Dirty tricks: The battle to control the Helen Bowden and Woodstock Hospital occupations

There have been violent attempts to take over Helen Bowden and a smear campaign against Ndifuna Ukwazi’s leaders

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Photo Woodstock Hospital
Eviction is not the only threat to Reclaim the City’s occupations of Woodstock Hospital (above) and Helen Bowden Nurses Home. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Series on Reclaim the City’s occupations

  1. Two occupations are shifting the housing debate - 29 Aug 2018
  2. How the occupations happened - 27 Mar 2017
  3. Helen Bowden’s dodgy security contract - 13 Apr 2018
  4. Room with a view: living in Helen Bowden - 26 Jul 2018
  5. Life in Woodstock Hospital - 31 Jul 2018
  6. Allegations of violence at Helen Bowden - 29 Aug 2018
  7. Dirty tricks: the battle to control the occupations - 29 Aug 2018
  8. Editorial: Our view on the occupations - 29 Aug 2018

The press ombudsman reprimanded GroundUp “for falsely stating, as fact, that Graham had ‘left the EFF and now organises with Dugmore and Umhlaba Wethu’ (my underlining), implying that she did not work with UWD while she was a member of the EFF, and thereby stimulating the narrative that the organisation was a ‘front for the ANC”’. GroundUp has been directed to make a correction at this point in the article. At the point of correction, the original text is struck out and replaced with text in bold. All other complaints by Umhlaba Wethu against this article were dismissed. Umhlaba Wethu’s appeal was also dismissed. Here is the ruling.

Reclaim the City occupied Helen Bowden Nurses Home and Woodstock Hospital in March 2017. Since then the organisation has had to fend off attempts to take over the occupations by rival groups.

The most serious of these happened on 23 November 2017 at Helen Bowden, which the organisation has dubbed Ahmed Kathrada House. According to Reclaim the City, the occupation was “captured by individuals who used intimidation, threats of violence and force over the weeks before to gain entry”.

“Around 30 people forcefully entered Ahmed Kathrada House, bypassing security who had the keys to lock the gates to protect the House. The group intimidated people, kicked in doors and claimed rooms. At least one comrade was beaten up.” Reclaim the City says that the majority were aligned to a well-known student political group at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. One member of the group was responsible for burning a building during student protests at the university, according to Reclaim the City.

Reclaim the City says this group included “at least seven armed thugs whom they installed on the fourth floor. Some have now left.”

The organisation has published a statement on Facebook describing the events of that night. This wasn’t the first attempt by a new group of people to enter the occupation. A document obtained by GroundUp written by the security company protecting Helen Bowden to the provincial government states that on 6 September 2017, about 50 people tried to enter the premises. When they could not get in they pelted the guards with “bottles and other things”.

Woodstock Hospital has been less contested and more peaceful than Helen Bowden. But about a month ago a group of men tried to enter it at night, saying they wanted accommodation. A witness told GroundUp that a cool-headed police officer talked them into leaving, pointing out that it is impolite to come in the middle of the night to ask for accommodation.

Reclaim the City has also rebuffed attempts by political parties, including members of the SACP, EFF and ANC, to organise in Helen Bowden. “Our movement is non-partisan,” the organisation told GroundUp by email. “The occupation could easily be captured by political parties, opportunists and criminals, when we wanted to make it a home for workers.”

Tensions with the ANC’s Cameron Dugmore

Tension has been escalating between Reclaim the City and Ndifuna Ukwazi, the NGO that assists it with legal and technical support, on the one hand, and on the other hand Cameron Dugmore, a Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature for the ANC.

Reclaim the City accuses Dugmore and a Sea Point resident, Lucy Graham, of setting up a “rival housing organisation” called Umhlaba Wethu, which started in 2017 (their website started in May 2018). “We think Umhlaba Wethu is a front for the ANC in Sea Point,” says Reclaim the City.

“Dugmore saw the work we have been doing in Sea Point to stop the sale of public land and we think he wanted to ride the wave to build his profile,” says Reclaim the City. “We think he wanted to use the occupations to help rebuild an ANC branch in Sea Point where he has old friends.”

