/ 3 February 2024

Pitfalls of the ‘mallification’ of our cities

Redevelopment Of The River Club In Cape Town In Progress
Construction work has already begun to transform the River Club into a site where Amazon wants to situate its headquarters in Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

Politics (or as some like to refer to it, poly-tricks) in Cape Town generally focuses on opportunistic fights between the Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC and other political parties. 

At the worst of times, they take the form of outright racism, afrophobia and anti-homeless bigotry. 

Many of you might remember when Helen Zille called Xhosa-speaking people from the Eastern Cape “refugees” and when JP Smith tried to justify law enforcement’s illegal eviction of Bulelani Qolani, naked from his home? 

Politicians in this municipality have had their fair share of controversy regarding their treatment of vulnerable residents in the city.

Yet one matter that rarely receives much attention is the extent to which most of the decisions being made about land use, urban revitalisation and community development are actually under the de facto control of property moguls and corporations. 

For the past two decades, huge swathes of public land have been handed out for “peanuts” to real estate tycoons in the name of “development”. 

Almost every neighbourhood and township in this city has a shopping mall anchored by one of the big three supermarket chains, with other tenants drawn from the usual suspects: PEP, Mr Price, Foschini, Clicks, Cash Crusaders, and so on. 

The so-called “mallification” of our communities, driven by local municipalities such as Cape Town, has transformed the country. South Africans went from buying less than 10% of food from supermarket chains in 1992 to 75% in 2017. 

This country now has the fifth-most shopping malls per capita of any country in the world.

Given this transformation, there is little or no space for small-scale shops and markets owned by local entrepreneurs. (Despite its social benefits, the transformative potential of worker co-operatives, unfortunately, is not even in the picture.)

This is what stands in for “development” in our poorest communities. We build yet another massive mall, ensuring that local businesses are displaced and the profits flow out of these communities. This trickle-up effect puts the income of the common person right back into the hands of corporate shareholders and investment groups. 

Again and again we hear the talking point that these malls and other developments “create jobs”. Yet, if that were true, South Africa would not have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. 

Large-scale developments of this sort do not actually create jobs. In fact, they are a net job destroyer. They crush local businesses, putting massive numbers out of work; only some workers are able to eventually get jobs at companies such as Shoprite or as security guards. Most remain stuck in an ever-expanding cycle of poverty as economies of scale displace everything else.

Why do our politicians support these massive developments, even though their benefits are clearly elusive and their drawbacks glaringly obvious?

It seems that one of the main reasons for such a bias in favour of big developments is the close links between the politicians who manage this city and their friends and family who work for these companies. 

This is not merely an issue of corruption where favours and kickbacks are the order of the day (although this is certainly part of the problem). Even more importantly, however, it is these personal and social connections which influence the politics of our politicians, colouring their ideology in favour of an ideology of big development.

Our mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, is a case in point. He is not just linked via friends to various property tycoons. He himself was a developer and a former partner at Hillwick — a builder of overpriced “luxury” apartment blocks.

Politicians such as Hill-Lewis, therefore, believe that supporting Jody Aufrichtig’s massive Amazon-linked development on land considered sacred to the Khoi and San will turn our city into some kind of “world-class” paradise. 

But these developments, driven by corporate greed and the need to fund the extravagant lifestyles of the rich, do nothing but destroy the land, the heritage, the community life and the social capital of regular residents of this city. 

They also extract wealth from our communities, while eroding local businesses and privatising valuable land, usually for a fraction of its value. 

Indeed, Aufrichtig’s group bought the sizable River Club land in question from Transnet for an outrageous (and possibly illegal) discounted price of only R12 million.

Hill-Lewis — true to his real estate inclinations — has pushed hard to ensure the Amazon development ran roughshod over strong opposition. 

The city has not only joined the developers in their attempts to delegitimise civic opposition to the building but it has also colluded to destroy indigenous leaders and their organisations merely for instituting a legal case that sought a review of the shady authorisation process for the development.

Even more worrying, the City of Cape Town has continued to back Aufrichtig and his colleagues, despite the fact that he has been implicated in fraud and corruption that has wreaked havoc on opposition to the Amazon-linked project.

Various San and Khoi organisations and the Save Our Sacred Lands campaign have just launched a significant case demanding the rescission of previous judgments against human rights activist and Khoi leader Tauriq Jenkins.

The basis of this case is that Aufrichtig and his associates have colluded with attorney Tim Dunn to destroy the leadership of the Goringhaicona Khoi council. According to whistleblowers, they used fraudulent documents, misleading the courts in the process.

Will Hill-Lewis and his administration distance themselves from the acts of Aufrichtig and co? Or will they continue to maintain their long-held bias towards these real estate moguls, no matter what lies and corruption they are implicated in?

Jared Sacks is founder of a children’s nonprofit organisation and a PhD candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University.