Elizabeth Gqoboka heard the ocean long before she saw it, a low roar sliding in through the open bus window.
She signaled for the driver to stop, then followed the sound until she reached the Sea Point Promenade, a ribbon of boardwalk slung along the coast in central Cape Town.
It was the mid 1990s, and in front of Ms. Gqoboka were two things she had never seen before. One was the ocean. The other the desegregated beach beside it.
“We were young, we didn’t have money, but there we were, walking barefoot on the beach with everyone else,” recalls Gqoboka, who had recently moved from a small town and found work cleaning houses in the city. “After that, I could never get the scenery of Sea Point out of my mind.”
As she walked home that evening with her friends, she made herself a promise: she would come back here, not to visit, but to live.
Today, Gqoboka is a rarity among the working class Capetonians who scrub Sea Point’s floors, tend its gardens, and count change in its shops: She actually does live here. Her home is a cramped, one-room “servants’ quarters” wedged amid the beachfront art deco high-rises that make this one of the city’s most affluent postal codes.
Like all of South Africa’s cities, Cape Town was purposefully built to divide, and that pattern of segregation has long outlasted the system that created it. On a population map, the city is a mosaic, the racial boundaries of its neighborhoods still mostly sharp and easily defined. They follow apartheid’s logic almost flawlessly: the closer you are to the city center or the coast, the richer and whiter a neighborhood is; the further toward the periphery, the poorer and blacker (with a few exceptions).
But over the past several months, a group of community activists here, including Gqoboka, have made a simple but potentially far-reaching challenge to that divide. In court, protest, and petition, they have demanded that the Western Cape province halt the sale of a large parcel of land it owns in Sea Point, pushing instead for it to be transformed into affordable housing for the poor.
The demand has pitted them against a formidable foe – the neighborhood’s deeply rooted status quo – but also something much larger, the country’s history. If the activists succeed in having the site turned into affordable housing, it will flip the script on how South Africa’s cities were developed during apartheid – but also on how they’re still being developed today.
ANC's building program
“Many people of color living in this city love Cape Town, but they still don’t feel like they belong here,” says Hopolang Selebalo, head of research at Ndifuna Ukwazi, the legal NGO leading the challenge against the sale. “That’s because we have a government that is still putting working-class black and colored [mixed race] people in spaces where they struggle to access jobs, health care, and education and expecting that everything will just be okay. It’s not sustainable at all.”
The current growing pains of South Africa’s cities date back to 1994 and the nearly inscrutable urban-planning riddle that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress inherited as it took over from the segregationist government: How do you bring people together in cities purposefully designed to keep them apart? Is it possible to transform a place whose very infrastructure is your enemy?
Those answers never became obvious or easy, and so the ANC government instead turned its focus to a different but equally herculean task: building housing for the country’s poor. Over the past two decades, it has constructed a staggering 3 million homes – and it is still on the job, building about 100,000 houses per year.
But many argue that project has come at a steep social cost. As Ms. Selebalo notes, nearly all of that new housing sits on cheap land far from urban centers. For working-class South Africans, the consequences of that are dire. South Africa’s poorest spend more than 20 percent of their income, to say nothing of their time, on transportation.
“We can’t keep building houses on the periphery of our cities and expect the lives of people to improve,” Selebalo says. “You’re just perpetuating an old problem.”
Neighborhoods' daily 'tides'
For Songo Tinise, South Africa’s urban divide means she rises well before dawn each morning to begin the long string of walks and bus rides that take her from home to the city center, an hour and a half away, where she fought to enroll in a school better than any found in her neighborhood.
Early this year, she heard that Ndifuna Ukwazi and other activist groups were attempting to reverse the sale of a city block in Sea Point known as Tafelberg to a local private school. Although the sale had already gone through, the NGO argued that the city hadn’t adequately consulted the public on whether or not the land was, in fact, “surplus” to the province’s needs and thus eligible to be sold off.
But for Ms. Tinise, the campaign struck her because it seemed to be about something much bigger. Growing up, she had watched how affluent neighborhoods like Sea Point operated as though by the tides. During the day, they filled with people of all colors – working and socializing in the shops and along the beach front. But at night, the crowds receded, and the neighborhoods turned several shades paler.
“So what you’re saying is, you want our mothers to come and work for you during the day – that is OK – but you don’t want them living with you,” says Tinise, whose own mother is a domestic worker in the city.
As Ndifuna Ukwazi’s challenge gathered momentum in the early months of this year, it gained thousands of supporters like Tinise and Gqoboka, who says that despite two decades living in Sea Point, she still knows that to many other residents there, she will never belong.
“It’s like there is a red line, and when you cross it you know immediately,” she says. It is the hard stare she gets when she walks through the door of certain restaurants here, or the daily humiliation of being forced to enter her own apartment building through a back gate. The tiny room she rents there is a living relic of a time when most luxury apartments came equipped with living quarters for the occupants’ full-time maid – apartheid’s crude concession to the white desire for on-call domestic help. Having more working class people living in the neighborhood, she reasons, might slowly reverse the hostility she feels.
Local residents' views
In May, NU won a court order to halt the sale of Tafelberg, successfully arguing that the province had not properly consulted the public before it inked the deal with the private school. The court ordered the government to reopen the sale for public comment, a move so unprecedented that it surprised even the activists working on the case.
“I don’t think they have ever come this close to a sale and then said, let’s go back in time and do the process over again,” Selebalo says.
By the close of the new comment period three weeks later, the activists had gathered testimonies from more than 900 people and organizations who opposed the sale, as well as a petition with more than 4,000 signatures. But the opposition was formidable as well, and included one group whose views will be hard for the city to discount – local residents.
“No informed person can believe that Sea Point offers a viable opportunity to spend public money on affordable housing,” said David Polovin, deputy chairman of the Sea Point, Fresnaye, Bantry Bay Ratepayers and Residents Association (SFB), in an interview with a local newspaper in May. “What we’ve heard instead are political imaginings that take no account of town planning considerations, budgetary constraints, and the optimal use of thin resources for competing demands.”
Initially, the province told the activists it would deliver a verdict on the land within a month’s time, but it has yet to do so, and a spokesman for the province told The Christian Science Monitor “it is not possible” to speculate on when the decision will be made.
On a recent afternoon, Susie Hoffman, a longtime Sea Point resident whose house sits across the street from the Tafelberg site, told the Monitor she was concerned an affordable housing plan would lower the value of her property.
“This site has always been a school,” she says, referring to the site’s former life as the Tafelberg Remedial School. “I don’t know why in the future it must be anything different.”