Dugmore says Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City have done “hugely valuable work in raising the issue of apartheid spatial planning” in the city. But he says the organisations are “gatekeeping” because of their antagonism to Umhlaba Wethu. He says Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City are failing to act on “serious allegations of violence, intimidation, gender-based violence and ‘in house evictions’ taking place at the occupation. Of particular concern is not only that the SAPS in Sea Point has not acted on many of these incidents despite formal charges having been laid but that both Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City, despite having been informed about these incidents, have failed to intervene and assist by taking action against those alleged to be involved.”

Dugmore provided a list of things he believed Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City should have done to deal with the allegations of violence (see interview with him below), but GroundUp’s investigation indicates that most of these things were in fact done.

Who was NGOwatch?

Lucy Graham used to organise with the EFF at the Helen Bowden occupation but was rebuked by Reclaim the City for doing so. There are also photos showing her jumping over the wall of Helen Bowden with other EFF members, something that raised the ire of Reclaim the City. She organises with Dugmore and Umhlaba Wethu. She has left the EFF. and now (These last two sentences have been transposed. - Editor)

Graham says that she was approached in 2017 to support Umhlaba Wethu. “I agreed to support and assist this campaign. I am a supporter, not a director. I receive no personal benefit or salary from my support of Umhlaba Wethu Development … I am not an ANC member,” she said.

Graham has been linked to a Facebook page called NGOwatch that published anonymous smears about Ndifuna Ukwazi staff, including Jared Rossouw and Nkosikhona Swaartbooi, board member Shuaib Manjra, and one of Reclaim the City’s Helen Bowden leaders Sheila Madikane. The page also posted smears about journalist Pearlie Joubert and GroundUp editor Nathan Geffen.

Phrases like “misogynist NGO empire”, “rejected an offer to be put into contact with black victims of rape and human rights violations”, and “implicated in covering up sexual harassment” are examples of the tone of the posts. NGOwatch also gave one-sided and inaccurate accounts of the allegations of violence at Helen Bowden.

There were oddities about the page. For example, many of the people who liked the posts appeared to have joined Facebook in July or August. A person claiming to stay at the occupation definitely was not staying there.

A screen capture taken on 13 August shows that Dugmore “liked” the page. He was alerted by a journalist (not a GroundUp one) on 21 August that GroundUp was investigating NGOwatch. A few hours after this, NGOwatch was taken down. “I have never been involved in setting up NGOWatch or been part of any plot to use this to discredit Ndifuna Ukwazi in public. Thus I could have never been involved in taking the page down,” he said when pressed to explain this. “This is an attempt to defame my character. I am taking legal advice on what my remedies are in this regard.”

GroundUp noticed a pattern of posts attacking people appearing after Graham initiated an altercation with them. We asked Graham about her connection to NGOwatch. She responded, “NGOwatch has an email address, and myself and anyone else can forward information or emails to them to expose matters. It seems to be some kind of whistleblower page.”

But Graham did not answer our follow-up questions, one of which pointed out that the NGOwatch Gmail account recovery telephone number had the same last two digits as her cell phone; there’s a 1% chance of this occurring randomly. Soon after we sent her questions, the NGOwatch Gmail account was deleted. For a whistle-blowing website, it was strange that the only substantial posts related to the Reclaim the City occupation. One of the posts was signed “Oxford-based academic” and Graham is the only person with an Oxford degree with any link to the occupation according to people we’ve spoken to.


Interview with Cameron Dugmore

Before answering questions for the article above Dugmore demanded the names and contact details of GroundUp’s board. “I think it is correct to inform you that I will be informing the press ombud of my request for fair coverage of this matter and further reserve my rights without prejudice in this regard,” he told us.

Dugmore also said that he was only prepared to answer our questions if we published the entire interview with him, which we have done below. He also insisted, before answering, that we link to documents he provided. In the end he only sent us this ANC document on the Tafelberg property in Sea Point, an issue we did not question him about.

GroundUp’s questions are in bold. So are our comments after some of Dugmore’s responses.

1. It has been brought to our attention that you have concerns about violence at the occupations of Helen Bowden Nurses Home. What are your concerns?

