City cannot continue to ignore the crisis at Wolwerivier

| Daneel Knoetze
Nkosi Malibongwe Jonga speaking at a community meeting in Wolwerivier two weeks ago. Photo by Daneel Knoetze.

There is a deepening crisis of overcrowding, joblessness, insecurity and general destitution at Wolwerivier relocation camp. The community have explained their experiences, along with a call for engagement and support, in writing to the City of Cape Town. Their letter was ignored.

“Clearly, the City think that they are speaking to baboons, because they would not treat people like this. I refuse to be treated as a baboon.” So pastor Nkosi Malibongwe Jonga communicated the frustrations of Skandaalkamp’s community a month after their relocation to the City of Cape Town built Wolwerivier settlement.

The meeting at which he spoke took place two weeks ago, on Wolwerivier’s open gravel yard just before sunset. It was the first time that Skandaalkamp’s people had communally reflected on life at their new homes. They have only been at Wolwerivier for six weeks. Yet, as those weeks turn to months and years they fear that the obstacles of life on the urban periphery, if left unabated, could grow into insurmountable barriers.

Urgent, sustained and integrated support from the City of Cape Town, working with their partners in other spheres of government, is needed to ensure that Wolwerivier does not become defined by the social ills typical of apartheid era relocation camps. This is especially important to acknowledge as we enter into the debate over the City’s plans to extend Wolwerivier to 6,000 housing units — an agricultural area currently devoid of the infrastructure, social amenities and job opportunities needed to sustain its current — never mind projected — population of peri-urban poor.

The community meeting also brought all three relocated communities — Skandaalskamp, Rooidakkies and Richwood informal settlement — together in common purpose for the first time. This is significant because, in spite of the language and cultural barriers which could inhibit solidarity between poor Afrikaans and Xhosa speaking people, these communities will be inseparable both in proximity and struggle for the foreseeable future.

They fear that the obstacles of life on the urban periphery, if left unabated, could grow into insurmountable barriers.

Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU) has been monitoring the transition and experiences of the affected families for several weeks. We can attest that the concerns and frustrations raised at the meeting (and subsequently delivered in writing to the City) are reflected in the nuanced and often painful experiences of dozens of individuals and families. To date, the City has failed to acknowledge receipt of the letter, or to respond to the call for an urgent meeting. As such, the contents of the community’s grievances and demands have been published, along with a call for the City to take, and not to shun, the hand extended to it by the Wolwerivier community.

Most immediately pressing for them is a resolution to deal with chronic overcrowding. There are not enough units available to house the number of people who have been moved into Wolwerivier. There are instances where at least two families are sharing a 24m2 structure. Other communities soon to follow, Richwood and the Wolwerivier area’s farm dwellers, have seen this and anticipate that their own extended families would be forced into cramped and generic shacks. Instead of addressing overcrowding, the City has centred its efforts on protecting unoccupied structures from “invasion” through private security companies and the Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU) who have a permanent presence at the camp.

The combative presence of the ALIU has also prevented the community from rebuilding pastor Jonga’s church which was torn down at Skandaalkamp during the move. It was both a place for worship and community gathering. Today meetings are held outside and during daylight hours.

There are not enough units available to house the number of people who have been moved into Wolwerivier.

Streetlights, mobile health services and scholar transport, all incidentally conditions upon which the Western Cape government issued the environmental authorisation for the building of Wolwerivier, had not been completed or extended to the settlement before the move. Subsequently, children were regularly missing school because of a taxi commute which is either too expensive or too inconsistent for many families to rely on. This scenario, according to Education MEC Debbie Schafer during a recent radio debate with NU and Equal Education (EE), could have been avoided with a phone call from the City to the provincial department at the time of the relocation. That phone call was not made.

Equally absent was input from Mayco Member for Human Settlements Benedicta van Minnen, who did not respond to Radio 786’s request that she join the panel. For its part, the Western Cape Education Department has belatedly ensured that school busses now include Wolwerivier on its route.

Disappointingly, the environmental authorisation does not compel the City to mitigate the impact of removing Skandaalkamp’s 250 families from the limited economic opportunity (rag picking and recycling) they had at the Vissershok dump. Skandaalkamp was located in an unhealthy and economically deficient environment. Yet, a move to an area where even the most limited income and sustenance is not replaced by, at minimum, equivalent prospects signals a downgrading in any community’s sustainability.

The combative presence of the ALIU has also prevented the community from rebuilding pastor Jonga’s church which was torn down at Skandaalkamp during the move.

The City’s claim that Wolwerivier is located in a “growth corridor”, seemingly enough of an assurance to the officials drafting the environmental authorisation, needs to be tested against this current reality. The calls from the community meeting — for scholar transport, streetlights, more units and health services — were accompanied by another important demand: that the City’s Human Settlements directorate — protagonists in conception of, and relocations to Wolwerivier — help find solutions towards economic sustainability. If it cannot do so by itself, it needs to engage other government departments.

Owing to the cold and wet weather over the last few days, Wolwerivier’s committee has shifted a general meeting to discuss the City’s lack of response to next week. At the same time, NU aims to build a coalition of support among civil society to stand with Wolwerivier in their efforts to improve their situation.

Yet, it is important also that we use the microcosm of the community’s experience and challenges (as well as the City’s current refusal to engage on these) as a litmus test for the proposal of extending Wolwerivier to around 6,000 housing units. NU is in the process of studying the years of public participation, planning and motivation for Wolwerivier’s establishment.

At what public expense, especially considering the major endeavour of connecting bulk water, sewage and electricity to a rural area, was Wolwerivier built? What are the City’s patterns of consultation with communities earmarked for relocation? And, what are the real reasons for establishing a relocation camp on the furthest reaches of the urban periphery?

For other coverage by GroundUp and Daneel Knoetze on the Wolwerivier relocations, please see the following:

Daneel Knoetze is the urban land justice researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Government Housing Human Rights Wolwerivier

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