Cape Town denies its people a place they call their home

The Western Cape High Court judge who granted an eviction order couldn’t fathom why Salt River residents want to be close to the city. If they were unemployed and had no spending power, he reasoned, why did they want to be near schools and transport routes?

This ruling sums up what people who are experiencing a new wave of apartheid-style evictions are up against: a system that doesn’t understand that a house can be replaced but a sense of community and neighbourliness can’t. In this final chapter of our three-part series, the Mail & Guardian continues the story of the housing crisis faced by four people around Cape Town. Freedom may have come to them at the ballot box in 1994, but they feel enslaved and exposed by their lowly socioeconomic status. Each person yearns for the same thing: a home.

Read Part one here: Shack dreams, shackled lives: Displaced poor pine for home

Read Part two here: Spatial planning rips people from places they call home

Abu Bakr Smith doesn’t know it yet, but time’s up. The Western Cape High Court has already granted an eviction order and, eventually, his family will have to pack up and leave.

For much of his life, Abu Bakr has thought that he would always be safe in Salt River. His name is on the court papers, an applicant in a battle for better housing. It’s got to be better than what’s waiting for him in remote Wolwerivier. He doesn’t fully understand it. Despite the people who have come and gone in Salt River, his cottage — with its broken floors and damaged walls — was meant to be his forever.

Recently he’s started praying more. He goes to mosque a few roads down from his house, tattoos hidden under his kurta. The mosque isn’t big or grand but, set in between houses, it is an embrace of familiar walls and comforting words. Religion has helped him to hold on to his faith that his family will be safe and so he sits, legs tucked under him, in prayer.

On the court papers his name is Cheslyn, but he refers to himself as Abu Bakr. His mother never wanted him to convert to Islam, but he prays.

After that one trip to Wolwerivier, he immediately knew that he could not live there. It wasn’t about living in a shack and it wasn’t really about Wolwerivier, either. It was about leaving Salt River for almost anywhere else.

“I could live in a shack but not there. I can live in a shack in Salt River,” he says.

He’s now sitting inside Charnell Commando’s home. She lives a few doors down from him but here in the Bromwell Street cottages it’s almost as if doors are just for decoration during the day. Neighbours are always in and out of each other’s houses and, on weekends, they party together with loud music and alcohol flowing over walls.

They tried to convince Western Cape High Court Acting Judge Leslie Weinkove that they deserve to stay in Bromwell. That the City of Cape Town shouldn’t give them accommodation far from where their lives have been made. Why, asked Weinkove, should you need to live near the city if you have no job?

“Where you have got a person who is not working, who has not got an income, what do you do? What is the point of them being near a school? What is the point of them needing transport? Where are they going to go? They have not even got money to spend anything,” Weinkove said in response to residents in court.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille doesn’t believe that the city owes Abu Bakr or any other evictees a place in the city’s emergency temporary accommodation. This is only for flood victims or those who lost everything during fire season, she insists.

“If you want to choose where you want to live, then unfortunately you have to pay for it yourself,” says De Lille.

She is evidently not familiar with the Blue Moonlight case in 2011, where the Constitutional Court made a precedent-setting judgment that a municipality is obliged to give temporary emergency accommodation to people who are evicted and have no alternative homes.

Abu Bakr’s world is far removed from the formal procedures in court. Jirre, sometimes they even still use Latin words, he argues. He, like many of the Bromwell residents, is unemployed. He keeps playing with the idea that people with money always win, but he has none. Charnell is busy protesting with the Reclaim the City housing activists, yelling out slogans about how poor black people should not be removed by white people who have money to buy their homes.

Abu Bakr has never been in a meeting with the directors of the Woodstock Hub, the people who now own the Bromwell cottages, and he has no idea about that block of flats they want to build here.

