Cape Town’s Inner Ugly

Patricia De Lille, one of South Africa's most popular post-apartheid politicians, claims she tried to redress spatial apartheid in Cape Town, but the legacy of her seven year run as mayor is one of violent forced removals and a refusal to upgrade informal settlements.

Helen Zille, Patricia De Lille and Lindiwe Mazibuko of the Democratic Alliance (DA, via Flickr).

The Democratic Alliance (DA), has governed South Africa’s Western Cape province since 2009 and Cape Town, its largest municipality, since 2006. For the majority of this time, Patricia de Lille was Mayor of Cape Town. Months of heated DA infighting culminated in the ousting of a faction loyal to De Lille. She resigned as mayor and announced her intention to found a new political party. De Lille was key to the DA, a party rooted in Apartheid white politics, repositioning itself as a party of the city’s coloured poor and working classes to build a semi-permanent electoral majority in the city and the province. Since De Lille’s departure, her allies have accused the DA of regressive, racist attitudes. They have revealed details of how local, mostly white, DA leaders opposed the development of well-located affordable housing projects, thus actively undermining attempts to redress spatial Apartheid in one of the most unequal, racially segregated metros in the world. What is De Lille’s political legacy, and is she the champion of poor and working people that she claims to be?

A long way from Pan Africanism

Like many senior South African politicians, including current president Cyril Ramaphosa, De Lille cut her teeth as a trade unionist. Having served as vice president of the National Council of Trade Unions, she became a national executive member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1990. Both NACTU and the PAC presented themselves as more radical, black-centered alternatives to the African National Congress’s non-racial politics. The PAC was launched in 1959 as a breakaway from the ANC. Uncompromising Africanists within the ANC had differed with other members on principles such as non-racialism and considered the Freedom Charter too conservative. The PAC initially refused to participate at CODESA, the official negotiations that preceded South Africa’s first democratic elections of 1994. When it eventually joined, De Lille led the PAC delegation.

After 1994, De Lille served as the party’s parliamentary chief whip. She developed a reputation as a fearless parliamentarian by exposing cover-ups involving fellow MPs. During the Mandela presidency, she delivered a speech in Parliament wherein she named seven ANC officials, including cabinet ministers, alleged to be Apartheid-era spies. When ANC insiders decided to leak a dossier containing evidence of massive corruption in the procurement of billions of Rands (hundreds of millions of US dollars) worth of defense equipment (known as the Arms Deal), it was De Lille who presented the dossier to Parliament. For most of the post-Apartheid period she has been one of South Africa’s most popular politicians. A survey in 2004 found her to be the second “most favoured and trusted politician” in the country, second only to Thabo Mbeki, who was president at the time. That she was the most popular among coloured respondents and second most popular among white respondents made her a prime target for recruitment to the DA.

De Lille has traversed a near unbelievable political path, leaving the PAC in 2003 to found and lead the Independent Democrats (ID). In 2010, in a surprise move, she agreed to merge her party with the DA, which itself was born of a merger of the pitifully rebranded New National Party, previously the National Party—the original director-producers of Apartheid—and the white-led liberal Democratic Party. De Lille was a sought-after recruit because of her exceptional popularity among coloured voters in the Cape. The merger consolidated opposition against the ANC, strengthened the DA’s support in coloured communities and positioned De Lille to take over as Mayor of Cape Town.

Recent revelations of internal DA affairs have confirmed that factionalism is rife within the party and the long-running characterization of the DA as an organization led by racists and attracting racist voters, is valid. Former DA leader and current Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is a known apologist for colonialism, having previously tweeted: “for those claiming the legacy [of colonialism] was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, infrastructure, piped water etc.” At a later point, Zille also tweeted: “I agree, there was absolutely nothing positive about slavery or the slave trade. If you read the transformed [South African] history textbooks (issued in a democratic SA), you will see the acknowledgement that despite its many evils, colonialism helped end slavery in parts of Africa.” JP Smith, a prominent, white DA Mayoral Committee (Mayco) member is accused of stating unashamedly in a caucus meeting that he considers “transformation” (how affirmative action and racial redress towards greater equality is referred to in South Africa) a swear word and that the term sets off alarm bells for him. Additionally, the weakness of DA leader Mmusi Maimane has been exposed. He has offered little to challenge his party’s image as a white neoliberal PR machine that deploys black leaders strategically while only paying lip service to anti-racism.

