FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Why Cape Town must get serious about land

“…the poor and working class citizens are relegated to the outskirts of the city, often to neighbourhoods over 30 kilometres from the inner city.”


Christy Zinn unpacks Cape Town’s controversial housing legacy and the current situation. Zinn points to the priority given private investors in central suburbs. She argues that the urban poor have been relegated to the outskirts of the city through apartheid spatial planning. She argues  significant redress in urban policy is needed to integrate a city divided by race and class.

See also: Can Cape Town’s apartheid structure be undone?

Apartheid geography and murder in Cape Town

Cape Town’s anti-apartheid urban plan

In the first week of June, approximately 800 people were evicted from their homes at Lwandle informal settlement in Strand, Cape Town. It was not the first or last eviction to take place in a South African city this year. In fact, evictions happen “almost everyday throughout the country,” according to S’bu Zikode, president of South Africa’s largest national organisation of shack dwellers Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Yet the highly publicised event is an example of the vast social injustices that continue to deepen the trenches between social groups in South Africa’s cities today.

As detailed in a report from activist organization Ndifuna Ukwazi, ‘The Urban Land Question,’ published in The People’s Law Journal, Issue 2, in the Lwandle case, whereby a violent eviction took place midwinter that led to displaced families living in an overcrowded community hall for over two months, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) unlawfully used an interim interdict, which sought to stop more people from moving onto the land, to evict people already living there.

Without communicating with residents beforehand, and without adequate regard for their circumstances, some of which included the lack of alternative means of living, SANRAL’s actions were in contravention of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from an Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (19 of 1998), also known as PIE.

To put the Act into context, PIE was passed by South Africa’s first democratic Parliament and gives effect to section 26(3) of the 1996 Constitution, that protects anyone from having their home demolished, or being evicted from their home, without an order of court made after considering “all the relevant circumstances.”

The range of factors a court must consider before granting an eviction order to ensure that an eviction is “just and equitable” takes into account crisis situations, such as the eviction of vulnerable persons and whether those evicted have alternative means of living. Aside from the evictions having to be carried out humanely, two key principles are that the municipality must engage meaningfully with those occupying unlawfully before the decision to evict is made, and that government must provide alternative accommodation for those at risk of being left homeless.

Had these provisions of PIE been applied to the Lwandle case, the devastation that took place as a result of the evictions may not have unfolded as it did. However, a similar story can be told of evictions in cities across South Africa, and is reminiscent of the ease with which eviction orders were issued under apartheid.

Police brutality and lack of communication between municipality and those at risk of being evicted are staple aspects of eviction repertoires. The institutions developed by the City and mandated to police land occupations, such as the Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU), are a result of the absence of proper plans for urban densification, according to an article by Dustin Kramer and Zenande Booi, also in The People’s Law Journal.

The ALIU often takes actions that bypass the protections of PIE, giving municipal authorities “large amounts of arbitrary and discretionary power over poor and working class people.” During a High Court hearing in the wake of evictions in Philippi that took place between April 2013 and January of this year, for example, the City of Cape Town justified its unlawful demolishing of structures because these structures “were not ‘homes.’” With no court order to undertake the demolishing process, the City went ahead with demolishing houses arbitrarily, without applying the necessities of PIE to their actions.

As Ndifuna Ukwazi’s Mandisa Shandu points out on the Lwandle case, “the evictions are a reminder of our inequality and that landlessness has become a permanent feature of South Africa’s cities.”

The statistics do not disagree. According to the 2011 census, approximately 20 percent of housing in Cape Town is informal. It shows that just over 29,000 households have no access to any sanitation facilities, and over 48,500 households use ‘bucket latrines.

As statistics provided at the African Centre for Cities’ City Desired exhibition, currently on in Cape Town, illustrate, national government has been battling to eradicate the staggering housing backlog, which has swollen to 2.3 million units in 2014, compared to approximately 1.5 million units in 1994. According to the Financial and Fiscal Commission, it would cost government an estimated R800 billion to eradicate the housing backlog by 2020 – money that it is unlikely to raise on its own.

It is not surprising that the right to access adequate housing is the most frequently litigated socio-economic right in South Africa, according to Michael Clark’s article in The People’s Law Journal. The unavailability of land for housing has frequently been used by Cape Town’s municipal government as a response to justify the housing shortage in the city. Yet research by the Social Justice Coalition, Equal Education and Ndifuna Ukwazi reveals that this is not necessarily the case.

This issue of the People’s Law Journal provides evidence to the way in which the City continues to “showcase” prime property in Cape Town to interested private sector parties that would be made available to investors. Simultaneously, the poor and working class citizens are relegated to the outskirts of the city, often to neighbourhoods over 30 kilometres from the inner city.


Aderne Gardens in Claremont, Southern suburbs. Suburb has low-density prime property.

Aderne Gardens in Claremont, Southern suburbs. Claremont is attractive to residents and investors for its prime property and low-density.

Although the spatial demographics of Cape Town are a direct result of apartheid planning, the successive democratic government administrations have entrenched this logic by not taking adequate progressive measures of redress to weaken the inequalities to which poorer communities are subjected. On observation of the statistics, it is clear that city governments need to look to alternative methods of addressing the housing crisis South Africa faces in its urban areas. Occupying land is a direct response to the housing crisis.

The Urban Land Question report through a number of articles suggests possible solutions to consider. Currently, only a small minority of informal housing settlements are being considered for upgrading. This is problematic in that it only suggests that further evictions await those who live informally.

Activist Zackie Achmat pertinently considers the question of the ‘right to property,’ pointing to the stark inequalities between the “fewer than 50 people” living on one hectare of land in the Southern Suburbs in comparison to “between 100 and 500” people having to share the same expanse of land in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. He advocates for “expropriating a proportion of private land, buildings and homes” in the CBD and central suburbs, and suggests this to be “essential to ending class and race apartheid.”

With the continuous onset of unlawful evictions undertaken by the City of Cape Town and powerful entities such as the SANRAL parastatal, those living in informal housing stand at the frontline of the City’s battle to control urban land. The end of 2015 comes with the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, with which South Africa so readily aligned its housing policies, and a new set of locally implementable development goals need to be put in place.

It is clear that radical policy and action for urban land issues must be applied to facilitate the redress of South Africa’s inequalities. Equitable spatial integration and sustainable settlement upgrading in city spaces can be prioritised as viable responses to the urban land question.

Image credit: PLJ

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.

This article was republished from our partner website, Urban Africa where it was published on 11 November 2014. The article was originally published as ‘The Urban Land Question,’ in The People’s Law Journal, Issue 2.