Noordhoek eco-estates protect the rich from the reality of Masiphumelele

Apartheid geography preserved behind a concern for the environment

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Photo of Chapman\'s Bay Estate
Lake Michelle estate, surrounding the water body. The cleared land in the right of the section is part of Chapman’s Bay Estate’s property. Photo: Chapman’s Bay Estate website (copied as fair use)

A stone’s throw from the working-class township of Masiphumelele, the Noordhoek mountains are being transformed into exclusive “eco-estates” which preserve apartheid geography just as the Group Areas Act did, write Bruce Baigrie and Henrik Ernstson

It is impossible not to notice the construction of Chapman’s Bay Estate as you drive into the Noordhoek Valley along Ou-Kaapse Weg. Splayed out over the mountain slope beside the road, it boasts stunning views, of mountains, beaches and the suburbs of Noordhoek and Fish Hoek. Wetlands glimmer, some with a fence around them, incorporated for exclusive use of the estate.

Further down the valley, in the largest wetland, the entire body of water has been surrounded by the luxury estate of Lake Michelle and made inaccessible to non-residents. Westward and across the valley, other estates stretch along the slope of the mountain, with more construction on-going.

The sheer scale of Chapman’s Bay Estate has drawn three private developers together, including a family trust. Greeff Properties, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, manages the sales, describing it as another of its “most luxurious and exclusive mandates in the Western Cape.” Future residents, who will pay between R3,5 million and R6,8 million for a property, will enjoy a set of newly built amenities. In late 2015, a Virgin Active gym was inaugurated as part of a new shopping mall, which also boasts of its green credentials. Both the gym and the mall feature as incentives in Greeff Christie’s promotional video for the estate, a video that conspicuously only shows white people, smiling individuals and families, doing activities associated with “the lifestyle that comes with Noordhoek.” As if it wasn’t clear already what demographic is desired and expected to live here, the video continues with animations of what it could be like to walk around and live in these houses, again only showing white-rendered people.

That the estate is intended to exclude is clear. On one of our visits in November 2016, two workers from the security company Innoza are running cabling along the bottom of the 3 metre high perimeter fence. CCTV cameras are being placed on even higher poles to produce live video linked into the guardhouse at the main gate.

For the private security industry as well as the banks and the developers, these estates are lucrative.

The development of the estate, originally known as the Dassenberg Residential Estate, has not been without controversy. Opposed by local civic and environmental groups, the initial application was turned down in 1997, only to be approved by a former ANC MEC Pierre Uys in 2009, during the dying days of his term of office. The new Democratic Alliance MEC, Anton Bredell, refused to challenge the approval, and after initial resistance to a rezoning request, the DA-led City of Cape Town abandoned its opposition much to the dismay of residents of the area, and despite the province’s Planning Advisory Board stating the development should have been “drastically scaled back”.

Residents of the Peninsula and the wider Noordhoek valley now seem to have grudgingly accepted the development, though 20-year-old Shelby, who spoke to us from Sun Valley in November 2016, laments the loss of access to her neighbouring wetland and mountain. The mountainside that her family’s home looks onto has been cleared, while most of the wetlands are sealed off by stainless steel and electric fencing.

These “eco-estates,” often on pristine land lying outside the urban edge, represent a deeply problematic pattern of urban development in South African cities. With sustainability as a paramount goal, how do we understand the social and ecological effects of this type of development?

Sustainability is about a connection between ecological processes and social justice. Chapman’s Bay Estate only glaringly omits any such connections. Rather it exploits “green” arguments of sustainability into its sales pitch. This is clear in another video at the estate’s website. The lead architects from the local practice, Lennard & Lennard, proudly proclaim the “symbiotic relationship” that their design has created with the surrounding vegetation, but they omit for instance the destruction of vegetation and animal habitat that their design requires, and the way a once publicly accessible mountain slope is now fenced in. Surely this should be part of any truthful use of “eco” as in ecological?