Embracing the DA approach

De Lille has tried to distance herself from the DA ethos, saying she had been “abused” by the party, echoing sentiments expressed by her allies about its racist culture and claiming that a cabal within had not only frustrated the implementation of progressive projects, but also conspired to tarnish her name and expel her. However, De Lille tended to embrace the party’s neoliberal agenda in Cape Town and followed through on a number of regressive approaches implemented by her predecessors. Municipal Ward 54 is illustrative in this regard.

Ward 54 comprises wealthy suburbs along some of Cape Town’s most picturesque beaches. JP Smith is a former Ward 54 councillor and is the current Mayco member for Safety, Security and Social Services, a role he held in De Lille’s administration. As ward councillor he led an aggressive “broken windows”-based campaign (the rightwing policy prescription dreamed up by the conservative Manhattan Institute) against petty crime and homelessness. While crime rates in picturesque suburbs like Sea Point, on the edge of downtown Cape Town, declined, this approach simply shifted crime and homeless people to other parts of the City. Sea Point is patrolled by a combination of municipal law enforcement and a large contingent of private security personnel paid for by the local ratepayers’ association, whose sponsors are mainly property development and real estate companies including global giants like Knight Frank and Sotheby’s International Realty.

In 2016, Ward 54 Councillor Shayne Ramsay, announced on Facebook that having “met with residents, City staff, colleagues and Mayco members to discuss this increasingly difficult problem,” she would lead a “march against grime” to “walk along the promenade until 21h00, kindly as king anyone who is planning on sleeping overnight, to move along.” According to Ramsay, Sea Point’s “garbage bins are treated as buffet tables” and Cape Town’s homeless community is comprised of “criminals (who are in and out of crowded prisons), mentally retarded or social outcasts, and those who are generally down on their luck.” Given De Lille’s posture as a champion of the poor, one would have expected that she rebuke the councillor or at best distance herself from such utterances. She did not. Ramsay made a half-hearted public apology and got a slap-on-the-wrist fine of R10,000 from a DA party disciplinary hearing, but at no point did we see a concerted effort to have the councillor replaced.

The City of Cape Town under De Lille has broadly maintained this “broken windows” approach to dealing with issues such as illicit drugs, homelessness and sex work, the latter of which remains illegal in South Africa. The strategy has contributed to the harassment and abuse of homeless people and sex workers, and encourages racial profiling by local law enforcement and aggressive neighborhood watch groups.

Poster issued by the City of Cape Town, seen on 11 November 2018. Photo credit Suhair Solomon.

Prioritizing the promotion of tourism, the attraction of corporate investment and the marketing of Cape Town as a “world class city” has been a hallmark of the governing party’s development agenda, including under De Lille’s tenure. This year Travel and Leisure’s “World’s Top Cities” to visit ranks Cape Town at number 12, just ahead of Rome, while according to the 90,000 Brits who voted in the 2017 Telegraph Travel Awards, Cape Town is the world’s greatest city. This despite the city’s atrocious inequality and extremely high murder rate. According to University of Cape Town research the city has an annual murder rate of 69 per 100,000, up marginally since 2016/2017. Crime in other South African cities declined over the same period. Tourists, however, as with those who can afford to live in the modern, efficient inner city, are mostly insulated from the worst of Cape Town’s violent crime and service delivery failures. Informal settlements and working-class townships, unsurprisingly, bear the brunt of physical, social and structural violence.

