On Thursday, 11 June 2020, the 77th day of the national lockdown and the wettest day of the cold front that had just rolled in, Liesl Arendse-Holmes and her husband, Richard Holmes, were relaxing at their home in Hangberg. When the rain intensified, Holmes opened the blinds and saw Nyalas in Karbonkel Road where their neighbour, Ginola Phillips, had built his Wendy house – a type of wooden cabin. “That can only mean one thing,” thought Arendse-Holmes.
Phillips walked up the path that led to his Wendy house, to watch the demolition of his home. A police officer told him to go back down to the road. Phillips responded, saying: “This is my house. You have a house. All of you have houses.” Seconds later, he was shoved down the hill and shot three times with rubber bullets.
Phillips has lived in Hangberg all his life. At 20, he is the youngest of six siblings, all of whom live with their mother, Sonia Phillips, in a one-bedroom flat. Due to the size of her family, Sonia Phillips has been on the housing waiting list, a database where people register their housing needs with the state, for over 25 years. Nothing has materialised.
Using money he had saved while working with his grandmother, who has sold fish at Hout Bay Harbour for over 30 years, he bought an incomplete, second-hand Wendy house as well as the remaining materials needed to complete it. Phillips chose to build his Wendy house on a patch of land close to his mother’s home to have access to water. If it wasn’t for the cold front, he would have been able to finish the remaining 25% of the roof, the only incomplete part of the structure.
On the same day, in another part of Hangberg, Mecaylen Galant was busy doing house work when her brother ran in to tell her that the house she was building was being broken down.
Galant, 26, is a single mother of three children and a third generation resident of Hangberg. She and her children live with her parents, her brother and his child in a one-bedroom house. It is the same house her grandfather lived in when he worked for the fishing company South African Sea Products. After his death, her father worked for the same company and they have lived in that house ever since.
In 2019, Galant volunteered for the Western Cape Province-based project The Walking Bus, which assists learners in high risk areas with getting to and from school safely. In November, the Walking Bus began paying volunteers a stipend, and Mecaylen used the money to buy building materials to build her home. The decision did not happen overnight.
Three years before she began building her house, and a few months after the birth of her third child, Galant wrote a letter to the ward councillor, requesting a plot of land as the one-bedroom house she lived in with her family was overcrowded. She received no response. She spoke to members of the Peace and Mediation Forum, a group of community leaders, but was also unsuccessful.
“They say there are procedures you have to follow, but that’s what I did. The government is responsible for [housing], but what are they doing? If I do my own stuff, it’s not right. So what must I do?” asks Galant.
When the Group Areas Act was enforced in 1950, Hout Bay was declared a white area. The apartheid government established Hangberg as an area for those it classified as coloured in order to supply cheap labour to the fishing industry. People whom the apartheid regime labelled as coloured, who were living in other parts of Hout Bay, including the now affluent “Valley” area, were evicted from their homes and relocated to Hangberg.
Council flats housed the first wave of relocated fishers and later row houses were built to deal with the increase in the population. As the demand for housing increased, residents built shacks in backyards, but later they were given permission to build structures on the slopes above the council flats and below the stormwater channel known as the sloot, which was the lower boundary of the firebreak. The area was given shack settlement status and a project was launched to facilitate its incremental upgrade. The settlement would come to be known as the Hida, after the Hangberg in situ Development Association, the committee that was set up to facilitate the upgrade.
A turning point was marked when the privately owned top section of Sentinel mountain went up for auction in 2009. There were fears that if the top section of the mountain landed up in the hands of a private developer, Hangberg residents might face relocation and be sent to Blikkiesdorp. Members of the community staged a protest outside the Chapmans Peak Hotel, and the auction was cancelled. In the following months a few residents took the bold step of building structures above the sloot, occupying the land in an attempt to prevent its sale. The City decided to evict them.
“At most, the community was against people building [above] the sloot … if the City handled [the situation correctly] at that stage, they could have turned this place into sort of a model housing area. But they totally screwed up by sending in the forces. At that stage they should not have. They should have continued the negotiation process,” says Donovan van der Heyden, the former chairperson of the Hida project.
On the morning 21 September 2010 the metro police moved in to demolish the structures, and the community resisted. In the battle that ensued 62 people were arrested, some of whom were onlookers who were dragged out of their homes, four people were partially blinded after being shot in the face with rubber bullets and many others suffered injuries like broken limbs. The operation’s stated aim was to demolish illegal structures, and was carried out without a court order, but the structures were occupied.
