Evictions in Woodstock and the resistance against apartheid spatial planning

At least 23 families could be evicted from their homes in Woodstock near the Cape Town inner city. They have been told to leave by September 9, but evictions may lead to them being forced to live further away from the city’s economic hub.

Charnell Commando has spent all of her 29 years living in the same house in Bromwell Street close to the trendy Old Biscuit Mill market, where fashionistas and foodies converge every Saturday in Cape Town. But now she’s fed up.

For the past two years, Commando and her neighbours at 120-128 Bromwell Street have been fighting off an eviction that would potentially see them moved to Blikkiesdorp – a settlement near the Cape Town International Airport, a long way away from the opportunities of the inner city.

The Old Biscuit Mill is one example of the shift that has taken place in Woodstock for some time now. It’s been written about, debated and contested. The changes that have happened in the area are summed up in one word: gentrification. New businesses have opened, property prices have skyrocketed and old businesses have been unable to keep up with the rent prices. Woodstock’s proximity to the Cape Town CBD has made it prime land, but people who have lived there for years have struggled to keep up.

“The gentrification just took away everything. It took away the livelihood, the community. There’s nothing left. It’s just a facelift and that is it,” Commando says.

According to a statement released by the new owners, who are directors of a company called the Woodstock Hub, they were assured that the properties they bought would be vacant.

“The seller indicated that he had made arrangements with the occupants to vacate the properties prior to transfer as he was the original landlord that placed the tenants in the properties,” a spokesperson for the Woodstock Hub said in the statement.

Commando’s family has lived in the house for generations, however. Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents shared memories in the home. Although the Woodstock Hub has said that it met with the tenants in 2014 during the course of rental housing tribunal, Commando maintains that the owners have not been willing to co-operate.

“They didn’t want anything to do with us. This is the first time that they’ve negotiated with us to see us,” she said.

Her greatest fear is that her family and her neighbours will be relocated to Blikkiesdorp, where job prospects will be slim and youngsters will have to re-adjust to new schools.

Blikkiesdorp emerged in 2007 as a temporary housing project for families who had occupied unfinished houses that were part of the incompleted N2 Gateway housing initiative. It’s been called a place “worse than hell” and, nine years later, people are still waiting for permanent housing while the settlement grows both in size and helplessness.

For Commando, a move to Blikkiesdorp is comparable to what black and coloured families experienced during apartheid, which forcefully removed people from the inner city to the outskirts. The Cape Flats, where Blikkiesdorp has been erected, is the continuance of apartheid spatial planning, where black and coloured people were banished to the most undesirable lands on the margins of the city.

“It’s because we are coloured people that people think bad of us,” Commando said. “Why don’t they go and stay in Blikkiesdorp for one day?”

“Why don’t they take their family or their dog or whatever they have and go there just for one day so they can see how it is. They don’t understand because they don’t know what it is. That’s why it’s easy for them to just throw people out onto the streets.”

After releasing a heartfelt open letter to the Woodstock Hub earlier this week, the tenants got a response from the owners. The Woodstock Hub has launched a crowdfunding campaign and has seeded R50 000 into the campaign for the tenants. They reportedly plan to build a block of flats at 120-128 Bromwell Street, but the rent prices will increase by R4000, making it unaffordable to the current tenants. The families have until September 9 to leave, but have asked for an extension to find alternative accommodation close to Woodstock. The Woodstock Hub, however, has not agreed to the extension, saying they have given extensions in the past.

“With regards to the occupants at Bromwell Street, we unfortunately cannot grant another extension on the eviction deadline of September 9 2016. The property was purchased over two years ago with the intent to add much-needed density to the Woodstock area and the end result will be 50-75 high-density middle-income rental homes that will not only become additional urban homes, but also create jobs in the process,” Jacques van Embden, director of the Woodstock Hub, said in a response to the open letter.

Reclaim the City, a housing organisation in Cape Town which has assisted the tenants in fighting the eviction process, released a statement on behalf the families, saying they are not concerned about money. The tenants’ main wish is to continue living in Woodstock.

“The Woodstock Hub’s pledge of R50 000 towards a crowdfunding campaign will not mitigate the threat of homelessness posed by these evictions,” Reclaim the City said.

“Theirs is a struggle for homes and to remain in the Woodstock community, where they have lived their entire lives,” Reclaim the City’s statement said.

Commando’s family has been on a waiting list for housing for at least 11 years. They put their names in the housing database when gentrification first began in Woodstock in the hopes that they would finally have a permanent home rather than be dependent on landlords by the time evictions came for them. For Commando, the removals have shown the importance of owning a home and building security for future generations.

“Even that time gentrification was already starting. A lot of us didn’t know what to do. We were always renting these houses. It’s not nice, because sometimes you feel like one day you also want your children to also have their own home. Just look at what happened,” Commando says.

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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