My concerns relate to the serious allegations of violence, intimidation, gender based violence and “in house evictions” taking place at the occupation. Of particular concern is not only that the SAPS in Sea Point has not acted on many of these incidents despite formal charges having been laid but that both Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU) and Reclaim the City (RTC), despite having been informed about these incidents, have failed to intervene and assist by taking action against those alleged to be involved. Granted this is a very complex situation, but ultimately there has been a serious failure by NU and RTC to manage a situation which they supported and resourced. In saying this, I want to place on record that both NU and RTC have done hugely valuable work in raising the issue of apartheid spatial planning and proposing alternatives which can contribute to integrated, well located and affordable human settlements in the city. But in regard to the occupation, they have failed to take responsibility for a situation which has resulted in the serious violation of human rights.

GroundUp investigated alleged violations of human rights at Helen Bowden. Our findings do not accord with Dugmore’s claims.

2. Have you brought your concerns to the attention of the police? What was their response?

Yes. Both myself and my colleague in the legislature who serve on the Standing Committee on Transport, Public Works and property Management , Nomi Nkondlo, have reported these matters with case numbers to the office of the Deputy Minister of Police who has committed to following up the matter with police management in the province. On at least two occasions when I have been contacted by occupants fearing for their lives, I have called SAPS in Sea Point and requested them to assist the complainants

3. Can you tell us about Umhlaba Wethu?

Umhlaba Wethu is a social housing initiative emanating from Sea Point with many of those involved being the same people who over a period of at least twenty years, have been campaigning for affordable housing in Sea Point. Initially there was the Rainbow Housing initiative consisting mainly of domestic workers who work and reside in Sea Point and surrounds. They had targeted the Tafelberg School and the SABC Rockland’s building in particular, as potential sites for social housing. Many of the workers involved had started saving schemes at the time. I had been approached to assist in the 1990s/early 2000s as an ANC MPL. Myself and member Nkondlo were approached by some of the original members of this group to assist and we have initiated meetings with the National Minister of Human Settlements and made contact with Ministry for Communications. Its membership is non-partisan and also includes military veterans who are in search of well-located housing in the CBD.

Umhlaba Wethu started in 2017, after Reclaim the City’s occupations.

4. What is your relationship with Lucy Graham?

Dr Lucy Graham was introduced to us by those initiating the formation of Umhlaba Wethu as an activist from Sea Point who was providing support to the initiative with the writing of the proposal. I am aware that she has been very active, consistent and committed in supporting the victims of violence at the occupation and raising concerns about the situation at the occupation. Both the victims, Dr Graham and other Sea Point residents have contacted me about ongoing concerns at the occupation. I have done my best to assist the victims and raise these matters with the board members of NU.

5. Are you aware of the Facebook group NGOwatch?

I first looked at the site in detail when made aware by Pearlie Joubert of a post about her.

6. Are you aware that it contains slanderous allegations against a whole bunch of people including Shuaib Manjra, Pearlie Joubert, Jared Rossouw, Nkosinathi Swaartbooi and Nathan Geffen?

The only time I looked at the site in some detail was when alerted to it by Pearlie Joubert. I specifically saw and read the post about Pearlie Joubert . In preparing to respond to these questions I went to the site this morning but could only find a site called “NGO Watch” which last had a posting dated 2012.

GroundUp then asked this follow-up question:

6.1 There is a screenshot showing that you liked NGOwatch. NGOwatch went offline shortly after you were informed that GroundUp was investigating your connection to NGOwatch. We have evidence that you knew about the defamatory posts on NGOWatch for more than a week. You knew your comrade, Lucy Graham, was involved in posting them, and yet you did not get the page taken down until you found out GroundUp was investigating your connection to NGOWatch. Two Ndifuna Ukwazi board members have described this as evidence of you being “supportive of a dirty tricks campaign”. Please comment on this.

It’s clear to me that GroundUp is being drawn into a “dirty tricks” campaign trying to link me to NGOwatch.

This is a blatant lie.

As indicated, the first time I looked at the site in detail was when I was alerted by Pearlie Joubert about a post about her. Lucy Graham had asked me for the contact of Pearlie Joubert who is making a film about the occupation.

I know Pearlie from NUSAS days and have been talking to her recently about the situation at Solms Delta. I gave Lucy her number. This was about 13 August. I was then contacted by Pearlie saying that there was a negative post on NGOwatch. This was on 14th August. I contacted Lucy who denied being involved in NGOwatch and said that there is an email address for the organisation (NGOwatch) to which members of the public can send emails for publication.

