Housing Wars

is peace in the horizon?

NOT A PLACE TO CALL HOME: Proper housing can immediately improve the quality of life for millions of people living in shacks like these. Poor people desire reliable, basic services such as water and sanitation, and security and safety for their families.

In Brief

  • Many people have been priced out of residential areas near job opportunities, as the City hoards 24000 vacant parcels of land that could be used for affordable housing
  • Following pressure by activists to provide affordable housing in the inner city, the City of Cape Town has announced a social housing plan. The earmarking of ten out of 24000 parcels of land the City has at its disposal is a drop in the sea
  • The unaddressed issue is who among the hundreds of thousands in the housing waiting lists will benefit from the announced social housing
  • Also appearing to be forgotten are the would-be the gap-housing beneficiaries, those not so badly off to qualify for state subsidised housing and not earning enough to qualify for mortgages, hence all remain suspiciously cautious
  • The City has further remained a spectator as property developers lose millions of rands in rates and fights against endless objections by organisations with unclear legal status
  • In the City of Cape Town, a new crop of leaders like Councillor Brandon Golding of the City’s Ward 77, are advocating and pleading for radical change of attitudes and progressive policies to fast-track transformation in the housing arena


The dysfunctional housing system is taking a toll on local authorities. Our investigation has revealed several interrelated issues that could be addressed by progressive reforms. But, the cracks are widening due to inertia and complacency in many municipalities. Competing interests and lack of transparency by the people in charge are muddying the already dirty waters.

The South African Constitution obligates the government to provide housing to its citizens. Municipalities, which are currently tasked with providing housing in cities, can’t cope due to issues such as rapid population growth and inadequate resources.

When politicians cry about inadequate resources, we have to take it with a pinch of salt. In the City of Cape Town, old leaders stuck in the dark past insist the City doesn't have vacant land to build new houses. That narrative is instilled in the new crop of city leaders such as Councillor Brandon Golding. Golding represents Ward 77, which includes parts of the City Bowl. In a recent conversation with uSpiked, he appeared to believe there's no land for gap housing near the Central Business District (CBD).

Propped by a huge public relations machinery, the City has done a stellar job of convincing residents that the only available vacant lands belong to either the national government and state corporations (who are not willing to relinquish ownership), or are tied up in protracted land restitution claims.

Councillor Golding may have missed an involuntary disclosure made by the Executive Deputy Mayor, Ian Douglas Neilson, during a mayoral debate in the run-up to the 2016 elections.

Neilson 62, is not just a mere City councillor and deputy mayor. To those who know him well, he is the de facto mayor of Cape Town. He called shots during Dan Plato’s short stint as mayor. Neilson still wields considerable power under Mayor Patricia de Lille.

‘Kaapstad het sy eiernaars’

During the debate, Neilson disclosed that the city has 24000 vacant parcels of land. He added that on behalf of the city, he would keep the land details secret to ward off land invaders. Why are the city’s godfathers hoarding these lands?

As they say ‘Kaapstad het sy eiernaars’ (Cape Town has its owners). And it appears their most ardent benefactors are the ageing leaders who control City Hall and help to keep the undesirables out. Some of the means, we can assume, include supporting the efforts of some dubious community-based organisations to perpetuate and protect historical ills.

In our previous report, we revealed how certain communities would like to have their cakes and eat them. The City of Cape Town is already having its cake and eating it. It allowed the socio-economic gap to widen as residents suffer rate increases with little to show for it.

A tale of two different worlds

The economic growth everyone wants will remain elusive if poor people continue to be marginalised. The current model isn’t sustainable, and the violent protests evident in marginalised communities signify deep frustration.

Does social class matter in catastrophes? In our society, it appears so. Let’s look at two recent fire disasters in Mandela Park in Imizamo Yethu and in Knysna. Private companies quickly mobilised millions of rands in donations for the Knysna victims – majority of whom had adequate insurance covers for their up-scaled home. In Imizamo Yethu, affected residents weren't as lucky and finally resorted to violence after months of languishing in desperate circumstances.

Telling Imizamo Yethu residents and many others who live in shacks that all lives matter may sound hollow. Their reality is bracing unbearable cold and heat in overcrowded shacks while waiting for a long overdue RDP house.

