. “We are families living from hand to mouth,” she says. They simply did not have the R20,000 required to find alternative accommodation and in desperation, she and her husband saw land occupation as the only option.
Evictions in the inner city of Cape Town and the surrounding suburbs including Bo-Kaap, Woodstock and Salt River make headlines on a regular basis. These suburbs have become synonymous with the term, gentrification.
Jared Rossouw of Ndifuna Ukwazi, a housing rights law clinic, says that adequate data does not exist on the number of families displaced by gentrification: the rental tribunal does not collect that kind of information, nor does the municipality or the courts. But Emile Engel, former researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi, says that evictions are all too common in the Woodstock and Salt River area due to proximity to the city centre and skyrocketing property prices, which see working-class residents being pushed out of the city.
“It has been very profitable for property developers to buy up houses and re-develop big plots of land. So families are faced with a situation where, all of a sudden, they get a notice where they need to vacate,” says Engel.
Because tenants are not always aware of their rights, organisations such as Ndifuna Ukwazi help with eviction cases. Engel describes a “routine situation” where tenants are told that their lease has been terminated and they need to move out, otherwise they will be evicted. Then come the threats and/or the financial offers.
“Somebody might come and say ‘We will give you financial compensation of R10,000 if you vacate by the end of next month. If you don’t leave, the bulldozers are going to come’ and for people that don’t understand their rights in terms of their protection against illegal eviction, you can imagine that that is a very scary situation to be in,” says Engel.
He believes the City should be more proactive in protecting vulnerable residents and that the City of Cape Town is “shirking its responsibility” by refusing to intervene when illegal evictions take place.
This week Daily Maverick visited the apartment block where the Dreyers and several other tenants were evicted from, just around the corner from the Old Biscuit Mill and the Salt River Circle.
Over the past 20 months the building has been painted and renovated. Back in 2016 the new owner of the property promised that the Dreyers would have first option once renovations were complete. The Dreyers are unable to afford any rental increase and according to a GroundUp article, the new owner plans to turn the building into office space.
The area also falls into the city’s Urban Development Zone which, according to the South African Revenue Services website, was introduced “to address the issue of urban decay within inner cities” and is aimed at accelerating development by offering private and commercial developers tax savings for new businesses and development in the area. The unintended consequence, however, is rising property prices.
“[This] is exactly the kind of thing that happened in the Group Areas Act. Aesthetically, it looks the same. We need rent controls, policies and legislation that will protect the working class and poor families,” says Engel.
“Through private developers buying up property and the state not intervening, you have exactly the same pattern of poor and working-class people, black and coloured people still, being moved to the outskirts.”
One foot in the grave
You cannot talk about gentrification in Cape Town without talking about Blikkiesdorp. Situated 40km out of the city, Blikkiesdorp is a temporary relocation area built by the City of Cape Town in 2007 to house the homeless, or those who faced eviction and had nowhere else to turn.
It is supposed to be an emergency, temporary housing area but some people have lived there for almost a decade. As many as 2,000 families live in Blikkiesdorp and access to job opportunities are scarce. The journey to and from the city can take as long as two hours during peak hours and the cost of public transport can create a serious dent in a family’s income.
According to the interactive site, Wazimap, which uses data collected from the South African 2011 population census, the average household income in the area is a meagre R14,600 per annum (that’s R1,200 per month) with a staggering rate of almost 70% unemployment.
“People will consider any other alternative than consenting to go to Blikkiesdorp because the experience there is like almost having one foot in the grave. You are sent out there to die. Many people have lost friends and relatives who moved out there,” says Bevil Lucas, a member of the housing NGO and lobby group Reclaim the City.
Dreyer is well aware of the dangers of moving to an area like Blikkiesdorp, one of the reasons she stood her ground and stayed in Salt River.
“I’m not willing to take my children nor my grandchildren into areas like Blikkiesdorp,” she says.
“Every day in the newspaper you will hear it’s gunshots, it’s this, it’s that,” says Dreyer.
“I’m not willing to make my son a corpse.”
Police Minister Bheki Cele and Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole released the crime statistics for the 2017/2018 period last week and the Western Cape bagged top spot for gang-related murders in the country. The national murder rate has increased by almost 7% (although Africa Check reported that these figures may be higher) and the Delft police station, which serves Blikkiesdorp, had the fifth-highest murder rate in the country and the third highest in the province.
“There is serious gang violence, drug abuse and all kinds of social problems in Blikkiesdorp,” says Engel.
“It’s an area that people are unfamiliar with, especially if they’ve grown up their whole lives in Woodstock and Salt River to now be told you have to move that far away. It is a very traumatic and shocking thing to have to deal with”.
