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Black Squatters, White Suburb

Residents of Hout Bay, a bedroom community outside Cape Town, struggle to achieve interracial cooperation

By Amy WaldmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 19, 1993


SHELTERED by mountains on three sides, exposed to the sea on the fourth, this stunning Cape Town suburb encompasses the social, political, and economic relationships created by apartheid and reconfigured by apartheid's demise.

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Whites in this bedroom community, despite a history of political progressiveness, fought to evict black squatters. "It's the not-in-my-backyard syndrome ... [the attitude that] changes must happen ... as long as it doesn't affect us," says Jo Lazarus, vice president of the whites-only Ratepayers Association. But recently Hout Bay has tried a pioneering experiment in cooperation.

Political loyalties of the white, black, and colored (mixed-race) residents range from the staunchly right-wing Conservative Party to the militant, left Pan-Africanist Congress. The 5,000 whites are among the country's wealthiest. For years, they coexisted with 5,000 colored residents living in an overcrowded township above the harbor.

Now both groups reside with the 2,000 blacks who live in a squatter camp called Imizamo Yethu ("through our collective efforts"). The squatters' patchwork shacks sit in the midst of the white suburb, on a prime piece of land provided, ironically, by a whites-elected government.

Under apartheid, separate Houses of Parliament govern whites and coloreds. Because blacks have no representation, the whites-only House assumed responsibility for the squatters. Some had been in Hout Bay for many years; others came seeking work or following relatives after the repeal of restrictive movement laws.

In 1990, the housing minister moved the squatters to their present site. Whites in Hout Bay did not take kindly to the plummeting property values and rising crime rates the squatters allegedly brought.

HOUT Bay reflects a national trend to grant homeless blacks land in formerly whites-only areas. It also highlights the countrywide problem of how to efficiently and humanely house 7 million squatters. The Cape Provincial Administration (CPA), which administers Imizamo Yethu and other Cape squatter sites, provides squatters with land, a water tap, and a toilet ("site and service"). Housing, infrastructure, and employment would require three times the funds being spent on site and service. Urban planners s ay that the inability to conceptualize beyond this short-term, minimum-cost solution may have negative long-term social consequences.

Common squatter problems have been magnified in Imizamo Yethu. The squatters were crowded onto a small section of their site, with only a few taps and toilets, until the site could be upgraded. Two years later, the upgrading has yet to begin.

The delay stems in part from a novel initiative that brought the communities together to negotiate the camp's development. For seven months, the Hout Bay Liaison Committee, composed of representatives of the squatters, the ratepayers, and occasionally the colored harbor residents, met biweekly. The national press hailed it as a model for a democratic South Africa.