/ 10 July 2018

The people of Bo-Kaap versus the private developers

If Bo-Kaap were to be zoned as a national heritage site
If Bo-Kaap were to be zoned as a national heritage site

A private development company has interdicted the Bo-Kaap community from trespassing and vandalising property on its construction sites after feeling the heat from protests in the area.

The move however, has heightened tensions between the community, which fears gentrification, and developers who will not meet their demands.

After weeks of protests, Blok — a private development firm — has had enough. In court papers, Jacques van Embden, the managing director of the company, recounts how, during one protest in May, residents in Bo-Kaap had set equipment alight on a Blok construction site in Lion Street. He says staff were threatened, building materials vandalised, and cranes were blocked from entering the site by protestors.

Van Embden’s court papers show that Blok had been closely watching the unfolding protests in Bo-Kaap, taking note of the demands of a community, which was growing frustrated at the rising costs of living attributed to gentrification. The apartment block that Blok is constructing has become an eyesore among the colourful houses for residents who are angry that the area risks losing its history. The protests have been led by groups of young men in the Bo-Kaap Youth movement.

The court acquiesced on Friday, saying that residents would not be banned from protesting. An interdict would bar the community from vandalising Blok’s construction sites, threatening staff, and trespassing onto the sites. 

READ MORE: Bo-Kaap unites in protest to hold onto heritage

For residents, this move has led to a further breakdown in their relationship with the company.

Osman Shabodien, the chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association, has been vocal in his support for protests. Shabodien, like many in the area, has spent years demanding that Bo-Kaap is zoned as a national heritage site to protect the history of the area which he and others believe is being pillaged by private developers.

“Where there’s distrust from the community for Blok, I think the challenge is the pure arrogance of these developers that come into somebody’s home and decides to build. To hell with whatever is happening around the community, they’re not interested. They’re only interested in profits,” Shabodien says.

The residents are unapologetic about protest action, which began during the holy month of Ramadan in May. Every night for at least three weeks, the Bo-Kaap Youth blocked Wale Street with burning tyres just before the call to prayer during peak traffic hours. The protests drew attention from all over Cape Town, as sympathy spread for a community who feared they would no longer be able to afford their homes in the place where they had always lived. 

READ MORE: Auction group cancels sale of historic burial land in Bo-Kaap

Developers on Bo-Kaap’s chopping block

If Bo-Kaap were to be zoned as a national heritage site, residents argue that private development would be restricted. What Bo-Kaap residents are trying to protect is the Islamic heritage of the area where the first mosque in South Africa was built, Muslim saints are buried, and where slaves once lived after they battled for their freedom.

Blok believes it tried its best to consult the community before development began. In court papers, Van Embden claims that the company tried for more than one year to engage the community before construction started to no avail. The protests this year led to multiple meetings that included the ward councillor, Brandon Golding, and law enforcement agencies.

But for residents, Blok’s reputation precedes itself.

“To us, Blok is not an honourable company. And it’s not just because we say that — their track record in Cape Town speaks volumes in the sense of their evictions in Bromwell, their promises that they made to the Bromwell people that they never adhered to, and their attempt to takeover the Sea Point ratepayers’ association and make sure that their plans go smoothly. The type of modus operandi of Blok is not a very honourable one,” Shabodien says.

Blok first made news when it became responsible for the near eviction of groups of families living in Bromwell, Salt River in 2016. The company had acquired a group of homes where the families, who were tenants, were still living. They had planned to build an apartment building, but the plans were halted after protests garnered public sympathy and led to court action. The case continues.

In Sea Point, Blok has been accused of hijacking the Sea Point, Fresnaye and Bantry Bay Ratepayers and Residents Association to push through its building plans. Earlier this year, before a new leadership of the association was elected, Van Embden sat as its secretary and his father, Marco van Embden, was its chairperson. The elder Van Embden is also the chairperson of Blok.

They have now said that they are committed to “responsible development” where they offer jobs to the community, and say they have tried to restrict construction to not interfere with exam times or Friday afternoon prayers.

But with distrust heightened after the recent interdict, the court appointed the South African Human Rights Commission to mediate the dispute between Blok and the Bo-Kaap residents. Blok has said that while it is responsible for the interdict, it still aims to continue talks with the community.

“We welcome the mediation process mandated by Judge [Robert] Henney and it’s our sincere hope that it will lead to a quick and amicable resolution,” Van Embden told the Mail & Guardian.

As Bo-Kaap grapples with history and development, residents have continued protests and a land occupation began this week. The community is still deciding whether it will appeal the court interdict.