Councillor Brett Herron, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Transport and Urban Development agrees that “where people live matters” and that the location of affordable housing will determine access to job opportunities, education, health care, public transport and ultimately dignity.
Responding to questions posed by Daily Maverick about when affordable housing units will be made available in the inner city, Herron says the City will provide more information “closer to the time”.
“I want to reiterate that everything that we are doing is geared towards reversing the legacy of apartheid spatial planning and the transformation of Cape Town’s spatial form, to promoting transit-oriented development and to providing affordable housing on well-located land close to public transport and job opportunities,” Herron says.
The City has committed to turning 13 sites within 5km of the inner city into social housing which will provide affordable rental units developed by private developers and social housing partners. One of the sites is Salt River Market, which flanks the plot Dreyer occupies. But bureaucratic wheels turn slowly, and Herron admits that the design of the proposed sites are at “early concept stage”.
Laura Wenz, a lecturer in the African Centre for Cities department at University of Cape Town, describes gentrification as a new urban colonialism which continues the spatial violence of the apartheid era.
“Social engineering of the apartheid era has been replaced by capital interests, by private buyers, private owners, international investments and real estate investments into the area,” she says.
Wenz says there is data showing that there has been no affordable housing build in the inner city of Cape Town since 1994, and this is “hugely problematic” in a country where the Constitution allows for housing and decent living conditions.
“You cannot get integrated communities if you put your poor and working-class residents on the outskirts of the city. Affordable housing has not been created. It’s been all sort of invested into higher-end housing and the higher-end property market, especially in the inner city,” says Wentz.
She describes gentrification as a “global phenomenon” affecting people all around the world, but it is not an organic process. “[Gentrification] has been portrayed as inevitable but it’s actually not. There is this coupling of, ‘oh, capitalist processes are organic and are inevitable’, but no… They can be changed and they can be shaped. So there are different trajectories that the capitalist system can take, right? It is not inevitable,” she says.
A recent article by GroundUp also interrogates whether developing social housing in Woodstock and Salt River could really address the legacy of spatial apartheid, seeing as these are already largely integrated communities and it’s the “whites only”, luxury real estate hotspots such as Sea Point, Camps Bay and Bantry Bay where social housing should be on the cards.
According to the Knight Frank 2018 Wealth Report luxury real estate in Cape Town grew by almost 20% between 2016 and 2017, making it the second-fastest growing luxury residential market globally. The report refers to high demand and low supply of goldmine coastal land in a country which was rated as one of the most unequal countries in the world according to a study by the World Bank.
Poverty rates increased between 2011 and 2015, inequality is “stubbornly high” and “richer households are almost 10 times wealthier than poor households” with the wealthiest households holding more than 70 percent of the wealth and the poorest households holding just 7 percent, says the report.
“I have a roof over my head, I have bread and something to eat every day. I always say I’m not ungrateful for where I’m living, but it still [affects] me,” says Dreyer, biting her lip as her eyes well up.
“All I ask for is maybe help with sanitation, electricity and the cleaning up, that’s all we ask for. We don’t have running taps here, we don’t even have electricity here. We don’t have sanitation here. Why can’t [government] take us into consideration? We are human beings living here. Not animals,” says Dreyer.
The City may not offer water and sanitation or electricity services on land which does not belong to it, without the permission of the landowner, Prasa, says Councillor Xanthea Limberg, the City’s mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, and energy.
But Nana Zenani, spokesperson for Prasa, says that providing basic services such as water and electricity is a “city issue” and that housing is the social responsibility of the state, not the parastatal. This means it is unlikely that the residents occupying land at Under the Bridge will be forcibly removed, but it also means that basic services will not come soon.
Dreyer sells packets of biscuits and instant coffee from her kitchen and the strong sense of community has made her life somewhat easier. She stores meat in a neighbour’s deep freeze and uses a friend’s address down the road for official documents, including her youngest son’s high school application.
But her family life has taken a knock. She only cooks the necessary meals for her immediate family and no longer invites friends over for tea or special occasions.
She often repeats “I’m not ungrateful” and praises her husband for trying his best to make their lives comfortable, but admits that the past few months have been hell and that the move has scarred her and her son emotionally.
When they registered him for high school he begged his mother to use someone else’s address:
“He told me, mommy don’t tell them where we live. So I had to ask my friend here across the road if I could use her address.”
“If we were people who were living the wrong life, by hurting people, doing wrong to people, you would understand this is why we ended up here. But we are not those kind of people,” says Dreyer.
“But as they say, life goes on, and you need to try to make the best of a situation especially when there are children involved. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy,” says Dreyer. DM
At the time of publication, the owner of Nooraan Dreyer’s former rental could not be contacted for right of reply despite repeated attempts.
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