#14 Reclaim the City

In Cape Town, apartheid pushed black residents to the edge of the city. Reclaim the city is a movement pushing back, desegregating the city through strategic long term occupations.

Click on the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to the episode on Podcast One, Stitcher or Apple iTunes.

Or use any Podcast app with our RSS Feed.

Full transcript of Episode 4 – Reclaim the City

HOST: Today on Changemakers, We are in Cape Town. It’s been almost 25 years since Apartheid was abolished, but its legacy lingers.

Apartheid was about dividing people based on the colour of their skin. In general, most black people were prevented from going where whites were, and whites never went where blacks lived.

It meant that when black people travelled into white areas to go to work, they didn’t have any of the protections that white citizens had. In fact, black people had to carry a passport with them.

Apartheid meant the state legally distinguished between black and coloured people, identities that live on in modern South Africa today.

And just a note on my language: in this episode I’m using the word black to politically include black African and coloured people.

So how do you truly desegregate a city? In Cape Town, a housing movement called Reclaim the City is using some pretty confrontational tactics to try and make it happen. This is the story about them. Let’s go.

HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world.

We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney.edu.au/policy-lab.

HOST: In 1950s, South Africa passed a series of laws called the Group Areas Acts. In cities, they were laws that assigned different racial groups to different residential and business areas.

In Cape Town, attractive places like beach areas and the inner city were declared white. Black residents were forcibly removed and sent to makeshift townships on the Cape Flats, far away from the centre of town.

Nkosikhona Swaartbooi, a resident from Khayelitsha, one of the largest Black townships in the country and the Organising Director of Reclaim the City explains.

NIKONIKOSA:  In the inner city during apartheid, the inner city will be white people, colored people were placed on 5 to 10 kilometre Black people placed in a 20 kilometre radius on the outskirts. This was informed by 1954 act which was not allowed for black and coloured people to stay in one area, had to be placed in relation to the pigment of their skin

HOST: There were black people that remained in the city. But there weren’t very many of them.

Some black people were live-in domestic staff in white homes, or lived in workers’ dormitories close by.

And other black communities were just never forcibly removed. There were a few black suburbs that the government was never able to evict, thanks to organised protest from the community living there.

The black people that remained in these places found themselves living in poor condition, but on very well-located land.

But for the most part, the Group Areas Act was a stunning success for white supremacy in South Africa. It delivered white control of expensive urban land and all the wealth and opportunity that came from that.

HOST: By the end of the 1980s, there was mounting pressure against Apartheid.

Inside South Africa, the African National Congress was growing stronger.

Across the globe, sanctions demanded by anti-apartheid activists were slowly choking South Africa’s economy, forcing the government’s hand.

Finally, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Cape Town’s Robben Island, having spent 27 years in jail.

The fall of apartheid felt big. South Africa became a democracy. Millions voted for the first time. The lives of black people would surely, dramatically change.

Yet there was a catch. Abolishing apartheid meant abolishing the horrendous legal barriers to equality. But the economic inequality between the races, remained real.

In some ways, it was the worst time for South Africa to burst onto the world stage with this particular problem.

This the early 1990s. Just before, the Berlin Wall had come down, the communist bloc had quickly crumbled, and around the globe, capitalists were doing victory laps around newly opened economies.

For the technocrats advising nations how to run these new economies, privatisation, free trade and free flow of capital was in, redistributive policies to ameliorate inequality was out.

Democracy might have arrived, but for people like Nkosikhona, then a kid growing up in a shack in Khayalitcha – life felt pretty tough both before apartheid and after it fell.

NIKONIKOSA:As a boy witnessing a lot of injustices in front of my eyes. I’ve since been stabbed and killed in front of eyes. There were not toilets my father my father actually built as a toilet because he was avoiding the paper that we had to use the Bush to relieve ourselves and it was not safe at night to do so. He built a pit and put some planks on top of that and built a toilet seat. It was the first toilet ever built in Greenpoint.

HOST: Nkosikhona says it was hard work whenever it rained.

NIKONIKOSA: You go identify holes near the  roof and put the bucket in your your ports in your dishes so as to make sure that your voice is not wet to catch the water that is dropping from the roof. So it’s townships made me who I am.

