Rock Bottom and Dusted Off
On Wednesday, June 26th, our project had its most dramatic day yet. We began early with a tour of District Six, a historic area of Cape Town scarred by one of the worst events in the city’s history. As part of the Group Areas Act of 1966, the Apartheid regime forced the eviction of 60,000 people, the demolition of their homes, and the spiritual destruction of their vibrant multicultural community, to clear the land to be a ‘whites-only’ area.
Our tour guide, Rick, was born and raised in District Six. He gave a lecture on Cape Town’s turbulent history while guiding us from decrepit grassy areas – recalling lines of bulldozers that once reduced warm neighborhood spaces to dust and stones – to an inspiring community garden he created to empower homeless people and reinfuse their lives with purpose after struggling with addiction and gangsterism. The tour ended in a local church, where Rick, himself a pastor, sat down with us and told the story of his life.
Rick’s motivation for his altruistic work with ex-addicts and gangsters, which has earned him the nickname ‘the Gangster Pastor’, stems from hitting rock bottom many times personally. A victim of abuse at home as a child, Rick was also subject to repeated persecution because he is a ‘coloured’ person. Rooted in Cape Town’s colonial history, ‘coloured’ is a racial group (like ‘black’ and ‘white’) of ‘mixed-race’ people who are descendants of indigenous black Africans (specifically the Khoisan peoples), white Western European colonizers, and slaves brought from Southern Asian countries and elsewhere.
Listening to the long yet engaging story that Rick had doubtless told many times before, but still recounted sincerely, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. After a life filled with hardship and persecution, he has transformed into a pastor, a husband and father, a successful tour guide, and a person who has worked hard, with genuine kindness and humility, to improve the quality of life of numerous people. Cape Town has many people in need at various points on their path from rock bottom to success and self-actualization. And there are also many who are committed to helping people get there, even though it’s an uphill battle – maybe because they’re all too familiar with the struggle.
One group of helpers in Cape Town goes by the name of Reclaim the City. RtC is a nonpolitical movement by social activists fighting for land inclusivity in Cape Town. What does that mean? Well, after our morning learning about District Six, we headed to RtC’s offices across town to sit down with the leaders of the movement’s various sectors: research, law, media, to learn about their work.
Reclaim the City’s central mission is “to build an inclusive spatially just city”, largely by “campaigning for the redistribution of empty and underutilised public land to [the] poor and working class” (Reclaim the City). They are fighting for affordable housing and eviction resistance; moreover, they provide temporary housing for evictees. RtC’s mission for housing inclusivity doesn’t solely respond to gentrification pushing out lower-income residents of city centers worldwide, because it is uniquely and deeply tied up with Cape Town’s history. As with essentially all issues which our IEP members are learning about, this issue has roots in the Apartheid regime.
Under Apartheid, ‘non-white’ people were systematically evicted from their city residences and forced to settle in informal shacks on the outskirts of the city. These informal settlements, also called townships or the Cape Flats, are still home to the majority of ‘non-white’ people living in Cape Town. Living in these townships, such as Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, is significantly more dangerous than in more developed areas. Also, because they are located so far from the city center and inefficiently connected by public transportation, it’s very difficult for residents to access good work and education opportunities.
The most pronounced results of RtC’s work thus far are their ‘occupations’ of well-located, albeit dilapidated, buildings for the purpose of creating social housing for poor people to live in rent-free. They have successfully occupied five long-vacant government-owned sites including the Ahmed Kathrada House in Green Point, Cissie Gool House in Woodstock, and Irene Grootboom House in the city center (Reclaim the City).
After about three hours of familiarizing ourselves with the movement and hitting the leaders with a lot of questions, we set off to Woodstock to see their largest occupation in person. It’s fair to say that it was a more shocking experience than any of us were expecting. Intimidating security guards met us at the entrance of a large, fenced-off old building. This occupation, housing around 700 people, including many families with children, is located in a huge abandoned hospital.
The room we first idled in housed an exhibition of photographs of the tenants. We then followed our aged guide, Denver, around the huge property – from a spiral stairway to numerous derelict, empty common rooms… from a modest backyard garden to dark hallways in which restful, personalized spaces could occasionally be glimpsed through doorways.
Within the building’s fenced area, there are outdoor spaces for kids to play under the supervision of the community neighborhood watch. There are also ‘chapter leaders’ whose job it is to keep the occupants safe and organize meetings. But, despite some good efforts to build a sense of community, the Cissie Gool House is an unsettling place. Old hospital signs are still hanging on several walls. The space is a bit dirty, occasionally foul-spelling, and it’s dark; cool sunshine entering the broken windows provides most of the light. Is this really the best option for people? I pondered. Has the government failed its people so badly that their best option is to live with their families in subpar housing that provides them with little more than basic human needs?
As far as I can understand, the answer is yes. Yes, the government has failed its people. This is a better option than living on the street, and a better option than living in a corrugated-iron shack in the distant and dangerous townships. Reclaim the City poignantly states on their website,
“We occupied public buildings because we too have a right to live in the City. A right to walk on the promenade and walk in the gardens. A right to have a view of the sea. A right to raise our children and care for our families in good areas where there are good schools and good hospitals. A right to be close to work and earn an income.”
“We’ve all hit rock bottom and dusted ourselves off,” a resident said to us softly as the sun set on the place she calls home. I felt that I could have easily been in her place, and she in mine.