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When government gentrifies: The case of De Waal Drive flats

De Waal Drive flats.

ANALYSIS - The De Waal Drive flats have a prominent place on Cape Town’s most iconic skyline – the one of the cityscape back dropped by Table Mountain. At the foot of Devils Peak, they rise old and fortress-like to shield the chic neighbourhood of Vredehoek from the still-undeveloped District Six below. It is a robust row of buildings, sheltering around ninety households – most of whom look back on lives of hardship unknowable to their wealthy mountainside neighbours. Yet, they have maintained (or gained) a position of unrivalled opportunity for low-income families in modern day Cape Town.

For many, this has been their home for decades. The flats, owned by the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements (WCDHS), have remained affordable via a rental scheme which charges households based on their individual income. This, in the face of rocketing properties prices and ongoing evictions of poor families by private landlords in other neighbourhoods — Zonnebloem, Woodstock, Salt River — close to the CBD.

From the Drive, poor families have access to good schools for their children and job opportunities for when those children graduate. There is safety, hospitals and the many amenities so desperately lacking in the Cape’s crowded townships and informal settlements. Their families and support networks — churches, mosques and friends groups — are nearby.

Through a recent policy turn in the national urban agenda, all spheres of government have concurred that more of this – more dense, mixed-income residential areas close to nodes of opportunity – is the key to transforming city spatial patterns inherited from apartheid. Sprawling metros with poverty traps on the periphery, are increasingly acknowledged as drivers of inequality, joblessness, poverty and economic stagnation.

Added to the practical advantages, the Drive’s tenants have an uninterrupted panoramic view of the harbour, the skyscrapers of the CBD and sunset over Signal Hill.

Today this prime property in one of the most lucrative real estate markets on the continent: property fit for the country’s economic elite. And, that is exactly how officials from the department now frame it as they go door-to-door to inform tenants that their relocation to a housing development on the urban periphery is imminent.

The house calls have been happening since Monday 18 May.

It is decided that it is no longer viable for us to receive the rent that we're currently charging, an official, who asked not to be named, explained during one such call last week. All the flats would be refurbished and tenants who can afford “market-related rentals” under a new lease agreement are welcome to stay on. If not, they have the option of relocating (and owning) a home in Pelican Park – a housing development in a poor area some 20 kilometres south of the city.

“So the judge cannot say we did not offer you an alternative,” the official added, an apparent reference to the big question for a magistrate during eviction proceedings — is there alternative accommodation.

To tenant Carol White’s protestations that a move to Pelican Park would spell disaster for her grandson entering matric next year, the response came:

“Ma’am, we all of have our problems. But, we wouldn’t get our job done if we were to consider everyone’s problems. Have you seen the views from around here? We all want to live close to the city. But, you can’t pay so little when people pay millions to be able to live around here. Just look at the views.”

Louis Verblun, a tenant and elected chairman for the Drive’s residents’ committee, believes this tactic intentionally isolates tenants from the group, and then intimidates them. For weeks he has requested a written explanation from the human settlements department, and lobbied against the house calls.

“There are many pensioners here and people who are vulnerable,” he said.

“Can you imagine how intimidating it must be to have officials arriving at your door after all the rumours that have been circulating? All alone like that, you stand no chance. For now, as we try to find out more, we’ve simply said – ‘do not sign anything’.”

In the panic that has accompanied the rumour mill, the committee has been soliciting donations towards a lawyer. Tenants who can’t afford the R200 contribution can help out by doing their bit in the kitchen for a cake sale, committee treasurer Margarita Loubser announced at a recent feedback meeting. No, she said, the free services of Legal Aid are not an option: “it’s our homes we are talking about, this is serious stuff”.

Yet, the foreboding message delivered to Carol White seems at odds with a response issued some weeks ago by Zalisile Mbali, spokesman for Human Settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela. He said that lease agreements would only be terminated when tenants default on their payments going forward. Further requests for clarity via a meeting with the MEC or designated official have however been unsuccessful.

More so than the proposed rent hikes, it’s these divergent messages and lack of consultation with the tenants that lies at the heart of the confusion and panic. In fact, that any decision about the future of the flats was made and imposed without a substantial participation process involving the current tenants is legally problematic, says Sheldon Magardie, a housing lawyer and director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Cape Town.