HOST: The townships weren’t really changing.

The ANC Government pushed back against the global economic headwinds, its created one of the biggest housing programs in the world – rapidly turning shacks into permanent buildings. Yet the settlements continued to overflow with people. It wasn’t enough.

The political context was hard too. The shift to democracy saw many anti-apartheid activists move into parliament and into the public service.

So if all the activists started running the state, who was left to push the state to be better? It was a problem borne of total victory, but it was still a genuine problem.

A new generation of social movement changemakers was needed.

One was Zackie Achmat, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign that fought to drop the price of antiretroviral drugs for people with AIDS.

Out of that movement, a wave of new community organisations formed, including the Social Justice Coalition focusing on Cape Town’s informal settlements. Ax Notywala is its General Secretary.

AX: The mission is creating safe communities. But focusing more on poor and working class communities people that mainly live in informal settlements.

HOST: Which, in turn, led to a focus on basic housing services like sanitation and safety issues.

AX: Majority of the focus of our work is in areas that are very far away from the inner city and these areas that are always forgotten when it comes to to basic services and dignified services.

HOST: This is because settlements are supposed to be temporary housing, a place that people end up in, in an emergency, for a few months at most. In fact, they’re anything but that. Many have existed for decades, with long term residents.

Yet because the government thinks of them as temporary they don’t bother supplying basic infrastructure – such as proper plumbing. Without that, the community fails to thrive. They end up suffering from high levels of unemployment, health problems, and violent crime.

That’s where the Social Justice Coalition comes in.

The most stark issue they have confronted has been around toilets.

One quarter of Khayelitsha’s homes do not have access to a toilet connected to a sewage system. Going to the toilet in an informal settlement can be the most vulnerable moment of the day. It is frequently where violent crime occurs, and for women that means rape.

It was during the first big sanitation campaign in Khayelitsha that Ax recruited his school friend Nkosikhona to political activism. Ax had been hassling Nkosikhona for a while to get involved, but Nkosikhona’s had some personal experiences that made him wary of politics.

NIKONIKOSA: When Ax was pushing me to get involved I was like Fuck that.

Amanda: What changed your mind?

Nkosikhona: I know he had done some background work to make sure the meeting is a very political and in a meeting and listening to people discussing issues about sanitation, water and sanitation. Oh this sounds interests but how are they doing it. What are they doing about this?

HOST: Nkosikhona’s horizons immediately broadened. He went from what is this? to, how can we do this?

NKOSIKHONA: This is something that you that’s working here hear the commission of inquiry that is establishing they’re saying that they pushed the police commissioner to investigate the community and the relationship between the residents and the police. Following day they here, walking around. This is interesting. And all of that brought back childhood memories of all the things that we’ve witnessed growing up. The town opposite my house people instead of being shot. You know people come into our house to ask permission to use it our toilets because there were no toilets there. And that make me to be interest to. You never invited me to meetings again. I was the one asking when is the next meeting. I fell in love with political activism.

HOST: The movement grew. They, Nkosikhona and the others, became experts in how to safely get rid of poo – the problems with chemical toilets, the costs of full flush toilets. They investigated every municipality in the country about their contracts for installing toilets. Then they built a GPS mapping system to pinpoint all the toilets in the township so they could be identified when they needed to be repaired. They were literally repairing the most basic experience in thousands and thousands of peoples lives.

Gavin Silber, was the co-coordinator at Social Justice Coalition, and he could see the power of what they were doing.

GAVIN: But it became a very powerful campaign I think because it spoke very directly to people’s daily experiences. It was very it became quite a symbolic campaign the fact that twenty years after apartheid we were talking about something as simple as just having a safe clean toilet to use.

HOST: But at the same time, seeds of doubt also emerged.

AX: The work that we’re doing with that it is informal settlements focusing on basic services in informal settlements and then we sort of realize that campaigning or advocating for sanitation services doesn’t just start and end there, there is a bigger picture here. There’s spatial segregation there’s spatial injustice that we have to start dealing with. And the issue of urban land.

HOST: Urban land.

For those not from South Africa these words might not resonate in the same way. But here in Cape Town, access to land is the symbolic and practical measure of inequality.

