Land speculation and housing shortage
A different view of Cape Town
With its study “City leases – Cape Towns failure to redistribute land”, NDIFUNA UKWAZI caused quite a stir in March of this year. According to the study, most of the golf courses and parks in Cape Town – with an area of up to 45 hectares each – are owned by municipalities and leased by the city government to elite private clubs for a ridiculous price. At the same time, several hundred thousand families are waiting for affordable housing. I spoke with Nick Budlender, one of the study’s authors.
I visited the office on Roeland Street in Cape Town in mid-April 2019. A highly official entry in a list at the doorman’s office enabled me to find the somewhat winding way into the building’s courtyard. The keyword “Meeting with Nick Budlender” opened the door for me here as well, I entered sympathetic office space, not many doors, but shelves with books up to the ceiling, racks with brochure materials and publications, personally designed desk niches. A general meeting sat around two large tables discussing a particular course of action…. And then the question from Nick: “What do you want to drink? Rooibos?” The following are excerpts from our conversation.
There are demonstrations in several European cities right now, I’m thinking of Berlin, where protests are taking place against high rents, speculative deals, and vacancies due to real estate investments. Affordable housing is a global issue. What is the situation specifically in Cape Town?
There are additional factors at play in Cape Town – those of land reform, land subdivision and land expropriation. These issues are historical, present in day-to-day politics, and very often have strong emotional connotations. Unfortunately, it is really hard for people looking for housing to find something affordable. The government has a waiting list to regulate the allocation of affordable housing. You can sign up there, but there are currently 415,000 families on it, which is almost half of all the families in Cape Town. The problem is that for people who earn less than 18,000 rand a month, there are the fewest housing options. For those who earn above that, there’s a lot more on the market. So the official path is long, difficult and hard. So most people just try to find a place far away, something small, a safe place, four walls, water, electricity. And all this, even though a lot of building has been done in recent years to counteract the expansion of the townships.
Keyword township – here, too, some areas of work will open up for the organization, won’t they?
Of course – they also determine the image of our city. Hundreds of thousands live in these settlements in poor locations, in cramped spaces and insecurity. But where is the city government building new residential areas? Of course, where the building land is cheap, i.e. again on the outskirts of the city – and that includes the old problems concerning transportation, infrastructure and social contacts. The city government itself has published, based on its own surveys, that on average 40% of income goes to transportation costs. When you consider that the majority of Cape Town families earn only about 6,000 rand, and 40% of that is lost, how can that be done? Food, schooling, clothing?
And we are not even talking about unemployment!
Yes, unemployment is a big problem in this country! How can you find employment at all if you need a means of transportation every time, which costs money, money that you don’t even have? On top of that, people who are already employed often receive their wages irregularly.
Your organization has many different campaigns going on. The most recent one is the “City Leases” report, which was published in March. It reports on the unbelievable situation of the 24 golf, bowling or cricket clubs in and around Cape Town. The city leases land in prime locations and thus has assured revenue. However, the annual rents of the clubs are ridiculously low. You as an NGO “remind” the City of Cape Town and its political representatives of their duty and responsibility to build affordable housing in the central region on public land!
We started working on this report back in March 2018, but then we had to let it sit for quite a long time, as there was a whole lot of other work to be done and we also had limited staff capacity. Towards the end of last year, we came back to it. After a lot of basic research and detailed research work, it was then a matter of presentation, the models we had developed and the publication in public. Yes, there was a lot of press work too! I went on national television twice, we had a number of radio interviews, newspaper articles, blurb for social media, and it attracted a lot of attention.
Out of 22 documented examples of land, you selected five, juxtaposed hard facts and figures, and calculated exact scenarios if your designed development plans were implemented on them. Finally, the realization that affordable housing could bring Cape Town millions of rands annually. Unbelievable!
But unfortunately, it looks like no one in the city is committed to it or has really read the report closely, even though it is quite short for this kind of documentation. is. Every time I had an interview with someone from the city administration, it was quickly clear who was on which side. But I think it paid off, the report will have consequences and show its impact. We still have political actions planned, because this is not the end of this campaign.
That would have been my next question anyway: How many actions, how much pressure do you think you need to exert as an organization? Long breath and pressure will be necessary, even though you are focusing on peaceful activism.
Absolutely, because first of all, every protest of Reclaim the City – that’s what the movement we’re involved in is called – has always been peaceful. We’ve never engaged in violence or damaged property. And I think that’s what has made us successful. Otherwise, the focus would not be on reporting the issue, but on the incidents. Clearly, it’s important to keep up the pressure. We plan to do even more political actions, to give more speed to keep the issue on the agenda of Cape Town, pretty much non-stop. Like the day of action on March 21, Human Rights Day, when we took over the golf course in Rondebosch!
What was the reaction from the golf club?
At Rondebosch Golf Club, the manager was quite reasonable. He was not angry, he seemed to somehow understand that we wanted to hold our protest peacefully. Acceptance is important to us, so people realize why we are there. We’re not here to destroy things, we’re here to make a political statement about land use. We’re not attacking it or its golfers. But a lot of times people take it personally. I have a lot of messages on Twitter and other platforms from people who are really upset, and you feel their attack on you.
What is Nick Budlender’s personal connection to his work at Ndifuna Ukwazi?
I studied sociology and human geography and slowly started to realize what I’m most interested in and passionate about – cities, and how to improve them. I think that we face some major challenges in this country that are currently impeding our progress and increasing inequality. Issues of education, unemployment, economic development, those of land reform and housing. I became a supporter of Reclaim the City and tried to help in any way I could.
I wonder how much power the younger generation, better educated today than in the past, has to needed to change the prevailing inequality? How much energy is needed to fight populism and nationalism, which create a climate of fear? This kind of policy-making is, after all, on the rise again – worldwide!
Yes, and as you know, there are such developments here as well. So some white national groups are becoming more powerful, more successful, more attractive. And at the same time, far left, there are also nationalist groups like the EFF that are getting a lot of power. So I’m very afraid, because they all apply similar racist nationalism: On the one hand, you have the white nation and white national pride, and on the other hand, you have the black nation and black national pride. This is very scary because history teaches us what the consequences are when the circumstances that lead to this still exist: Environmental crisis, economic crisis, everyday life getting harder – people are looking for a way out or at least someone to blame. Thus, it is much easier for nationalists to come to power. The debate between these two groups polarizes people. That is why it is important to do work like ours to change opinions, and to do proper scientific research. Some days I feel very hopeful, others more desperate. But the most important thing is to keep going.
What are some ways interested people can help? Donations? Sharing content through social-media channels? What makes sense?
Every tourist, every traveler should reflect: How do I make sure my contribution gets to those people who need it without massively amplifying negative impacts? At the grassroots level, I think you should support small businesses when you visit Cape Town – small restaurants, small stores instead of the huge supermarkets and so on. And above all, be sensitive, take time to get to know the area you’re in, and think about the consequences. Just like we should do at home. These basic things are very important.
NDIFUNA UKAWAZI (Dare to Know) is an activist non-profit organization in Cape Town. It advocates for equitable dedication and zoning of the entire city area in the spirit of South African constitutional rights and social justice. Socially engaged groups, communities and especially members of the working class are supported in their claims and concerns with different approaches.