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Environment / Climate change

Activists in Cape Town have occupied an abandoned hospital to show how unused spaces could be transformed

Less than a fifteen-minute walk from Test Kitchen, one of the best restaurants in the world, I am standing on an empty street in front of a dark hospital.

Woodstock Hospital, vacant for nearly two decades, has for the last month become home to a rotating group of activists under the campaign ‘Reclaim the City’.

The hospital has 201 rooms and is three stories tall, but the activists currently occupy only one small corridor.

Janine, aged 47, sleeps on a blow-up mattress in the corner of one room.

She had been living in Pine Road, a nearby informal settlement. Social housing had been promised to Pine Road residents since 2006, but no progress has been made.

Janine’s arms have visible burn marks – without electricity, residents in informal settlements often have to rely on open flames for light and heating, making shacks prone to fire.

Down the hall, Shane is a white kite surfer and former pharma sales representative who found himself on the streets after a bout of unemployment.

I quickly get over my fear of ghosts, and start to see the humour and craft in this home-making situation.

A fridge from the 1960s had been found and fixed up; new posters were hung; an old operating theater bed was re-appropriated as a lounge chair.

Woodstock Hospital as seen on Street View in 2009. Image: Google Maps.

The occupation of the Woodstock Hospital by community activists is emblematic of the growing impatience over housing delivery in Cape Town.

Here, the Apartheid-era Group Areas Act famously evicted hundred of thousands of coloured and black residents from their inner-city homes, displacing them to underserviced townships in the barren Cape Flats on the city’s outskirts.

Broken promises

When Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party was elected, central to his campaign was the promise of housing for all along with a plan for urban integration.

More than twenty years later, inner-city Cape Town is still largely occupied by wealthy, white homeowners, while informal settlements for blacks and colored people continue to expand.

No affordable housing units have been built since 1994.

From the city’s perspective, however, there are numerous challenges in constructing well-located affordable housing.

The number of people needing housing is overwhelming: nearly one million residents now live in Khayelitsha, the city’s largest township.

Central Cape Town, which is still largely white-dominated. Image: Lwoelbern.

Like many other developing cities, Cape Town’s informal population is bourgeoning as a result of migration from rural areas and neighbouring African states, making it difficult to determine who qualifies for housing subsidies.

And the fixed subsidy given to social housing units, high real estate prices, and residents’ low disposable income cause a perfect storm of complications, rendering creating viable financing models for new development challenging.

According to Riaan Van Eeden, the value of government subsidies has not increased sufficiently in line with development costs and the income bands of targeted beneficiaries for these projects has also remained the same for a number of years.

The key motivation behind this newest incarnation of urban activism has been the decision made by the Western Cape Province in March to sell a 1.7 hectare piece of land it owned, the now-defunct Tafelberg Remedial High School, rather than convert it into social housing.

This decision comes after the government released a feasibility study last November for mixed-use development, which included 270 units of affordable housing.

But the Province has now promised to develop two alternative abandoned sites instead – the Woodstock Hospital and the Helen Bowden Nurses home.

Activists fear that these promises will ring empty.

Occupation

“There has been promised social housing in Woodstock on seven sites since the early 2000s, but not a single unit or building has been built” says Sarita Pillay, one of the original occupiers.

After the Tafelberg sale was announced, a decision was made by Reclaim the City to occupy both the Woodstock and the Helen Bowden sites.


According to Sarita, the group felt it had exhausted all methods of political participation and wanted to use these occupations as a statement to pressurize the province into overturning the Tafelberg sale and expediting affordable housing development on both sites.

So far, activists’ political demands have been largely ignored.

While they initially expected to be evicted within days, they have now successfully occupied the buildings for more than one month, even sharing the same set of keys with the local security guards.

A self-imposed limit of fifteen sleepers per night has been set for the Woodstock Hospital, with ten semi-permanent squatters and five individuals rotating each night. All activists are made aware of the inherent illegality of squatting, and the concomitant risk of being evicted, and children under 18 are not allowed on the premises.

Crowd-sourced funds, food, and cleaning supplies have helped lower the costs of the campaign.

The longer the activists stay on site, the more they start to wonder: could this not become permanent?

Sustainable squatting

Hundreds of families could live in this building: it has over two hundred rooms, many of which need only minor repairs, along with five kitchens, twenty-seven bathrooms, and two ironing rooms.

“I wish everyone could see how nice it is here, and could have a chance to stay in a place like this, Janine says.

Excitement fills the halls as the occupiers discover a locked room with a functional 90s-era PC. “We could make this the computer room, where we hold computer classes to teach people IT skills!”

It’s a thought, certainly. What if, instead of pressurising the government to create social housing in situ, a cooperative model could be established and managed by the community itself?

Financing the development would be a major challenge. On the streets or in Pine Road, the occupiers were previously paying from zero to 700 rand (£42 per month) for a place to sleep.

Low-income households like theirs can afford to spend no more than 1000 rand per month (£60), and therefore would need subsidies to afford utilities and repairs.

Navigating the activists’ complex relationship with the city government, which holds the keys to electricity and service provision, is another challenge. And that’s not even to mention the concrete management issues with running such a large estate.

That being said, it’s not entirely impossible.

According to Sarita, the occupiers are learning from previous squatter movements. They watch documentaries on São Paolo’s squatters, and are meeting with successful movement leaders from Johannesburg – and the UK can offer plenty of examples where squatters were able to form housing cooperatives and negotiate a leasing agreement with the city.

It’s that, or the streets.

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