Black Squatters, White Suburb

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Apartheid has been extremely effective in keeping the white affluent reality apart from the black uneducated, impoverished, undeveloped reality," the Ratepayers Association's Lazarus observes. "For the first time, the communities could actually talk to each other. The first two months I would say were more a therapeutic than a developmental process."

More-right-wing committee members experienced profound shifts in consciousness. The squatters learned that some whites did have their interests at heart, and they acquired confidence and decisionmaking skills. Dicky Meter, the local African National Congress (ANC) representative and a frequent spokesperson for the squatters, says, "We learned we can take to the street as many times as we want, but after a while we'll have to sit down at the table."

THE process was fruitful but slowmoving. In the meantime, the squatters have struggled to maintain their dignity amidst squalid living conditions. A squatter named Justice proudly displays the house he built, but like most of the homes it is vulnerable to water and sewage runoff from the hills. A vicious wind cuts through the shack of another squatter named Emily, constructed from scraps of zinc, plastic, and cardboard. The filth-encrusted toilets are shared by many families. "All I want is my own site a nd my own toilet," Emily says.

Imizamo Yethu has no school. While small businesses - drinking establishments, hair salons, vegetable stalls, herbal doctors - have sprouted up, unemployment in the settlement may be as high as 75 percent. Over half the households in Imizamo Yethu earn under $200 per month.

The urgent need to escape these conditions may have instigated the Liaison Committee's end. After the committee had reached a tentative consensus on a layout plan, Imizamo Yethu unilaterally adopted a plan supported by the CPA but vociferously opposed by ratepayers as a township layout and "toilet town." The squatters' representatives concede that considerations of time rather than merit prompted their decision.

The damage to goodwill from the Liaison Committee's rancorous end is slowly healing. Squatters say they want to work with ratepayers to establish nonracial local government. And Lazarus says, "If whites don't want a ghetto, then they're going to have to reach into their own pockets to upgrade and integrate the settlement."

Lazarus says whites also are morally obligated to help, and the ANC's Meter agrees. "It is not by chance that whites own almost all of Hout Bay, because it's been reserved for them."

But ratepayer Barry Wrankmore resents any implication of a free ride. "I left home when I was 15, I educated myself. ... I worked flippin' hard to get what I have. I'm not racist, I just happen to have white skin. I'm tired of everything being blamed on apartheid."

Some whites maintain that siting the squatters on less valuable, less controversial land would make economic and cultural sense. Meter replies simply, "We will have to change the face of this country, and there is no way Hout Bay is going to escape that. It's part of South Africa."

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