NIKONIKOSA: Land is one of the things that leads into inequality in South Africa. You have a minority of South Africans owning about 70 percent to 80 percent of land and 80% of South African owning 4% of the land.

HOST: The debate about land reform had tended to focus on rural land. But most people live in the cities. For things to change, someone needed to focus on urban land.

The Khayelitsha activists realised that no amount of improvements in the conditions of townships would change the racial segregation of Cape Town.

They knew it was about who lived where, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

Meanwhile, in a completely different part of the city there was a growing group of women who did have an idea about how this issue could be confronted. One of the leaders was Elizabeth Goobka.

ELIZABETH: I grew up on an island. I came as a domestic worker to Cape Town and I started working as a domestic worker and then I started improving myself and then I worked for a cleaning company. I became like garden designer and a landscaper and then after there I went and studied further a little bit while I’m working and I became a carer as well so at the moment I’m a carer and I’m actually caring for the elderly.

HOST: Domestic workers, aged-care workers, child-care workers. These were the people who made the city run but were so often “unseen” by the white system.

They were black women and men who had been in Cape Town’s inner city throughout apartheid, and when democracy arrived they had become more outspoken about their second class status.

Elizabeth was political. She was in the ANC and in the South African Domestic Workers Union. And she and her colleagues number one issue was – you guessed it – housing.

ELIZABETH: As a domestic worker in Sea point we saw many people got evicted on a daily basis when people aged they could not anymore be able to live in the area where they’ve been residing and working as domestic workers and the exploitation it actually expanded to such an extent that when you were married you could not live with your family your husband or your children. And therefore people were becoming like losing their jobs they losing their husbands their children started ending up in the streets and become homeless children. And we saw actually it was not only about evictions anymore.

Woman were getting raped they were getting robbed and when they get to work it’s already late and by the time they come they wake up around about 4:00 to come into the city they have to leave around about sometimes half past five half past six. By the time they get home is 8:00 and then they could not care take care of their own families and therefore we decided that this is the time that we need to unite as women to start this movement together.

HOST: At the start, these organised domestic workers struggled to build enough support to make their case heard.

But they were in luck. A small network of NGOs were looking at taking on the issue of urban land. Under the mentorship of Zacki Achmat an organisation called Ndifuna Ukwazi started exploring the space. They got some support from their partner organisations Equal Education and from Ax’s organisation – the Social Justice Coalition.

By the end of 2015, Ndifuna Ukwazi was an organisation in transition. It had been set up as a research arm of the Social Justice Coalition, but it was becoming an independent campaigning organisation itself.

It brought together lawyers, researchers and organisers under one umbrella.

At the beginning of 2016, the activists learned that an enormous Province-owned building was about to be sold. Called the Tafelberg site, it covered over 1.7 hectares of ground space and could easily fit hundreds of affordable homes.

And the land was perfectly located – smack bang in the middle of Sea Point. White, wealthy, beach-side Sea Point. Exactly the kind of place that could do with a little more diversity.

It dawned on them that this could be their urban land strategy. If they found blocks of land in the inner city and pushed for them to become affordable housing they would create more and more pockets of black housing. They could desegregate the inner city block by block, piece by piece.

The opportunity was clear, but the movement wasn’t. They needed to find a constituency who would fight for affordable housing. So Ndifuna Ukwazi went out into the community. Jared Roussow is their Co-Director.

JARED:Questionnaires at the stations and stuff you know and try and get people motivated about where they want to live like. So how long is your journey home.

And would you ever live in the city. Why can’t you. And we were sort of scrambling basically

HOST: In the process of generating support, they found their leaders.

JARED: Someone wrote to us on Facebook I think and said You do know there’s a group of domestic workers and carers in Seapoint who’ve been trying to secure their land and Daniel at that stage went out and engaged with Sheila Elizabeth and everyone there.

HOST: Elizabeth.

When Ndifuna Ukwazi met the domestic workers they knew they had found the people who could lead the urban land struggle. When Elizabeth and the domestic workers met Ndifuna Ukwazi they knew they had found an organisation that could provide resources and support.

It was just in time. By late January 2016 the Tafelberg site had been sold. The fight was on.