This I communicated to Pearlie on 15 August. My advice to Pearlie was to make contact directly with victims and listen to their stories.

I repeat that the first time I had looked at NGOwatch in any detail was when contacted by Pearlie.

I have never been involved in setting up NGOwatch or been part of any plot to use this to discredit NU in public.

Thus I could have never been involved in taking the page down.

This is an attempt to defame my character. I am taking legal advice on what my remedies are in this regard.

All of my concerns about NU and RTC have been communicated to them in a disciplined way – by email and in actual meetings.

Instead of using me as a scapegoat, NU needs to respond to the issues that have been raised with them for over a year.

7. The ANC recently sent out a message calling for its members to support Ndifuna Ukwazi. Is your behaviour compatible with this call?

I am on record in supporting the work done by NU and RTC. As ANC MPLs we worked very closely with NU on the campaign to stop the DA from selling Tafelberg. NU requested our assistance. I have consistently provided the NU board with information about the issue and helped link them to the legal advisors of the Minister of Human Settlements.

While the ANC was not involved in the occupation, I fully understand the deep anger and frustration of those Sea Point residents in particular, who have struggled for at least two decades to establish social housing at Tafelberg. This anger boiled over after the DA cabinet resolved to sell Tafelberg to private interests. The occupations supported by NU and RTC happened shortly after this.

But I am very clear that despite this valuable and pioneering work, they have failed to adequately respond to the concerns I have raised with them both in writing and in a meeting.

I cannot accept an approach which says that they are not able to intervene while a number of the allegations point directly at NU staff members and those they are supporting as leaders of the occupation. Through this neglect and “hands off” approach by NU Board members, they have damaged the credibility of the campaign. I believe that NU needs to seriously reflect on what has happened, learn the lessons and most importantly take responsibility for resolving the crisis. This is critical not only to support those in the occupation but to continue to champion the campaign against Apartheid Spatial Planning.

Ndifuna Ukwazi told GroundUp, that it cannot take responsibility for the behaviour and actions of members of a social movement that it supports. “We do not have the capacity or resources to fill in for the state and it is not within our mandate or expertise to investigate and solve crimes … However, we do see ourselves as playing a role in supporting leaders through advice and guidance on following due process, to access professionals who have experience in managing trauma and violence, and helping with education and activities around preventing, and responding to violent and criminal conduct.”

Reclaim the City told GroundUp, “We have worked hard to turn the occupations into a community. For most, it is a place of refuge and a place of their own, even if the building has no services and is dark and difficult to maintain. While incidents do occur, the idea that the occupations are only violent places has been manufactured by Lucy Graham to suit her personal agenda.”

Reclaim the City has also accused Graham of assisting men who were part of the forceful takeover of the occupation on 23 November, but Graham denied having anything to do with this event.

The organisation further told GroundUp, “Elected leaders are doing their best to try to maintain discipline and enforce rules in a challenging environment, especially where not everybody is a member of Reclaim the City. Some people, especially the men who came with the takeover [of 23 November], are disrespectful and we ourselves are scared of them. When violence and crimes are committed we rely on the police to enforce the law and keep us safe. With the failure of the police and the government to do their jobs and duties, it is a unfair to expect a social movement to take responsibility entirely.”

GroundUp asked Dugmore this follow-up question:

7.1 What concrete actions have you asked Ndifuna Ukwazi or Reclaim the City to take that they actually have the power to take, and that they have not taken?

NU could have responded to the allegations and evidence presented to them

NU could have appointed an impartial investigation into the allegations

NU could have initiated a policy to guide the governance of the occupation

NU could have asked all staff members implicated in the allegations to provide responses

NU could have approached SAPS to urgently follow up on the charges laid

NU could have actually met with all the victims

GroundUp’s investigation shows that for the allegations we investigated, Reclaim the City, with Ndifuna Ukwazi’s support, did the above. Also no Ndifuna Ukwazi staff members were implicated in the allegations we investigated.

8. Is this not a dirty tricks campaign? Is it fair to say you’re involved in this?

Raising legitimate criticism is part of my responsibility. There is nothing wrong with that. I am involved as an ANC MPL in trying to resolve the violence at the occupation, pushing for basic services to be provided and ensuring that mediation takes place so that a process can begin to map out the future for those living at the occupation. The current attempt by the DA to only deal with the occupants individually and not engage in good faith negotiations is not helping either.

