Mother City to Some: The Story of Housing in Cape Town

By Mandisi Majavu · 24 Aug 2011

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Picture: Lizane Louw
Picture: Lizane Louw

Cape Town is the second largest city in South Africa. Affectionately known as the ‘mother city’, it is home to about 3,4 million people. Helen Zille recently argued in the Sunday Times that Cape Town is “the least unequal city in South Africa.” The point, however, is that Cape Town is an unequal city - a white city that is not very motherly towards poor people of colour.

A large number of people of colour live in poverty. It is estimated that 400 000 families of colour do not have access to basic services and shelter in Cape Town. For them, prospects for decent housing are extremely limited.

As things stand, the situation is likely to get worse. Research conducted by the HSRC shows that “the estimated housing backlog in Cape Town is between 360 000 and 400 000, and growing at a rate of 16 000–18 000 units per year.” Further, the housing backlog is expected to reach 460 000 by 2020. Commentators point out that the growing housing backlog has the potential to undermine social stability.

To deal with the situation, the City has, amongst other things, introduced a Five Year Housing Plan, which it claims will improve housing conditions for the poor. The Social Housing Foundation, an agency that works in close collaboration with government and supports the development of social housing in South Africa, argues that Cape Town’s housing plan “advocates a wide range of interventions from informal settlement upgrades to the development of formal freehold housing opportunities for residents who have incomes in excess of R3 500 per month and are therefore no longer entitled to state housing subsidies.” Additionally, the plan aims to boost the development of social housing, as well as rejuvenate existing hostel accommodation in order to provide subsidised rental accommodation.

However, NGOs such as the Development Action Group (DAG) argue that the City’s housing plan reinforces and perpetuates “apartheid spatial patterns.” DAG’s argument is informed by the view that the location of the City’s new low cost housing projects is predominantly in black and coloured areas. As far as DAG is concerned, these new projects could be built in historically white suburbs, where “relatively large tracts of open land often are unused.”

In this regard, the NGO raises some pertinent questions, “How does the city justify continued separate housing developments for different race and class groups? What are the impacts of inequality and separate development of Cape Town as a city and a society?”

The ideology behind this separate and unequal development is rooted in neo-liberalism. World famous academic and political geographer, Professor David Harvey, argues that neo-liberalism is a theory of political economy practice based on the view that human wellbeing is best advanced “by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Naturally, the role of a neo-liberal city is to create and maintain an institutional framework that is consistent with neo-liberal policies. To this end, the City of Cape Town has adopted an urban development model known as City Improvement Districts (CIDs), which are managed by the public-private partnership, Cape Town Partnership (CPT).

The values underpinning Cape Town’s CID’s are so problematic that the plan has attracted international condemnation. US-based academic, Faranak Miraftab, who works in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, has written specifically about spatial apartheid in Cape Town. He contends, “The CIDs in Cape Town…restructure urban space to serve the ideal of a world class city integrated into the global economy, at the cost of the city’s social and spatial integration.”

Predictably, the City receives global rewards for its efforts to keep the City segregated, sanitized and a “highly ‘aestheticised commodity’ for global investment and consumption,” she says.

For instance, Cape Town was recently shortlisted for the World Design Capital 2014. The CPT received the news with enthusiasm writing that “we believe that Cape Town possesses many assets that could make it a World Design Capital. From a history of hosting big events like Cape Town’s own internationally acclaimed design event, Design Indaba to the World Economic Forum…”

But organisations that work amongst the poor take a different view. What the CPT statement does not mention is what DAG bears witness to on a daily basis - Cape Town’s highways form “neat impenetrable buffers between predominantly coloured, black and white suburbs (Bonteheuwel, Langa, Athlone, Pinelands…)” We have families of colour who reside in informal settlements being removed to crime infested ‘transitional relocation areas’ on the periphery of the city. And, research shows that 39 percent of all households in Cape Town live below the poverty line.

Moreover, in our neo-liberal world poverty and misery are conveniently turned into commodities for consumption by tourists. Miraftab astutely points out that the City of Cape Town “markets the poverty and stigma of its marginalized communities as exoticism for tourism consumption, in townships tours and coffee table, township picture books.”

Cape Town’s poor communities most certainly do not share in the wealth generated from the city’s massive tourism industry.

It is estimated that tourism generates R14bn per annum for the City of Cape Town. Wealthy people who own land, hotels, restaurants and farms are the main beneficiaries of the revenues generated by the tourism industry. So skewed are the benefits of tourism that just last month Cosatu noted that “the exclusion of workers from the tourism board by the MEC for economics is a further indication of his desire to control this industry in the interest of the owners and at the cost of the workers.”

These social tensions are rooted in Cape Town’s colonial struggle, which “imposed elitist fantasies” that sought to keep the Cape white and disconnected from the rest of Africa - in addition to maintaining a distance from the struggles of people of colour who wished to be treated with dignity and as equals.

Cape Town was considered a white space under the apartheid regime. The apartheid government declared it a ‘Coloured Labour Preference Area’ and black Africans caught without a passbook were deported to the homelands. This colonial encounter continues to play itself out in various ways. As Miraftab points out, “whether and how the tensions will resolve is far from preordained; it remains an open question.”

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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23 Aug


I find the above article very simplistic, shooting from the hip, without suggesting any workable solutions what so ever. Typical !!
Miraftab, with its own USA tent cities or "squatter camps" clearly does not understand the 300 year history of Cape Town at all, with unabated and "uncontrolled" border crossings the housing backlog will continue to grow as long as CT is seen as a city of milk and honey , where most other municipalities in SA (34 out of 278 still solvent and continuing to decline) are imploding due to incompetence, corruption and mismanagment.

Isnt housing after all mainly a National Govt responsibility, or is it fair to say local overburdened ratepayers MUST house all those with cupped hands within its boundries too. What added value are these recipients of hand outs bringing to the party?

The citys business people and farmers create tourism and local employment opportunities and take ALL the risk. Should they not have a say how the spoils ought to be devided whilst they are already heavily contributing to social upliftment through high taxes and local service projects??.

This, i am afraid is an extremely unbalanced and poorly researched article from Majavu. Perhaps he should try again and concentrate on solutions and how the unemployable can add value in a "free" market society. Yet nothing is free as we all have to work for it and will get rewarded ONLY by 'the sweat of our brow" charity,good morals, good work ethics and sober habits.Dependability and attitudes of entitlement has destroyed many a civilization.

Does the following sound familiar and also ring a bell ? "Friends, Romans and Countrymen

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23 Aug

great article

This is an important article. The DA often claims - without evidence - that Cape Town has the best service delivery because of them. It is important to counter that and show how both the ANC and DA are failing the poor.

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