HOST: In February the first meeting of Reclaim the City was held.

The first problem was finding a place to meet.

ELIZABETH: That is actually our first meeting that we had on the promenade at Sea Point because we they nobody not even the the schools the churches did not actually wanted to host us.

HOST: They met on the beach, in the heart of rich, white Sea Point. A group of workers often rendered invisible gathered, and sang, and planned, having been pushed into the most visible of places.

From the very outset Elizabeth and her allies were forced into occupying public space while they made a plan to transform it.

It wouldn’t be the only time that this skill would be necessary.

HOST: From the outset, Reclaim the City was able to use a sophisticated set of powers as it harnessed the skills of it’s support organisation – Ndifuna Ukwazi.

ELIZABETH: And then we actually started building reclaim the city from these foremothers and this is when they could assist us with issues like giving us like training skills uplifting us well things that we actually weren’t aware to deal with. In also assisting us with lawyers which we could not afford to have lawyers because the money that we were earning was not enough that we could take care.

HOST: Lawyers were critical. In South Africa there is a history of movement lawyering, dating back to the early days of the anti-apartheid struggle. The 1994 constitution was itself a radical document, creating lots of new rights, including the right to housing.

The Constitution has generated plenty of experimental work where activists and lawyers try and use the law as an arm of social movement power. The Tafelberg site would be a great testing ground, at a time when the whole nation was discussing the role of land in transforming the country.

In order to stop the transfer of Tafelberg, they had to find a legal loophole. So Mandisa Shandu NU’s Co-Director and Head of Law worked on the case.

MANDISA: So that’s what the case was able to practically do was to stop the transfer of the land because we read we got that interdict in place.

HOST: It wasn’t a win, but it put the transfer of land on hold for the moment. Crucially, it gave the movement time to organise.

Over the following months, the movement’s organising capacity was in full flight. There were protests, the collection of submissions and letters, a night vigil, even a “dance-a-thon” in support of the affordable housing project.

At the same time, the movement’s researchers developed a feasibility study to demonstrate how the site could contain over 270 affordable dwellings if it were social housing.

Meanwhile the legal case required the Province to engage in formal consultation with the community.

The following summer the street-battle, legal battle, research battle continued. They contacted everyone they could think of. Businesses, churches, mosques, even academics. By the end, they had organised 5000 submissions.

Even so, the activists had a deepening sense that they were not going to win.

When they presented the submissions to the Provincial Premier, she ignored them.

And a deadline loomed. In March, the Provincial Cabinet were going to decide the fate of Tafelberg.

Sensing hostility, Reclaim the City did what it traditionally had done – they picketed the meeting, setting up a camp outside the Cabinet offices, and sleeping there.

48 hours later. The Premier announced the sale would go ahead.

They were devastated.

But what could they do?

Usually this would be where the story ends. Protests fail, submissions continue. Social movements go back to the drawing board.

Not here.

The truth was that the Provincial Government had been leaking like a sieve and the activists knew that they would probably lose this battle.

But they also had learnt something about what it takes to reclaim a city. That just lobbying and asking wasn’t enough. They needed to have a more visible claim over the places that needed to be changed.

They knew that place is politics. That most of the townships began as occupations.

Reclaim the City identified a Nursing home in Sea Point and a Hospital in Woodstock that could potentially be social housing.

In fact, months before the disappointing decision, over a beer in inner city Cape Town, a brainstorm had already began about what it would take to occupy the spaces that could be social housing. It was the beginning of detailed plans. It involved lots of meetings, but also a lot of on site surveillance.

As one person, whose can’t go on tape, described it – they were like the FBI doing overnight reconnaissance.

Initially the plan was modest. Get in, occupy. Show that these spaces should be spaces for the people. Wait to get kicked out.

So the day after the Province declared that they would sell Tafelberg, again, Reclaim the City was ready to go.

Activists, pretending to be officials from an animal welfare organisation, entered the buildings, and started an occupation.

They were waiting to be kicked out.

But they weren’t.

ELIZABETH: Helen Zayla is the premier and she was told there is an occupation that’s been taken place and she said No leave them they’re gonna get tired. And up until today we had never got tired.

HOST: They stayed.