Against the backdrop of gross financial mismanagement at municipalities across the country, Cape Town has a relatively clean record. After a decade of clean audits, the City received its first qualified audit for the 2016/2017 financial year. However, there have been serious irregularities uncovered in relation to inner city property deals, the latest of which involves the sale of well-located public land at a potential loss of up to R140 million (about $10 million). The De Lille administration oversaw an enormous boom in inner city real estate prices, with the rapid expansion of luxury developments, including in working class areas, such as Woodstock and Salt River on the fringes of the Cape Town central business district. While inner city residents and property investors will laud the achievements of local government in recent years, gentrification has ripped through well-located communities of color and the majority of Cape Town citizens have not experienced significant improvements in living conditions.

Deep-rooted denialism

Regardless of official policy and rhetoric, the DA has never been serious about informal settlement upgrading in Cape Town. Local law enforcement regularly carries out illegal evictions in informal settlements. A factor contributing to the governing party’s indifference is that the poorest informal settlements are almost exclusively black African, while the DA’s voter base in the region is largely white and coloured, with the latter racial groups comprising the majority of Cape Town’s population, including its poor. There is in fact a perverse incentive to discourage urban migration and informal settlement growth, evident in the frequent illegal evictions and in Helen Zille’s reference to informal settlement learners as “education refugees” from other provinces. (The bizarre practice of referring to South Africans migrating between provinces in search of opportunity and a better life as refugees, doesn’t raise any eyebrows in the DA.)

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) has conducted major campaigns for dignified sanitation and for safety and security in informal settlements. The organization’s headquarters are in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest informal settlement, about 30 minutes from the city center. Current and former leaders of the SJC explain that initially there was hope that De Lille would be sympathetic to the organization’s urgent campaign demands for the realization of basic rights to decent sanitation and safety. She engaged meaningfully with the organization when she took over as Mayor in 2011, even inviting leaders to meet with her at her office. An ongoing problem is the lack of decent toilets in Khayelitsha. Residents have complained about toilets being unsafe (women have been raped and people robbed when attempting to use isolated or poorly lit toilets), unsanitary, broken, poorly maintained and in insufficient supply. In 2012, she promisingly oversaw the implementation of a janitorial service, advocated for by the SJC, for the maintenance of communal toilets provided by the City. However, by 2013 De Lille had begun to prioritize the inner city and demonize the SJC, perhaps because the movement had identified major shortcomings in the implementation of the janitorial service and demanded these be addressed. Around this time Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, strongly aligned with the local opposition ANC (while the ANC controls national government, it has been in opposition in Cape Town since 2006), and with no links to SJC, embarked on opportunistic protests involving the dumping of human feces in public spaces. De Lille conveniently lumped the groups together in public statements, undermining the SJC’s campaigns.

The City has consistently underspent a substantial grant provided by the National Treasury to municipalities towards infrastructure for the benefit of poor households, and for improving density and spatial integration. These funds could be used for the upgrading of informal settlements but are lost because of a refusal, by leaders like De Lille and Zille, to acknowledge the rights of informal settlement residents to have their dignity respected and protected. In 2016 former SJC Deputy Secretary General Dustin Kramer wrote: “The SJC, and many thousands of residents, have asked for something very clear: a plan for long-term sanitation infrastructure in informal settlements. A plan. People often don’t believe us when we explain that the City has no plan for long-term infrastructure. They display real shock that the City not only flatly refuses to produce one, but also viciously attacks us for asking.” Two years on there is still no plan.

The beast that is Apartheid spatial planning

It has been stated repeatedly, without any reasonable response from the DA, that since 1994 not a single affordable housing unit has been built in the Cape Town city center or its immediate surrounds. Prior administrations failed to address the problem of Apartheid spatial design, and the DA and De Lille fared no better.

Under South African law, in accordance with the constitutional right to housing, municipalities are responsible for providing temporary accommodation to evictees who would be rendered homeless. However, the City distances itself from private evictions and has failed to plan adequately for meeting its rehousing obligation. The De Lille administration’s response to the large-scale private eviction of poor families from gentrifying neighborhoods was for the most part callous and ignorant of the law.

