Washieda Smith, 65, is one of an increasingly small number of Blikkiesdorp residents who can recall a time when life in the sand-swept, destitute camp was not beset by the violence and despair that has come to consume it, most recently in the form of vigilantism.
Smith, who has a broad, kind face and a gravelly drawl, was among a group of people living in Cape Flats hostels and back yards who invaded the N2 Gateway RDP housing project, as it was previously known, in late 2007. The group was evicted in early 2008, and for the next 21 months occupied the pavement of Symphony Way, a main road that runs through Delft.
Smith and the other Symphony Way pavement dwellers were eventually moved into Blikkiesdorp in November 2009, when the City of Cape Town went on an alleged “clean-up” campaign in the run-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup. People were rounded up and moved off the streets of Woodstock or driven out of hostels near Athlone Stadium, which was used as a World Cup training ground.
According to Raquel Rolnik, former United Nations rapporteur on adequate housing, cities such as Cape Town had prioritised “beautification over the needs of local residents”. For the international media that descended on South Africa for the World Cup, Blikkiesdorp – stark, isolated, carceral and chronically underserved – became a poignant symbol of this neglect. The camp was referred to in news reports by the likes of the Guardian and the Washington Post as a “dumping ground” and a “concentration camp”.
Smith’s recollections of those early years are marked by a certain nostalgia. “Despite the conditions, it was actually super back then,” she told me at her home recently, gold bangles jangling on both her wrists as she gesticulated. “We were like a family then. There were no break-ins, no robberies. Everything was fine.”
A devout Muslim, Smith proudly explained how she had helped convince Helen Zille, former mayor of Cape Town and current Western Cape premier, to allocate a plot for a mosque, the first place of worship to be built in Blikkiesdorp. “That helped a lot,” she said.
But as the years passed, the supposedly temporary settlement became more permanent. The population steadily ballooned as large swaths of the historically close-knit, working-class and racially mixed suburbs of Woodstock and Salt River fell prey to rampant gentrificationunder the auspices of the Western Cape government’s so-called “urban regeneration programme”.
The mob against the gang
For Jared Rossouw, co-director of advocacy group Ndifuna Ukwazi, violence and the failure of the state quickly become “normalised” in communities such as Blikkiesdorp, in part because their isolation and dislocation neutralises their ability to mobilise against it. As was the case with the apartheid city, “once you leave the centre, you are no longer part of the conversation”.
Among the Woodstock and Salt River evictees to enter this void were members of the Blikkiesdorp gang the Young Gifted Bastards (YGB). A dearth of both rival gangs and police resources in the camp (the entire Delft area has only 168 police officers per 100 000 residents compared to 556 per 100 000 in Rondebosch) provided fertile groundfor the YGB.
Unchallenged, the gang soon began subjecting Blikkiesdorp to a violent reign of terror that Smith said lasted for about six years and was primarily driven by the members’ desire to sate their own tik habits, as drug addiction devastated communities across the Cape Flats.
Smith said, on a single Friday night in late August, one of her neighbours had been robbed three times by members of the YGB. “That’s how bad the crime got.”
With many residents afraid to lodge cases against the gangsters and the police widely considered to have abandoned the community – the SAPS failed to respond to multiple requests for comment on this story – Jean-Pierre Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security in Cape Town, said it was inevitable that sooner or later residents would resort to vigilantism.
“I think these things tend to get to a flashpoint where offenders repeatedly offend and it’s not addressed by the criminal justice system. The community sees these same offenders on the street, notwithstanding their ongoing complaints and ongoing incidents of criminal activity. And so the consequence is that eventually the most horrific thing happens, and they take the law into their own hands,” he said.
When New Frame met Smith in her home in early November, it had been at least a month since the last mob justice attack. The stand-off between residents identifying as coloured and Xhosa seemed to have dissipated. With most of the YGB’s leaders either killed, hospitalised or driven out of Blikkiesdorp, many residents said they had never felt safer.
But Smith was tense. People she considered both close friends and an integral part of Blikkiesdorp’s social fabric were among those driven out in the preceding weeks. She had bought into the growing paranoia about an impending race war for control of Blikkiesdorp, claiming that a number of residents with ties to the vigilantes had co-opted the Blikkiesdorp Joint Committee (BJC), a claim strongly denied by all of the committee members.
“It might seem quiet and safe, but I’m living in fear. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “Apparently they are still planning to kill more people.”
People in perpetual motion
The land on which Smith’s home sits is due to be cleared by 2021 to be developed by the Airports Company South Africa and incorporated into an expanded Cape Town International Airport. Smith is on the list to move into one of the estimated 2 000 new homes set to be built as part of the Breaking New Ground housing project being developed at two sites along Symphony Way.
“I would like to live a peaceful life as I grow older,” Smith said. “I hope that God grants me this wish, so I can live my final years in peace. I don’t want to live somewhere where you’re constantly anticipating more violence and cruelty.”
Other residents are less certain whether they’ll be better off in the new housing project, particularly migrants who were forced out of other areas of Cape Town by the wave of xenophobic violence that swept across South Africa’s urban hubs in 2008.
Christian Lima, a soft-spoken 38-year-old man, first came to Blikkiesdorp for a brief stint in 2009. After a series of mishaps in other areas he tried to move to over the subsequent years, he found himself back in Blikkiesdorp in 2015. “If I had enough money, I would go back to Cameroon,” he said. “I need to go home.”
But Lima maintained that things in Blikkiesdorp had drastically improved since the YGB, who were known to target Xhosa residents and migrants, had been driven out. He also said the new BJC, which was set up after Ettienne Claassen and other long-standing members fled the settlement in October, was functioning better than ever.
“The old committee wasn’t doing anything to help the situation here. The new committee helped to drive the gangs out. Now, we have all joined together to keep the place safe and stop them from coming back. It’s made a big difference.”
Although Lima did not believe the new committee was directly responsible for the mob justice killings, he had little sympathy for the victims: “If you choose to destroy your community, what do you expect? You made that choice, and people took action because of the anger you had created inside them.”
BJC chairperson Jerome Daniels claimed some former committee members were linked to the YGB, which is why they were pushed out of the camp. Others, including Claassen, had chosen to join them of their own volition, he said. Claassen strongly denied these allegations.
In their absence, Daniels insisted Blikkiesdorp was now a “safe place” where “people were standing together for the first time. There may still be some negative moments to come, but overall, I think things will be positive from here on out.”
Like Smith, Daniels was among the first residents to move here, having also occupied the N2 Gateway houses in 2007. He said he would not leave Blikkiesdorp until the very end. “I made that commitment right at the beginning,” he said. “I told my wife and my family that they need to be strong. Even if I have to be the last person to leave this place, then so be it.”
This is the second of a three-part series on the past, present and uncertain future of Blikkiesdorp, a fissured Cape Town community in the embattled final throes of its lifespan.
Additional reporting by Shaun Swingler.