Interestingly, the occupation space changed over time.

Initially, it was a space for political engagement and discussion.

Then a decision was made. The two occupations would become emergency housing for evictees. Reclaim the City would provide housing to people in the inner city. They would show their government what they should be doing.

HOST: Suddenly, the activists had to learn a lot of new skills. Emergency housing, they discovered, doesn’t just run itself.

The number of people staying grew to hundreds. They developed regular meetings to plan how they would keep the place clean, safe and create a system for providing accomodation for people in need.

Shaneeka Abdullah from Woodstock – up on the eastern side of inner-city Cape Town was one of these people.

SHANEEKA: I was evicted last year in April on the 7th. I was staying in Pelican Park as a resident I was renting apartment there one bedroom staying with my husband and my two kids are just gave birth at the time came from hospital and then got a letter saying that I must be out.

HOST: Woodstock was one of those communities that had been diverse even during apartheid. But it was gentrifying fast. And with that had come a wave of evictions as landlords kicked out low paying renters to make space for richer, and often whiter, tenants.

The evictions were brutal.

SHANEEKA: My neighbors phoned me to say Shinnick you have to come immediately all your stuff is outside on the road in front of the door and there’s a new lock on the door.

HOST: She raced home only to find that much of her stuff had been stolen before she got there. For a day or two she sought help from friends and family. But it didn’t last.

SHANEEKA: At the time I was very hard also because it was raining and I took my little baby and my 11 year old daughter and I said to my husband we don’t have a choice now to sleep in the car. And it was nine o’clock that evening you just said to me Shaneeka I’m just going to park the car on a whatever corner because I’m tired of driving around looking for a place of which we can’t find. So we need to sleep in the vehicle. We sleep in the vehicle our bodies was very sore.

HOST: During the day Shenneeka and her husband Gasant tried to find somewhere to stay. For two more nights they slept in their car.

Then on the third morning, Shaneeka stumbled into some luck.

SHANEEKA: I went through my phone laying in the car there and I just saw this ad on Facebook Reclaim the City and I went through it and I said to him I was so excited sitting here this is a Reclaim the City the first time I hear of them and they say they can, they’re accommodating people that is homeless and I said to him Gassant lets go and have a try and see what the Reclaim this is all about. We drove off. We came to Woodstock and then I saw all those people gathering outside and my daughter was asking momma what is this all about. And I said we are here to find out what it’s all about.

HOST: Shaneeka went into the meeting, signed up and heard that Reclaim the City not only was fighting for affordable housing but had created some emergency housing for people like her.

She immediately started talking to the organisers.

SHANEEKA: He’s also one of the leaders and he spoke to me say to me Shaneeka I feel so sorry for you for what you going through because I explained my situation. He said to me yes let’s put your name on the list this is for accommodation. We do have rooms available but we need to discuss under our leadership in the House.

HOST: Shaneeka and her family left. They had to wait. Then, while at a friend’s house for lunch the next day.

SHANEEKA: I set the table my phone rang and heard this voice sounded like the guy was spoken The day before Shane and it was like mmm is this Shaneeka can I speak and I was like yes it’s me. And he said to me ma’am this is a guy you spoke to yesterday and I started crying when I knew. And they say to me ma’am I’ve got good news for you. And he said to me. We decided that we are gonna accommodate you. And he said to me you can come through your room is available. And I was like I can’t believe this. I came back to Woodstock and they were still guys waiting for me **Takatani and Shane and they took me to the room and open the door and I was like I couldn’t believe it. The biggest room ever I didn’t even bargain for that are still up to the day. I can’t believe that from where I came from sleeping in the car. Here a big room is a waiting for me and I was like God really came through for me at the time.

HOST: It was the power of actually being able to solve people’s housing problems while also campaigning for affordable housing that made Reclaim the City different.

Here, evictions have been a real, live, escalating crisis. There are waves of new apartments being built with hundreds of residents being evicted at a time.

On top of this, the City of Cape Town’s solution to evictions had an apartheid feel to it. They had built a relocation camp called Wolwerivier 35 km out of town.