Economics mean different things for the two groups. A typical resident in Knysna would be more concerned about, for instance, how the firing of Pravin Gordhan would affect the Rand. In Imizamo Yethu, the immediate concern would be the cost of travelling to work in unreliable public transport from a distant dwelling offered by the City.

Some tax and rate payers are quick to blame the government for the slump in economic growth. Yet, they are the first to oppose development projects that can create jobs. Jobs and decent wages can spur economic growth in the long-term. But that can't happen if 53.8% (27 million people, based on 2014 data) continue to live in poverty.

Not everyone needs to work and live near Cape Town’s CBD, as Councillor Golding states in the above video. But, business and projects need semi-skilled and unskilled labour. Due to lack of affordable housing near the CBD, these workers end up spending most of their wages on transportation.

Construction of new housing lags behind the growing city population. In parts of the city, there are issues of density restrictions and gentrification.

Embracing gentrification

What actually happens in gentrified communities? The misunderstanding of the concept has so far caused protests, divisions, and slowing of quality urban development.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gentrification as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

The concept of renovating or revamping isn't new. The book, ‘Understanding Sociology', co-authored by the renowned American sociologist, Prof Craig Calhoun, acknowledges social mobility - that it's natural and normal for individuals to endeavour to move upwards the social strata in a society.

In the past, education was the easiest means of climbing the social ladder. Working on that premise, one may appreciate how gentrification, as described in Merriam-Webster dictionary, can be good for poor communities. Even diehard capitalists and socialists would agree on social mobility.

IAN DOUGLAS NEILSON: The de facto Cape Town City Boss who involuntarily disclosed the existence 24000 parcels of land the City is hoarding in the midst of the housing shortfall

In July, indignation and loud condemnation followed the death of seven people in a fire accident at a housing complex fire in Johannesburg. The mayor's words - that some activists had resisted many attempts to improve the property - were drowned in the cacophony. In whose interests were those community leaders and activists acting?

Poor people desire reliable, basic services such as water and sanitation, and security and safety for their families. Can gentrification provide improved living conditions for them? They deserve a chance to find out.

Finding justice in an unglued society

We have all become lax and prefer not to ask questions or to act.

Why have we become too blind to see? Why have we become too angry to reason with and listen to each other? What has blinded and angered us so much?

Why have we turned on each other? Are the wars necessary? To get rid of the blindness and anger, sometimes wars become necessary. But we must wonder, are the wars worth it?

Not so long ago, a property owner, whom we will call Mrs Views, wanted to remove a long-time tenant from her property. She didn’t have legally sound grounds for terminating the tenancy, so she created some. For unknown reasons, it escaped Mrs Views and her lawyers that the South African Rental Housing Act provides property owners with the right to terminate leases without giving reasons. But, by attempting to create reasons, she opened herself to scrutiny.

The underlying issue relating to Mrs Views' matter, which is currently before the courts, is basic economics. The law of supply and demand.

In Cape Town, accommodation in and around the CBD and near universities are in high demand. Property owners are taking advantage of desperate students and charge exorbitant rentals for rooms within their properties. In those areas, landlords with existing tenants are in a quagmire. "Why shouldn't I charge as much as the property owner next door renting to students?", they may ask. But, who cares how an abrupt eviction would affect an existing tenant?

The infamous and sometimes misunderstood ‘gentrification’ gets the blame for everything wrong in the housing market.

Objective observers do what most of us have failed to do. They listen, ask questions and listen some more. If we set out to seek flaws in the actions of others, we will find them. The same happens when our mission is to seek good in others. That is evident in our investigation. Those opposed to developments that can uplift the poor, refuse to reason. They misunderstand development concepts and deliberately poison their communities to enhance their positions.

BRANDON GOLDING: The Councillor for Cape Town’s Ward 77. Beware, turbulence ahead

Changing attitudes

There are housing wars in nearly every city in the world, and local authorities are struggling to cope. In South Africa, municipalities have ageing councillors who are reluctant to accept change.

But, new leaders are seeing the woods for the trees. Councillor Golding believes leaders in government and communities need to change their mindsets now. But most importantly, leaders need to be transparent with each other and their electorates.

Golding, together with other young councillors, is calling for the scrapping of old, restrictive by-laws that bar high-density developments within the metro. For these young leaders, the new buzzword is densification. Cities need the capability and ability to densify existing spaces, says Golding.

But, as long as those opposed to change maintain their hard-line stance, the quest for a just society will remain a pipe dream.