In 2011, the Hangberg Peace Accord was signed by the City and representatives of the residents in an effort to quell the ongoing protests that followed from the events of 21 September. In short, residents had to desist from protesting and building “illegal structures” and the City had to provide services and housing.
History repeats itself
In the past nine years, the City has built just 72 housing units in Hangberg. According to ward councillor Roberto Quintas, the City has one active housing project in Hangberg at the moment after which another will follow. A steering committee has been assembled for the first project, but it has suffered delays due to Covid-19. At this stage neither the number of units nor type of housing for the site have been determined. It will be a while before it is completed.
In contrast the Hida, the only area residents may build shacks without fear of demolition, according to Quintas, is overcrowded. The 2010 upgrading project was designed to support 302 households and now has over 400, according to Jan Lewis, chair of the Peace and Mediation Forum. People continue to build inside the Hida, but they are encroaching on walkways, or using space that should be left vacant in the case of emergency access. Some of the basic ablution facilities provided by the City have been fenced off by residents, preventing others from accessing them.
While the Hida is overcrowded and under-serviced, the City has not made other parcels of land available for informal and incremental building, missing the opportunity to include residents in providing their own housing. “… They’re sitting with an incredibly sophisticated informal settlement with people who can build by themselves, which is amazing. You see really sophisticated forms of incremental housing, similar to what you see in Rio de Janeiro,” says Helen Rourke of the Development Action Group, who was instrumental in the inception of the Hida project.
Two of the sites that were earmarked for housing in the Hangberg Peace Accord, namely erf 9 562 and erf 8 474, have since been leased for other purposes. An electricity depot has been built on one, and the other has been earmarked for a recycling depot.
By confining the building of shack structures to the Hida, failing to deliver the housing projects promised, and tearing down structures which are built outside of it, the City has created a paradox. Residents who find themselves stuck in that paradox are left with no legitimate option but to wait on the City to provide them with housing. As Sonia Phillips’ situation has shown, the wait can take decades.
The second demolition
In the week following the demolition of his home, Phillips rebuilt the Wendy house with support from his community. Neighbours offered help in the form of materials as well as labour. Within two days, his Wendy house was complete. Phillips and his brother moved in.
Framing these desperate acts of Hangberg residents as “land invasions” and the meagre homes they build as “illegal structures”, invokes images of lawless outsiders moving in and laying claim to what is not theirs. However, in Hangberg those are residents who have lived there for decades, and in some cases, their families have lived there for generations. Of course, the problem of “unoccupied illegal structures” is a lot easier to solve than the provision of universal access to land and housing, and the City goes about solving it in the same way it did in 2010, with guns and tear gas, opting to accept the collateral trauma experienced by uninvolved members of the community.
Law Enforcement officials returned on 19 June, with 40 vehicles and armed personnel, wearing bulletproof vests and demolished his Wendy house again with his belongings still inside. Community members fought back, this time setting fire to the Little Angels Creche, which was also built illegally on the same section of land. Residents had allegedly been told that the owner of the creche had called the police to have Phillips’ Wendy house demolished. Part of the electricity depot was burnt as well.
Objectifying the impoverished
Phillips received legal aid and approached the high court, asking it to find that the City of Cape Town was in violation of the Covid-19 Disaster Regulations by proceeding with the eviction. The City’s lawyers wanted to reach a settlement agreement, offering Phillips an alternative plot of land on which to build, but the land they had in mind had already been offered to another family, and so the matter was heard in court.
On Wednesday, 15 July, Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe ordered that the first and second demolitions of Phillips’ Wendy house were unconstitutional and in violation of the Alert Level Three Regulations. The City was given 48 hours to rebuild the Wendy house on the same piece of land, with similar or better materials.
In the judgment Salie-Hlophe says, “The actions of the respondents in repeatedly demolishing the home of Mr Phillips is a sore and painful reflection of a failure to fully appreciate the plight of our poor communities … and what can probably be described as objectifying the indigent as having no rights worthy of recognition.”
The court order was a welcome victory for Phillips, who has a home that he can occupy without fear of being evicted, as a rightful resident of Hangberg. Meanwhile, Hangberg’s land and housing problems remain. As continued demolitions and evictions in Empolweni suggest, court orders are no guarantee that illegal evictions will cease, or that law enforcement officers and the anti-land invasion unit will act in a less brutal manner the next time the City sends them to carry those evictions.
“It’s the same countrywide, and Hangberg is no exception,” says Van der Heyden.