The sales pitch also does not mention how the“eco-estate” consumes a lot of space and only provides housing for a few people, increasing the city’s footprint with low-density housing. The perimeter fence will eventually encompass 145 houses or “units” on a 45-hectare plot (only phase one appears to be complete). This means only 13 people per hectare if we assume four people in each “unit”. In comparison, fellow citizens in Masiphumelele, with around 17,000 residents in 2011 on 45 hectares, live with a density of 416 people per hectare - 32 times higher. High density and integrated housing development is crucial for Cape Town’s wider sustainability, but in its promotional video, the “eco-estate” turns low density into an argument to serve its sales. Future residents are promised they will “really have that feeling of space” around them.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate’s green credentials are certainly questionable, both in real material terms, and in the way the self-justifying language of conservation and ecology glosses over and waters down environmental and social justice arguments.

But beyond that, these “eco-estates” also serve as cogs within a wider machinery.

On one hand they reproduce exclusionary apartheid geographies. Using green-washing as part of the process, so-called market forces reproduce spaces just as the apartheid-era Group Areas Act once did, leaving behind residents of townships such as Masiphumelele.

The township of Masiphumelele (bottom), where metal shacks use what little space is available, is often described as encroaching on the wetland’s edge. In contrast, the Lake Michelle estate (top), which is completely built within the wetland and appropriating its heart, figures less in analysis of wetland problems. Aerial photo extracted from City of Cape Town maps 

“Eco-estates,” the merging of nature with social exclusion, seem also to tap into a settler colonial mentality which dates back to the early 1800s and is difficult to stamp out in South Africa. Back then, the private garden—and, later, botanical gardens and game reserves—displayed settler identity and evoked a sense of accomplishment and home with the planting of European species imported to domesticate the “wild” African landscape. Fast forward to today’s “eco-estates,” where indigenous landscaping has become popular and replaced European “exotic plants” and which offer a tempting life-style choice for the rich: You are not simply buying a house, but you also protect nature.

But we cannot simply see these “eco-estates” in isolation. Rather, they form part of a wider appropriation of urban spaces by the elites. Authorities, finance capital, architects and security companies are providing exclusionary spaces where elite and largely white top-earners can live out what South African and British human geographers Richard Ballard and Gareth Jones have called a geographical escapism, a highly selective interaction with the surroundings. Moving from their securitised homes to spaces of elite consumption built on their behalf, such as the new shopping mall and the Virgin Active gym complex, they are cordoned off from a wider social geography. This renewed “settler public sphere” makes invisible the wider reality of a country and neighbourhood of deep and racialised inequality. Cushioned by a sense of environmental stewardship, residents can ignore the wider reality at their ease.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate, dressed up in artificially planted fynbos on previously undeveloped land, is part of a deeply troubling post-liberation urban development pattern. Part of our motivation for examining this particular estate was to learn how this happens. These exclusionary spaces and the connections between them are not simply “springing up” as if by chance, or as a “natural” consequence of things we cannot tackle. There are identifiable actors, agencies and institutions involved in their fabrication—from banks, municipalities, government agencies and environmental consultants, to architects and landscape architects who are using their knowledge, skills and “green touch” to produce these estates.

We need to work out how we can use our democratic institutions for more inclusionary urban development where sustainability and ecology is tightly wedded to social justice. We need to follow the lead of so many skilled organisers, activists and scholars of this country, now recently under the banner of Reclaim the City.

The way our cities emerge is not set in stone; what seems “natural” can always be contested and ultimately changed.

Baigrie has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town. Ernstson is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. Both authors write in their personal capacities.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Environment Housing

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Dear Editor

Yesterday shacks in "Wetlands" in Masiphumelele were demolished. A very pregnant lady who had no warning watched as her shack was smashed to the ground with no consideration for her health. She is shocked and distraught. The reason given by Human Settlements is that 16 shacks were demolished because they were considered to be land invasions. No alternative accommodation was offered. Masiphumelele is a disaster waiting to happen. Overcrowding is horrific and health conditions are shocking.
The city must release the plan for Erf 5131 which was given to the city by SANPARKS for development of Masiphumelele.

Dear Editor

The involvement of civil society in vehemently objecting to these modern bastions of apartheid, particularly in the south peninsula, could not have been more intense. But the DA run city has simply used us as part of a rubber-stamping process to gouge the environment, in many cases inside the buffer zone of the World Heritage Site.