Jacques van Embden, a director of the Woodstock Hub, said that the flats will cost R5 000 to R8 000 a month to rent. He says it won’t be affordable for the Woodstock Hub to charge a lower rental for the Bromwell residents, adding that the new housing will bring in people who earn too much to qualify for social housing.

“We say the ‘stress-squeezed middle’. They keep getting pushed further out and no one’s trying to pull them further in,” said Van Embden.

Abu Bakr can’t imagine a cosmopolitan block of flats in the place where his home now stands. His life will soon be separated from Salt River, unless there’s a miracle. No matter where they put him, he tells himself, he will always come back here.

Magdalene Minnaar is arguing at her door with a man who wants his identity document. He’s looking for a job in the extended public works programme, but Magdalene is trying to convince him that she doesn’t have his ID — he took it from her last time he was here, remember? She closes the door. Doef! Doef! Doef! His incessant knocking makes her pull her shoulders back and open it once more.

His face is weathered, its brightness dimmed. His clothes are baggy and, even if he hasn’t got the construction job yet, his sun-beaten skin makes him look the part. He stares hard at Magdalene, silently willing her to give him his ID. But she returns his look with a raised eyebrow and a “bugger off”.

It’s one of those days. She wants to go out but she has no lift to get anywhere. She’s usually bright and upbeat, creating some form of escape for herself, but occasionally she feels like she really does live in Wolwerivier.

Her thoughts sometimes go back to her childhood, when her father owned land and she was happy and safe. In her adult memory, the younger Magdalene had no worries.

“I was born free; I was free,” Magdalene says.

Her optimism usually darts through the bleakness of her surrounds like sun rays. She’s always the first one to tell people, like the man who knocked on her door, that it takes time for things to get better. It’s what she holds on to in the hope that it will get better for her, too.

The city is proud of Wolwerivier. De Lille has even said that, in future, residents will be allowed to expand their properties and the city will help them to do it. Magdalene knows that the Bromwell residents could come and live here. She heard it on the news and in gossip from her neighbours. Wolwerivier may be far from everything, but word travels far.

She didn’t meet Abu Bakr when he came to see the bright green shacks and the one main road for himself. She missed him and the other residents he came with. She doesn’t even know he exists. But she’s against him coming to live here. There’s a housing list and they were here first.

Despite what she says about only living in Wolwerivier because she can’t leave her neighbours behind (“I have to help them; they need me here”), the truth is much harsher: Magdalene can’t afford to move out. She lets it slip during a long conversation in her shack.

“If I could afford to go somewhere else, I would,” she says.

She hopes to be out of Wolwerivier sometime soon. Maybe she will leave but perhaps, when she no longer has the energy to beat back the encroaching grey of her hair, she’ll still be here, listening to opera every morning in a community that started small but grew and grew.

Matilda Groepe is now in her 60s and, dammit, she’s tired of the constant barking of dogs and the falling apart of shacks. Her summary of her life is about the in-betweenness of things — of people, her people, falling through the cracks.

“I’m too white to be black and too black to be white,” she says.

Matilda sometimes refers to the African people in Khayelitsha who have better homes than the coloured people in Blikkiesdorp do. Throughout her lifetime in Cape Town, she’s hardly had to interact with black people. Hanover Park was coloured, Woodstock and the factory she worked in was mostly coloured and, here in Delft, there’s hardly anyone who isn’t coloured.

Often, Matilda will reassure everyone she’s not racist — but the black people have made things worse than they were during apartheid, she argues. There’s a resentment deep within her as she watches nearby townships with their new homes and the cops who drive past Blikkiesdorp to attend to trouble in the black areas instead.

In a province where coloured people are in the majority, Matilda feels left behind, forgotten in a world that sees only black and white.

“It’s reverse apartheid,” she says.

She now sits in her shack, with the toilet a short walk away. On it, in green stencilled letters, is a graffito that’s been made around different parts of Cape Town: “This city works for a few.”

The door to the temporary toilet is broken and can’t be closed. It’s almost laughable for Matilda because it happens so often.