It is the views from De Waal Drive, a testament to the value of the real estate, that often colours tenants’ understandings of why the department wants them out. But, speak to 54-year-old Fuad Isaacs at flat 82 and he lays claim to the panorama as much as people who paid millions to be there. One can imagine few people who will relish in the pinks and purples of sunset over Table Bay more than him.

Fuad Isaacs

His attention soon shifts from the skies, horizon and distant history to the rocky foreground below his backdoor. Here is where he finds true solace and meaning in the view.

As he speaks, he points here and there to the now non-existent street corners, girlfriends’ homes and rugby fields of his youth in District Six. He sends his eleven-year-old son to fetch a crumpled photograph of Windsor Street, before it was bulldozed, to show you the place of which he speaks. As with many stories of District Six (which exist only in the memories of those who saw it lost) it is an account that could go uninterrupted for hours.

“Finally, this home is my reward,” he would say, in reference to the Drive flat “given” to him on rental basis after years on government’s housing waiting list.

Isaacs’ family was one of the last to be removed from District Six – in September 1980. On the day that their furniture was hauled to Mitchells Plain, he bluntly refused to help his parents pack up. He watched as the truck and family left without him. So begun years of squatting from friend to friend and homeless rambling – on the fringes of the hillside and rubble that was once his home and below the radar of the state.

“I am from this city. We are the indigenes, much more so than people who came later. No matter if they have money or not. I care nothing for the Cape Flats. My parents were okay, because they were older and found all their friends in Mitchells Plain, yes. But, I was a young man. There was nothing for me out there. My everything was here,” he says.

The trauma of those evictions and the same defiance he felt towards them re-emerges as he speaks of the new government’s plans to do the same to his own family, as what was done to his parents. This the rightful place, for him and his children, he says.

At the time of those removals, the De Waal Drive flats were spared, ostensibly to house poorer white households already living there or displaced by the demolitions. Judith and Ralph Pace, now in their mid-70s, are one such couple who were evicted from the multi-racial neighbourhood below to the Drive. They have lived here since 1970. Most of those original tenants, formerly employed in low-income jobs protected under apartheid, are state pensioners now. The Pace’s monthly income, R2800 for two state pension grants, will be enough to cover about half of the rent expected by the department for their home in the near future.

Judith and Ralph Pace.

As older tenants passed away or the flats became otherwise vacant, families on government’s housing waiting list benefited from income-related rental agreements with the Western Cape Government. Many, like Isaacs’, have histories in District Six. Also in the fray are evictees from other state properties, like Liena Mohanlall who was evicted from Sea Point eleven years ago. Others are housing list beneficiaries from further afield, like Peter Dias who moved to the Drive from Strandfontein (which, incidentally, is adjacent to Pelican Park).

Dias’ flat, number 77, is sparsely furnished and meticulously tidy. It’s the middle of a weekday and he’s home alone, playing RnB from a second or third generation CD player. He’s only been here with his family for eleven months. For him moving from Strandfontein was an escape from a gang-ridden area where street violence and muggings are commonplace.

“It was dangerous and cost so much to travel anywhere to look for a job,” he says. “I am unemployed. But, my son has a job and he can walk to work from here. My daughter is pregnant and the hospital is right around the corner. I waited thirty odd years for this - my entire adult life. And what now? It’s not even been a year, the department wants to move us right back to where we came from.”

For housing and spatial justice activists more systemic questions remain. What, outside of the rumour mill and divergent narratives, are the real plans for De Waal Drive and its tenants? Why, if not motivated exclusively by a business model and the value of the land, would there be a decision on new rentals that would permanently exclude low-income families from the precinct? And, can such proposals be reconciled with the state’s long term vision for class integration in Cape Town, and South Africa’s cities as a whole?

Daneel Knoetze is the Urban Land Justice researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi and a freelance journalist. Photos by the author. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp's.

What residents say

Joanne Johnson (with her husband Anthony), 36 years on De Waal Drive

“Don’t look at our views. Look at the fact that we can also be seen from all around. This community can really stand out as an example for the rest of Cape Town. It can be a good story for government to tell. People that were once separated by apartheid have come back together and have built a strong community. Over and above the property value, that is what’s really important about De Waal Drive.”