AMANDA RECORDING WOLVERIVER: So I’m standing in the middle of views of Wollvierview it’s like being on a farm except it’s a camp of about at least a thousand people. Everyone living in tin sheds with washing hanging out and kids running around and dirt on the roads because they’re not tarred and electrical wires running to the homes but there’s no school and there’s no there’s no infrastructure at all and we’re an hour and a half’s drive out of Cape Town’s downtown.

HOST: Wolwerivier is a relocation camp to house people who have been evicted.

Wolwerivier scares people. People like Faghmeeda Ling from Woodstock who faces eviction and recently visited the camp.

FAGHMEEDA LING: Oh my goodness. When I went there you know Amanda would not if I’ve been the system up I would have sleepless nights thinking that I have to send people to go stay in a drought. It’s like a desert. It’s you know this is very close to my heart when I speak about Wollviriver I get very emotional because of what it stands and having people live in circumstances like that.

HOST: In Cape Town, in turns out, the relocation of poor people didn’t end with the Group Areas Act.

HOST: Thanks to Reclaim the City there were now two anchors for a people-powered inner city housing movement. The two occupations – renamed as Cissie Gool House in Woodstock and the Ahmed Kathrada House in Sea Point – were places where people can rebuild their lives.

They are special places. When I visited Cissie Gool House in Woodstock I got some of the children to give me a tour.

OCCUPATION GUIDE – KIDS TOUR: OK so we ended the occupation and I’ve got a bunch of kids who want to say hello. Hello. Hello. Hi T.J. fires Hello. What I see is that it used to be a hospital right because it looks like a hospital it’s got bumper bars along the side to make sure that the beds don’t fall into the wall light work. Yeah but they’re fluorescent lights. They’re still on. Luckily we walk down and then in the rooms instead of them in the rooms being open there’s a is being open they’re all they’re locked because that’s where people live. So tell me about the kitchen. This is what this water, oven is gas is like Cubbage blinds. It looks like a kitchen straight out of the 1970s. These white tiles with lime green tinge and old cupboards were filled with people’s materials and a microwave. Everything you’d need right. Every so often you see a place where someone’s got to shop and they’re selling stuff in case you need extra toilet paper or milk or crackers. Every so often you see a place where someone’s got to shop and they’re selling stuff in case you need extra toilet paper or milk or crackers.

Oh my gosh here’s the old operating theatre and what’s this room used for now. So this is this is this is the washing room. I never wash miss a room but the washing machine is not that there’s the lights from the operating theatre. Oh and here is one now. Now it’s used for washing. This is the hospital used to save people’s lives and outside people’s lives in a different way.

HOST: But the occupations are also deeply political spaces. They’re a place to organise.

JARED: The occupations provided practically a place to meet just literally to meet. And it was easier to meet there because people were living there were at least enough people were living there to follow the heart of at least a collective to make decisions. There was something tangible here whereas before it was come to a meeting and there’s a promise of a distant something now join this movement.

And it it it’s just given gravitas it’s given place it’s given meaning and and shelter I think to people in the movements you know so I think it’s fundamentally transformed I think the occupations whether it has been the thing that that built it.

HOST: Most nights of the week the occupations host political meetings. They have chapter meetings where local actions and strategy are discussed, and house meetings where they plan out how they will manage their increasingly large emergency housing centre.

But managing a valuable service is not without its challenges.

NIKONIKOSA: It also opens up opportunists to infiltrate our movement and to try and disrupt the workings of the movement.

HOST: Political movements and political parties have tried to take control of the space. Others have sought to exploit divisions and moments of violence that have occured. On top of that, police and security guards have violently attacked residents, and the Province has threatened to evict people.

HOST: Despite these attacks, Reclaim the City has focused its work on the city’s housing crisis. And has achieved some small wins along the way.

But by early 2017, evictions were getting out of hand and the traditional approach of trying to provide 1-1 expert legal support to those affected, was not working.

Indeed it was a bit of a crisis. No amount of lawyers could support the number of people needing help. People were left going to court on their own without representation, and often being evicted illegally.

Reclaim the City didn’t have a practical solution to help. They needed some new ideas.

And then just at that moment walks in Adria Rodriguez from Barcelona en Comu in March 2017. You could think of it as the story from our very first ChangeMakers episode walking right into the middle of this story.