But she can’t sit around and do nothing. She has far too much energy and, besides, she likes to be in the know about everyone. She and six other women have started the Blikkiesdorp Concerned Residents group. In her home, a banner with the organisation’s name hangs on a wall, showing smiling faces and a lush garden. It’s her way of carrying on, of trying to do something even if nothing works.

The people in Blikkiesdorp are divided. The gangsters thrive in a place where they’re largely left to their own devices, while different people try to lead their own community forums. Matilda doesn’t care — hers is the only one that can make a difference.

She’s been to the South African Human Rights Commission and when it failed her, she went to Parliament. Nothing came of it except platitudes and empty promises. She hasn’t forgotten any of these disappointments but shrugs them off. It’s either a government conspiracy or because they are from Blikkiesdorp and no one cares, she says.

She hopes she won’t die here in this Tin Town, but she’s getting older. She still walks around as if she is mayor of Blikkiesdorp, but she knows it can’t last forever. When will Blikkies shut down? Well, if it does, it will be closing a chapter in a part of Cape Town’s temporary housing plan where almost everything went wrong — and Matilda witnessed it all.

Thandeka Sisusa can’t stay where she is. It’s a temporary place in the Cape Town city centre where her colleagues have sneaked her into a room. But the people who own the building are unhappy, and pressure is mounting for her to move out.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” she says.

She can feel time slipping away. Her face is lined with anxiety. The owner has reluctantly allowed her to stay as a favour to a colleague, but he is getting fed up. It’s been a month since Thandeka moved here with her daughter and grandchild.

The building is grand; it has a balcony on the second floor and is built in the old colonial style that still characterises much of the inner city, making it feel quaint despite its cosmopolitan flair.

It wasn’t what she wanted.

She was waiting for Tafelberg to become her home. The abandoned school was sold by the city. Activists and friends of Thandeka’s had agitated for it to be converted into social housing. If the school became flats, then at least there would be a way for her to live in Sea Point.

She knows that Reclaim the City is occupying an empty hospital in Woodstock and an former nurses’ home between Sea Point and the V&A Waterfront, which they’ve dubbed Ahmed Kathrada House. The province has said both may one day be used for affordable housing. Thandeka’s friends at Reclaim the City want timelines for these plans.

But, as much as their occupation is tied to Thandeka’s world, it is also, strangely, happening at a distance from her own personal housing apocalypse.

“At that Ahmed Kathrada House, we must be there only for two weeks and then be out,” she says.

“I want to sort this problem of mine first. I can’t go there to stay [and] enjoy for two weeks, and then my problem is still standing outside here.”

She is hanging her hope on one solution to bring her home: a factory in Lansdowne — about 15km from the city centre — is selling Wendy houses. Thandeka has a sponsor who is willing to buy her a two-bedroomed structure, but she hasn’t found a place to put it.

Let it be somewhere in the inner city is her one plea. She is traipsing around the city, finding ways to ask people politely if they have space in their backyard where she can reside with her family. It has to be here because, if she lived in a township, she will have to learn a whole new way of life.

“I’m not a location person; my life has never been in the location,” she says.

She still has that intimidating image of Blikkiesdorp in her head, of shacks packed tightly together and the constant fear that someone will hurt her to take the little that she has.

And so, as Matilda did in Woodstock all those years ago, Thandeka will probably find someone whose backyard she can live in. It’ll be in a wooden Wendy house that will have the motivational quotes from the Bible stuck to the wall, and the big fridge pushed in wherever it can fit.

Neither Thandeka nor Abu Bakr dares to aspire to their own apartment or house, but they will find somewhere else to put a roof over their heads.

It will take a while to call these new places home, or perhaps it might not happen at all.

In Blikkiesdorp and Wolwerivier, Matilda and Magdalene will wait for their lives to change. For something better to happen. They will wait for home.

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

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