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With a settlement named ‘Pandemic,’ housing activists in Cape Town are tackling inequality

In South Africa, housing is a right — so occupiers are claiming it on golf courses and government lands.

By Ryan Lenora Brown and Vincent Lali

Nonzwakazi Nkunzi built her house when no one was watching.

She did it one night in August 2020, five months into South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown and the dead of Southern Hemisphere winter. She and her family had heard about a group of people who were planning to occupy a vacant lot wedged between the local magistrate’s court, a police station, and a mall in Khayelitsha, the township where they lived.  By that time, it had been months since she, her husband, and their four children had seen a paycheck. They were desperately behind on rent, and despite a legal prohibition on evictions during lockdown, their landlords were threatening to kick them out.  

So one evening, they waited until the security guards watching over the field knocked off for the night, and then quickly erected sheet-metal shacks in the open space. When security arrived in the morning and demolished them, they tried again. And again, until the settlement stuck.

Cape Town has long been a city of aching extremes. Beachfront holiday homes and stately art deco apartment blocks flank the city’s white sand beaches and craggy mountains. Upscale hotels advertise themselves with adjectives like “colonial” and “European,” promising an experience that is African, but not too African. But the glossy Lonely Planet version of Cape Town masks another where, a generation after the end of apartheid, one-third of people live below the South African poverty line of $50 a month. Meanwhile, one in five Capetonians live in what the city euphemistically calls “informal dwellings” —  tin shacks, more bluntly. Most lack running water or electricity. Nearly all are huddled on the city’s windswept peripheries, far from the good hospitals, schools, and work opportunities that sit within driving range of nearly all its golf courses. The vast majority of the poor are people of color.

“To anybody who’s been to Cape Town, its inequality is visible every day,” says Mandisa Shandu, executive director of Ndifuna Ukwazi, a housing rights organization. “We are fighting to imagine a different city.”

“In South Africa, where housing is recognized as a fundamental right, it gives people and communities a dignity in their fight.”

Liza Weinstein, chair of the department of sociology at Northeastern University

Moving into vacant land is one way of doing that. South Africans view a place to live as a fundamental human right; “affordable housing for all” is explicitly promised in the country’s post-apartheid constitution.  Across the city, occupying empty parcels of land has long been a way to demand that the government make good on that promise — a movement that has accelerated as tens of thousands have lost their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some such occupations have institutional backing. Ndifuna Ukwazi, for instance, works closely with another organization called Reclaim the City, whose members have moved into government buildings left empty during the pandemic as part of their broader mission to make subsidized rental housing available in central Cape Town. For many others, like Nkunzi and her family, land occupations are less ideological. Their goal is immediate and tangible — to find a place to live.

A generation after the end of apartheid, such occupations are helping South Africans reimagine cities that were built to divide. But they are also part of a global movement that sees affordable housing as a collective crisis — not an individual one.

“People in the U.S. often have a sense of shame or personal failing when they can’t afford housing and get evicted,” says Liza Weinstein, chair of the department of sociology at Northeastern University and an expert on global anti-eviction activism. “In South Africa, where housing is recognized as a fundamental right, it gives people and communities a dignity in their fight. It gives them a different set of possibilities in how they fight.”  

Still, that effort is in many ways audacious, because it cuts against 300 years of segregationist city planning here.  Like many other South African social movements, the occupations grew out of a chasm between expectation and reality after the end of apartheid, the brutal system of segregation and white rule that was the law of the land until the mid-1990s.

Occupations aren’t the only way activists are fighting for affordable housing. In recent years Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City have brought a series of legal challenges to push the city to make subsidized rental housing available in central Cape Town, where poor people have long been kept out of sight. In August of last year, activists successfully petitioned a court to stop the city from selling a large piece of land it owned in the upscale neighborhood of Sea Point.

The city, the organizations argued, had a legal and moral obligation to use that land for subsidized housing. And the court agreed.

“Apartheid…has created a city which was highly fragmented along racial lines,” the judges wrote in their decision.  And today, they continued, “the footprint of apartheid still prevails.”

Today, 60 percent of Capetonians still live in townships — crowded, poorly serviced bedroom communities on the urban periphery where Black residents were forced to live during the apartheid era. Though the policy ended two decades ago, its effects persist: Many of Cape Town’s poorest residents spend a quarter of their income or more on transportation, and only 4.6 percent of households can afford the average two-bedroom apartment in the city.