Barcelona en Comu was the political party created by Housing activists that won government in the City of Barcelona in 2015.

Rodriguez was in Cape Town to meet someone else, but Reclaim the City got his attention and they met. Rodriguez invited Reclaim the City to a conference in Barcelona, hosted by a network called Fearless Cities — a loose coalition of cities from around the world that think citizens are more important than capital.

The Fearless City conference they attended was fun. But the strategy changing encounter happened after the conference when they met with La PAH.

La PAH – the Platform for People affected by Mortgages. Founded in Barcelona, it was the movement that grew out of the Global Financial Crisis, and challenged half a million evictions in Spain.

They had been working on the issue of evictions longer than Reclaim the City, and they had some interesting strategies to share

Their breakthrough idea? The Advice Assembly.

These happened every Monday. The idea was simple. An open meeting between 20 to 50 people, where those threatened with eviction could get up and tell their story. Then, those who had experienced eviction could get up and give advice. It threw the lawyer-as-expert model out the window and put people in charge of their own challenges.

It captivated the team from Reclaim the City.

NIKONIKOSA: When we went to Spain and Barcelona when we actually visit the Advice Assembly. It makes sense to say this is exactly what we wanted. We didn’t know that it works in this kind way and we actually wanted to say you had a session with one of the advice assembly – the La PAH – leaders to ask questions just to inform 2 hours what we for the first time we’re found what we want it and we try to extract knowledge as much as we can in those 2nd day before we left spain and come back to south africa.

HOST: So the organisers returned with a new idea in hand. The idea of Advice Assemblies resonated deeply with others back in Cape Town, in part because of the anti-apartheid movement’s own history with Advice Offices.

The occupation sites became the testing ground for this new idea – first in Woodstock then in Sea Point.

It wasn’t easy. It was a challenge to build a space where leaders had the experience to help and coach each other. And NU staff sometimes found it hard to step out of the role of expert researcher or expert lawyer and let the expertise that lay in the room teach those experiencing eviction.

But they persisted. They evaluated and changed. People who were facing eviction became core Reclaim the City leaders as a consequence of going through this process. People like Lumumba Chia who was about to be evicted from his home in Woodstock and was desperately seeking help.

LUMUMBA: So when I went out and told me about the AA advice assembly in Woodstock and given the fact that I’m stayed in Woodstock I knew the place. And then and then it is every Tuesday and I came and I brought my papers. And then there were comrades here who were it was time for question and answer and then took my they gave me the floor an express my mind and said This is what is happening and the advice from from comrades on the ground and there is some sort of legal experts on the floor today. So I had some advice.

HOST: It took over six months but Lumumba  stopped his eviction. And in that time, he became a leader in the local housing movement.

LUMUMBA: That was how I came to be very active with them and with the advice assembly then subsequently with reclaim the city with what they have been doing and has been amazing and I’ve been part been part and parcel of it.

HOST: Desegregating a city is almost absurdly ambitious. But in Cape Town someone has to do it.

For years Reclaim the City has been battling for inner city housing, and for many lifetimes black leaders have been fighting for justice.

And up until recently, not much had been gained.

JARED: One Other thing to say is that it would be unfair to say that reclaim the city came on the scene made these demands and then the city turned. It’s not the way it’s kind of worked you know at the provincial level we haven’t shifted anything. We’re in court. We’ve been absolutely obstinate. She gave us these in a day just there has been no shift.

HOST: The difficulty of the fight helps explain the strategy’s audacity. They needed to create emergency housing and spaces for collective eviction advice because it felt like no one else was going to do it for them.

That is, until there was a ray of light.

On 5 September 2018 the City Government rezoned a massive Sea Point health precinct, capable of fitting up to 1000 affordable homes, as the first step to building social housing in the inner city. It’s just the first step. Every step will need to be monitored and negotiated.

But it is a step. The first affordable housing in inner city Cape Town since democracy in 1994.

Yet it has to be built right and that will take time. But who better to hold the Government to account than a poor people’s movement that has taken up residency in the inner city and prides its role as Reclaiming the City.


Join our weekly email list to hear our latest musings, podcasts and training. Click on this button to subscribe:




Stay Up to Date!