Hopolang Selebalo, the former Head of Research at the NGO Ndifuna Ukwazi, wrote in 2016 on a case that is representative of the gentrification-driven forced removals—reminiscent of the forced removals under the Group Areas Act during apartheid—that have for several years been common near the city center:

The mayor has shown her lack of understanding of the law and her constitutional obligation in a case where eviction would amount to homelessness. Mayor De Lille’s claim that the families would be jumping the housing queue is false. Temporary alternative accommodation, as provided in line with court judgements, is not the same as formal housing allocation. In the absence of proactive state interventions to curb the mass evictions of poor families, typical of gentrification in Woodstock, the state has an obligation to provide such families with temporary alternative accommodation.

Under previous DA mayors, Blikkiesdorp, a notoriously dangerous, overcrowded relocation camp was built to rehouse displaced residents and evictees, and has been called a “dumping ground for unwanted people.” Patricia De Lille oversaw the construction of a second massive relocation camp called Wolwerivier. The camp is about 30km north of downtown Cape Town, utterly isolated, has no nearby bus or train stations or schools or clinics, yet displaced families with nowhere to go are still being sent there by the municipality because “there are no other options available.” It is the fault of those who governed that after all these years, the only options available to displaced people are the horrific ones that Zille and De Lille built.

De Lille would have us believe that addressing spatial inequality was always on her agenda. In reality, campaigning by social movements like Reclaim the City, the SJC, PHA Food & Farming Campaign, the Bo-Kaap Civic Association and others, coupled with the efforts of hard-working, dedicated public servants in local government who operate beyond the scope of political mudslinging, brought the redress of Apartheid spatial planning and development of well-located affordable housing in Cape Town into public discourse, and forced De Lille to engage. Her attempt to caste herself as a champion of this cause is disingenuous and opportunistic, as one would expect from a career politician laying the groundwork for the launch of a new party. Campaigns for affordable housing, including the occupation of inner-city public buildings, and the work of local government insiders who have supported activists’ efforts, have yielded the possibility of well-located social housing on a number of new sites as well as at previously identified locations, like the Salt River Market site (built on the edge of a working class, mainly coloured and African immigrant section of the gentrifying suburb), a project that has been in the pipeline for more than a decade without implementation.

Police attempt to suppress non-violent protests in Bo-Kaap on 20 November 2019. Image credit Ashraf Hendricks for Groundup.

Alongside affordable housing campaigns, working-class inner-city residents have attempted to resist the kinds of exclusive developments that are associated with gentrification and forced removals. In November, residents of Bo-Kaap, an inner-city neighborhood that has been the home of people of Cape Malay heritage since the time of slavery, attempted to block a crane from entering their neighborhood to start construction of an apartment complex that the community had attempted to formally opposed. Violent suppression of community protest is a routine reality in South African cities. Again, in Cape Town this violence tends to occur well outside the CBD. However, in the case of the Bo-Kaap protests, non-violent resistance against a notoriously unscrupulous property developer was met with deplorable police brutality and it happened in the city center. The event is surely an indication that the unsustainable approach of extreme two-tiered development, with the poor being left to fight daily for the right to live with dignity, is reaching a breaking point. The inner-city bubble, oblivious to the brutal lived realities of most Capetonians, is being pierced.

If De Lille’s new party is to prove itself different from the DA, she can no longer pretend to be on the side of the dispossessed while protecting the interests of the rich. A party that opposes the toxic politics of the DA could be good for the city, however, De Lille has betrayed the trust of its citizens and it may take a great deal for her to earn that trust back.

Further Reading

Reclaim the City

The Tafelberg site in Sea Point, a rich suburb of Cape Town, has come to symbolize the vested interests that corrupt our state and maintain white property powers’ near-exclusive access to well-located land and housing …