For Nkunzi, an apartment like that has never been an option. Before the pandemic, her husband’s income as a cleaner was 3,500 rand ($234) per month, just enough for the couple and their four children to afford food, school fees, and the R500 ($33) it cost to rent a one-room shack behind a house in Khayelitsha. In 2005, Nkunzi added herself to a waiting list for a free, government-provided house. By that time, the South African government had built nearly 2 million houses to give away to its poorest residents across the country, part of a larger effort to redress the economic wrongs of apartheid. But the backlog for such houses stretched across decades. And when South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown began in March 2020, Nkunzi was still waiting.

Soon, her husband lost his job, and the family fell behind on rent — first one month, then two, then five.

That’s when they decided to join the movement to occupy Level Two, so-named because it was created during the Level Two COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa.  Today, the settlement is thrumming. Leaders have collected money and bought pipes to illegally connect the settlement to nearby municipal water pipes and electrical poles. They have marked out the distance between shacks to prevent fires from spreading, and “so that firefighters and paramedics easily reach shacks when they burn or when one of us is sick,” according to community leader Mabhelandile Twani. He estimates that about 9,000 people live in the settlement.

Occupations like Level Two spiked during the pandemic, says Adi Kumar, executive director of Development Action Group, an organization in Cape Town that works on affordable housing issues. According to the city, at least 260 such settlements were formed between April and July of 2020, with names like COVID Village and Pandemic.  

Land occupations, though, have always coexisted uneasily with more formal pushes for affordable housing reform. Shandu, of Ndifuna Ukwazi, calls them an “activism of last resort” because they often don’t have any goals beyond the immediate — to occupy a piece of land and demand the right to stay there. And in the long term, many argue, they can actually make government’s task of providing affordable housing more difficult by forcing it to constantly provide emergency infrastructure to newly created neighborhoods rather than put resources into building longer-term housing.

Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City have instead focused on targeted occupations of government buildings — like an abandoned hospital — in central Cape Town, as well as symbolic takeovers of pieces of land they say represent the absurdity of apartheid city planning, like golf courses.

And there are few more potent examples of how this city was built to divide than golf courses. Their manicured fairways stretch across prime land in upscale neighborhoods. Owned by the city, they’re leased to private clubs for around $50 a month, a rent justified by their “community value” —  though they are accessible only to their wealthy members.

So when Reclaim the City activists stormed the Rondebosch Golf Course in southern Cape Town in March 2019, the effect was striking. They carried signs reading “housing is a human right” and “check yo privilege, check yo priorities.” Families picnicked on the course while kids built castles in sand pits in the shadow of Table Mountain, the Cape Town landmark that has launched a thousand postcards.

“Our city is intentionally designed so that the poor and the working class are excluded from its best located spaces,” says Karen Hendricks, an activist with Reclaim the City. “How can you see a space like that and not think that the city is prioritizing the needs of the rich?”

Hendricks leads a chapter of Reclaim the City based in an abandoned hospital in the central Cape Town neighborhood of Woodstock. About 1,000 members of the movement are now squatting there, demanding that the city build proper housing on the site. “My son is 13, and I want him to enjoy what this city has to offer, all of it,” she says.  

But Reclaim the City also has critics, who argue that its agenda is dictated by its leaders rather than members on the ground.  And many say that its main goal — to establish subsidized housing in the inner city — will be a drop in the ocean in solving Cape Town’s housing problems. No matter how many golf courses or vacant lots the city hands over for below-market-rate apartments, they argue, there simply isn’t enough space in the city center for everyone who needs it.

“Realistically, it will take as long to undo apartheid cities as it took to build them,” says Nobukhosi Ngwenya, a junior research fellow at the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town who studies housing inequality. “It’s not something that can be done in 10 or 20 or 30 years, and in the meantime, we have to make townships better places to live.”

For Nkunzi, moving to Level Two was a way to kickstart that process for herself.

“I occupied the land to show the government that I was serious about finding a place for my family,” she says.

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Ryan Lenora Brown is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, Runner's World, The Christian Science Monitor, and others.  

Vincent Lali is a freelance reporter covering informal housing for GroundUp, a news service based in Cape Town.

Photo by Getty Images


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