I have evidence to show the number of occasions I have raised my concerns formally and informally with NU board members. I believe that my criticism has been balanced and fair. AS ANC MPLs we pushed for and managed to ensure that the standing committee passed a resolution that the Provincial Department of Public Works and City provides water, electricity and sanitation. (see link to copy of standing committee resolution: addendum A).

It is time that the leadership of NU/RTC, Department of Transport and Public Works and members of the standing committee sat down and have an open and honest discussion about resolving this crisis and working on a solution. One person has already died. Another almost burned to death and many subjected to gender based violence and serious physical abuse. It’s time to take responsibility .

The link referred to in the answer above was not provided.

9. Reclaim the City told us this:

“Lucy Graham has now started working with Cameron Dugmore and a small group of members of the ANC in Sea Point. Cameron Dugmore saw the work we have been doing in Sea Point to stop the sale of public land and we think he wanted to ride the wave to build his profile. After the takeover led by [two people whose names have been redacted by GroundUp because we have not had an opportunity to ask them to respond], we think he wanted to use the occupations to help rebuild an ANC branch in Sea Point where he has old friends. He helped to start a branch task team and Lucy helped them register and set up a rival housing organisation called Umhlaba Wethu. We think Umhlaba Wethu is a front for the ANC in Sea Point because the same people, such as [three people whose names have been redacted by GroundUp] are active in both and the same people are now claiming to be victims of Reclaim the City.

We are irritated that Cameron Dugmore tried to use our struggle to raise his profile when he should have been working inside the Provincial Parliament to hold the Province accountable and get us basic services like water and electricity. This would go a long way to helping women and children feel safe in the occupation.

Some of our leaders met him to tell him that his tactics are dividing people, including members of the ANC who live in the occupation. We find it strange that he has never met with our leaders, but continues to talk about us in the Provincial Parliament as if he knows all about our movement, and we are concerned that he continues to communicate with and support Lucy in her personal campaign against us.”

My response:

This statement is both untrue and actually defamatory.

Some of us have been involved in supporting domestic workers in Sea Point for close to twenty years. I have a history of working with comrades in Sea Point on the campaign for social housing. It is a struggle which is still not won. We will not rest until victory is achieved.

As the ANC we are busy rebuilding and renewing the ANC in each of the 402 wards in the province. This includes Sea Point. Our renewal has nothing to do with the occupation.

I find it ironic that NU/RTC now has a problem with a genuine social housing initiative which has had its roots in Sea Point for many years before NU/RCT was even established! This is classic gate-keeping.

It is this type of petty attitude which is actually contributing to the ongoing tensions in Sea Point .

We have been approached to assist Umhlaba Wethu as MPL’s responsible for Public Works, Transport and Property Management as well as Housing. Umhlaba Wethu is non-partisan.

RTC is fully aware that the NU board has been assisted by the ANC in regard to the campaign to stop the sale of Tafelberg.

RTC is aware of the work that ANC MPLs have done to ensure a public hearing about the occupation where we pushed for basic services and a mediation process. We are fighting the refusal of the DA MEC to implement the resolution adopted by the standing committee.

RTC is aware that we have called the MEC directly and appealed for him to appoint a mediator.

RTC is aware that we were told by the MEC that he cannot appoint a mediator as he regards the occupation as unlawful and that he then agreed with our suggestion that Rev Chris Nissen from the Human Rights Commission be asked to mediate.

I am not supporting anyone in a campaign against NU/RTC.

I am raising genuine concerns with the failure by NU Board and staff to resolve the violence and governance issues at the occupation.

I am deeply disappointed by the failure to of NU board members to intervene.

They need to reflect on the serious mistakes they have made .

While I am critical, I remain convinced that the lobbying and campaign work of NU and RCT is vital to advance the campaign to reverse apartheid spatial planning.

That’s why I urge them to reflect honestly on their actions and inactions .

More importantly NU and RCT need to make public their plan to resolve the governance issue in the occupation.

GroundUp’s investigation found that Reclaim the City did in fact intervene when confronted with allegations of violence.

TOPICS:  Helen Bowden and Woodstock Hospital occupations Housing

Next:  Allegations of violence at Helen Bowden Nurses Home

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