Collaboration between land owners, property developers, environmental consultants, SANParks and City and Provincial officials simply drown out and wear down the mostly volunteer civil society groups. And if the civil society groups organize themselves and collect some funds to fight this scourge, the city then uses our tax money to employ the best attorney's to fight us.

In Durbanville, a civil society group took the city decision to approve another such gated complex on the Clara Ana Fontein Farm on appeal. They won part of the application and lost the other with costs. The city moved swiftly to have the civil society group formally liquidated to recover their costs.

In this whole process, questions have been raised whether donations by the property developers to the DA party account may answer why these developments have found such favour.

In pushing these developments through, elected city councillors are instructed to vote with the caucus and against the objections of the community involved.

One of the unique features of the TMNP is that there is very little fencing and access to the park is open to all residents. Obviously, the construction of electrified fencing around these complexes impacts on access. There is also the matter of fires. My first observation is that when fires break out, the fire-fighting effort is concentrated on saving the houses inside the complexes. And once a fireman is inside, it is impossible to cross the fence to fight the fire, and so they let the environment burn. A further unexplored possibility is that is the arcing of the high power voltage on these fences that may well be the source of some of these fires.

It's time to collaborate and act against this scourge.

Dear Editor

Thanks to Rose Milbank and Richard Bryant for contributing comments to our piece.

Rose mentions that 16 shacks were demolished by the City's Human Settlement in Masiphumelele on 23 Jan 2017, allegedly because of "land invasion." This image really falls in a different light when considering the Chapman's Bay Estate, and Lake Michelle; from a wider historical and sustainability perspective, who is invading land, and where? Can we re-classify the Chapmans' Bay Estate as "land invasion"?

And Richard's comment about how fire and fire-fighting can also turn less egalitarian through the existence of these (eco)estates—especially when placed high on the mountain slope—is a dimension that I had not reflected upon. It opens up yet another dimension of environmental injustice and how the common (as in mostly volunteering fire fighters) need to protect the properties of the few and wealthy. (There is a quite amazing book on this by Mike Davis, "Ecology of Fear," based in Los Angeles, USA.)

Richard's further comments on civil society and its relation to the State and business are helpful in appreciating how day-to-day politics around this is being played out. He writes of a case where the City has paid attorney's to fight civil society and then using "liquidation" to undermine civil society groups that tries to meddle. This seems to undercut the idea of participatory processes.

On Richard's serious, but also quite well-spread allegation, that "donations by the property developers to the DA party account" could be a mechanism that promotes these estates, I am wondering if somebody (maybe GroundUp) know about articles by investigative journalists and others that have published on this.

Thanks for engaging!

Dear Editor

The term "Apartheid Geography" is an interesting choice of words considering "Apartheid" died in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It is also interesting to see how the words "rich" and "apartheid" are married together. Considering that the rich are mostly upper middle class Caucasians, the writing has an underlying tone of "white guilt". Unfortunately one cannot look back 23 years to understand the current crisis in Masiphumele.

Firstly, the new development in Sun Valley is nowhere near the wetland and the new residents will be subsidising the township by paying exorbitant rates costs. It is also a necessity, and not a luxury, to have new developments as security complexes due to the high crime rate. The rich are therefore not being protected from the harsh reality of Masi as stated in the article.

The surrounding wetland is protected under the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998, which is after Lake Michelle was built, and before Masphumele was established. Before the surrounding residents and the necessity for protection of the wetland get blamed for the state of the township, a closer look needs to be taken into the mass immigration of people from neighbouring countries. It would be interesting to see just how much the township was supporting non South African citizens. With the current birth rate and influx of immigrants, Masiphumele can only "explode".

A possible solution would be to move the immigrants to Rondebosch Common, which does not have free standing water and therefore associated sanitation problems. It is also closer to Cape Town CBD where there are better opportunities for employment.

In essence, any consideration to expand the township into the wetland is unacceptable. The rich are well aware of the situation, and in actual fact support the township by providing its residents with jobs. This shows that the writer went off on a political tangent instead of rather investigating the importance of having the rich and the wetland in the area.

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