Christina Adonis, aged 53, 13 years on De Waal Drive

"This home saved my life. I do not know where we would be today as a family had it not been for this. And all that we have worked for as a family to improve our lot is thanks to this home. I was a single mother with three children, living in Wynberg. There was not enough money for us. We had no security. The church would give us food parcels and I would sell crafts with my two daughters at the markets on the weekend. With the security of this home, close to the city, I was given the second chance I needed. My eldest son asked ‘mummy, why don’t you finish school?’ And so I enrolled to finish my matric. I was 42 years old. Today I am a qualified nurse with a good job at a Bellville Hospital. For me my chance to make something of myself came late in life. I hoped that my daughters would have better opportunities. They are 18 and 20-years-old. They are at the age where they want to look for jobs, careers. But, all that I worked for, for them to have a better future, seems threatened now. Where they want to take us is far from jobs. I worry for the sake of my children."

Sophia Swartbooi, aged 65, 19 years on De Waal Drive

“My husband passed away last year, leaving me alone at number 86. I have all of our furniture, everything that reminds me of him, in that flat. They say that the flats in Pelican Park are too small and that I would have to get rid of my stuff. The day I heard this news I was so shocked and afraid. My doctor asked me ‘Sophie, why is your blood sugar so high? What is it that is bothering you?’ and so I said that they want to put us out of our homes. The doctors kept me in hospital for the whole day, because I was close to having a stroke, they said. My doctors have known me for years, they care about me because I am in a lot of pain. I get many infections. How will I be able to afford to travel to see them? I do not know why they want us to move. I only get a little money from my state pension, but I try to do the right thing and pay my rent every month. I do stress. I just lost my husband. How will I cope on my own?”

Frederick and Gail Bernickow, aged 65 and 66, 10 years on De Waal Drive

“We were born here, in District Six. This is the only place we’ve known. Our families saw everything that happened here, when people were removed under apartheid. But, they found a place in Walmer Estate so as not to be removed as well. In that way we were lucky. But, still we had to stay with our parents because there was no other place for us. We spent twenty years on a waiting list for this home. Look around: all these renovations I have done with my bare hands. It is my money that went into making this place a good home. Now our grandchild lives with us and has the opportunity to grow up in the same place where his family is from. He is seven and goes to Walmer Primary. It is easy for us, because he can walk to school and it is safe. No, no one can take this from us. In a coffin — that is how I will leave one day when the time comes.”

Carol White

“We know what this is, this is gentrification. Our own government, the one that is actually supposed to look out for the people, is now acting like a property developer. They want to put yuppies in our homes. It has happened to many original families in Zonnebloem and Woodstock, so how can we say that we are totally surprised? But, what they do not realise is that they are taking an example-community out of this city. They can say what they want about us — that there is drugs here and gangsters. I know the truth. You walk this street at night and you are safe, because we look out for one another. When a granny gets sick on the drive we all, almost every one of us, will make a little food parcel and visit her until she is better. That is who we are and that is the spirit Cape Town needs. These yuppies know nothing of that. My grandchild is 17 years old and next year he will be in matric. How could we have chosen a better environment for him? Look, even now he is in his room studying. He has never touched a cigarette or alcohol. Now imagine all that he and the family has worked for towards his future being threatened if he was uprooted on the brink of his matric year.”

Anneline Mohanlall, aged 31, four years on De Waal Drive

“This is sad for me because it is the third time that they want me to move to a new place. We did not want to come here in the first place. Mom and I did not want to leave our home in Sea Point. She was very sick with cancer and moving from Sea Point was difficult. But we had no choice. The government gave us no choice. And when she died, they forced me to move again – to where you find me today at number 85. My mother used to talk for me, but when she died I had to talk for myself. I walked down the hill to the Housing Department every day. I did not want to leave a second time, I told them. I wanted to stay in the place where my mother passed away. It was my link to her. I was pregnant and within all that stress I lost my child. I feel like I have had my baby and my mother’s memory taken away because of having to move to this flat. But at least now I know the place and it has become my home. Just when I felt I have found peace, I am told we have to move again – this time to somewhere very far away. I am alone without my mom, but at least I have friends here and still have my church in Sea Point to care for me. My disability grant only pays a little bit, so the food parcels that the church people give to me is very important. How will I be able to travel from Pelican Park all the way to Sea Point, to my church? I cannot afford to spend that money, but I cannot afford to lose their support.”

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