At the Bonteheuwel multipurpose centre (MPC), members of the Bonteheuwel-Joint Peace Forum Community Action Network (BH-JPF CAN), an organisation active since 2014, were busy laying out “pre-loved” clothes on trestle tables.
The Opel Astra G Front Club carried massive pots of food into the hall. In the courtyard outside, people were beginning to trickle in and line up against the mural-covered walls, waiting to collect parcels of food. DJs played music to keep the mood lively. By the end of the event, 700 food parcels were distributed.
Apart from such feeding initiatives, the two halls of the centre have been largely unused since 11 August 2020, when the MPC became the focal point of an intense community-level conflict that has culminated in legal proceedings at the high court in Cape Town.
A multipurpose centre
Before the pandemic, the centre was always busy. “We get bookings every day. People book in advance. Normally there are functions every weekend,” said Rushine February, facility manager for the past 17 years.
From the time February started as the centre’s manager in 2003 until 2016, repairs to the building were overseen by the municipal manager, who would receive the funds from relevant branches in the Western Cape government, the last one being the provincial department of local government. In 2016, February was told that the building would no longer receive funding for repairs. From then on, the centre was only able to make minor repairs financed by the money it collected for renting out office space. The building began to decay and fell into disrepair.
During lockdown levels four and five, thieves broke in by knocking a hole in the centre’s wall and stole everything they could, including electrical wiring, sockets, toilets and basins.
The lack of toilet facilities meant the centre was unable to rent the halls to the people and organisations that had used them before the lockdown, and a lack of funds made the necessary repairs impossible.
The lease is signed and repairs begin
When the Western Cape approached its Covid-19 peak, the BH-JPF CAN began to look for a venue to host a community care centre, which would have been a volunteer-run facility to give residents of Bonteheuwel a safe space to isolate without leaving their community.
According to Nadia Mayman de Grass, the BH-JPF CAN’s media liaison, they attempted to find appropriate premises such as crèches and churches to host the community care centre but were unsuccessful. Finally, when they approached the Bonteheuwel multipurpose centre’s facility manager, February, they saw an opportunity to add value to their community that would extend past the pandemic.
The BH-JPF CAN signed an 18-month lease agreement with the MPC. They planned to operate the community care centre while it was needed, during which time they would use both halls in the MPC, one for men and the other for women. During the time that the community care centre was operational, other organisations would not have been able to use the halls, but the BH-JPF CAN and their supporters felt that the need for safe, community-based isolation in the face of the pandemic justified the exclusive use of the halls.
According to De Grass, once the need for a Covid-19 isolation centre had passed, they would continue to use the space for the duration of their lease to run community projects, but their use would no longer be exclusive – other organisations would also be able to use the space.
The BH-JPF CAN raised money to make the necessary repairs to get their project off the ground and began the work. They painted the walls, removed the debris and rubbish left behind by the burglars, replaced the windows, made repairs to the roof that was damaged by the storm on 13 July, and secured the walls to prevent burglaries of the kind that happened during the first two months of lockdown.
On 3 August, the BH-JPF CAN put up a poster on social media announcing that they hoped to be ready to accept their first residents on 10 August.
Shutting down the project
Soon after the announcement, they started to get pushback from DA councillor Angus McKenzie on Facebook. In a post made on 5 August, McKenzie said: “The Bonteheuwel Multi Purpose Centre will not become a CAN/JPF/ANC project. Over the last few days we have seen reports of the Bonteheuwel Multi Purpose Centre becoming a care facility for Covid-19 patients. This project has been put in place by CAN/JPF and ANC. This project is illegal and smacks of political opportunism. … I support the Bonteheuwel Disabled People and all others in stopping illegal activity, a legal protest action will be forthcoming.”
Later, posters reading, “Give back our MPC. Come and join Bonteheuwel as we say ‘Get Out’ to CAN and JPF” and “Shutdown CAN/JPF” began circulating on social media, advertising a protest to take place at the MPC on 11 August.
On 9 August, David Pillay, the chairperson of the Bonteheuwel Disabled Persons Group, wrote a letter to the Rondebosch CAN, where he stated: “I promise you they and myself won’t allow it, we fight you with all we got even if it should [end in] violence even till dead.” Pillay had been running a daycare for disabled persons at the MPC for years before the lockdown. Had the BH-JPF CAN been allowed to use the MPC to host the community care centre, Pillay’s Disabled Person’s Group would not have been allowed to operate, as the BH-JPF CAN would have had exclusive access to the halls the group had used in the past.
But De Grass says it was never the intention of the BH-JPF CAN to hold on to exclusive use of the halls after the need for the Covid-19 isolation centre had passed.
On 11 August, the day of the protest, BH-JPF CAN notified their volunteers to stay at home, fearing for their safety because of the contents of the posters and Pillay’s threats in the letter to the Rondebosch CAN. A video taken at the protest shows a man attempting to break the lock on the gates of the centre and another trying to damage a car on the property. On 12 August, the action network instituted legal proceedings against McKenzie and all others involved, directly or indirectly.
In their founding affidavit, BH-JPF CAN argued that because of the threats levelled against the Rondebosch CAN and the conduct on the day of the protest, they were not able to continue renovating the centre out of fear for their safety. This meant that they had been de facto dispossessed of the part of the centre they had leased. BH-JPF CAN asked the court to declare that McKenzie acted illegally, that he stop interfering with their possession of the MPC, and that he stop making defamatory remarks about the BH-JPF CAN on social media and WhatsApp.
McKenzie denied allegations of having been involved in organising the protest on 11 August, as well as having an agenda against the BH-JPF CAN. He also claimed that the facility manager, February, was illegally occupying the building, and that she had no right to issue the lease in the first place, making it null and void. He stated that the building is in the process of being transferred to the City of Cape Town from the Western Cape government.
The BH-JPF CAN has subsequently responded, saying that since their lease is with the multipurpose centre, which is not currently owned by the City of Cape Town, McKenzie needs to follow due legal process if he has an issue with them.
The matter will be heard in the high court in the Western Cape on 15 October.
While mayoral committee member Zahid Badroodien says that the Western Cape government wants to transfer the building to the City of Cape Town, and the City wants to take ownership of the building, he also says that it is not possible to speculate as to how long the administrative process will take.
At this point, four months after the plan to open the community care centre, the Western Cape has passed its Covid-19 peak, the economy has opened up and life seems to be going back to normal. The bulk of the money the BH-JPF CAN has managed to raise to repair the MPC has not yet been put to use. As such, the centre is still not yet in a condition to be used by any members of the public either.
If the court rules in their favour, the BH-JPF CAN will resume the repairs to the centre and continue with the community projects they want to run. If not, the two halls in the centre will likely be vacant until the City of Cape Town takes ownership and restores the building to a state in which it can be used.