Demolitions are currently under way at a Cape Town building previously occupied by a group of about 200 back-yarders, shack dwellers and homeless people. An occupation of sorts is still going on, however, and is into its third month outside the building, Arcadia Place in Observatory.
On a Tuesday night in September 2019, the top floor of Arcadia, formerly an old age home, was occupied by a movement called Singabalapha, an isiXhosa word for “we belong here”, which claims the building is no longer performing its social function.
The chair of the group, Barbara Vuza, 59, says the structure was untouched and vacant for a long time after former residents were moved to places in the city. “We decided we are occupying and government will find us inside,” she said.
Singabalapha was formed in 2003. At the time, Cape Town had a service delivery backlog and members of the group did not feel prioritised, so in 2004 they occupied the defunct Conradie Hospital, which Vuza claims had been vacant for years and could be used to house people.
“We believe government buildings that have no use that can be utilised by people without homes must be given to the homeless … if government is talking about integration, this is integration that we are trying to do,” she said. “Our parents have lived here for a long time. They know everything about Cape Town … They are aware of who owns which buildings.”
The spaces Singabalapha are trying to access are designated for businesses because “they’ve got money, and we don’t have money,” said Vuza, pointing at a group of newly built and under-construction luxury apartments down the road.
“They are trying to change Observatory, Salt River, Woodstock. They are trying to make them places that they give away to developers to make money. The only reason they are doing this is for them to make money,” she said.
Following two eviction orders, the group was removed from Arcadia on 2 October, when one person was injured after rubber bullets were fired. After being evicted, the group slept in front of the building and the pavement was lined with their possessions. Their patch on Main Road is hard to miss.
A stranger donated the tents they now use as shelter and gave them some money for a gas stove. While the stove has not been used since they moved to the pavement, there are mattresses, blankets and chairs – all of which belong to the old age home. There is also an unused fridge. Across the road from the makeshift accommodation is a string of fast food restaurants.
An unknown man tried to enter one of the tents in the early hours, alarming the woman inside and making the occupiers worry about their safety.
There is no water and there are no toilets outside. “We don’t even have R2 anymore to use the toilet at Pick ’n Pay,” Vuza says.
Security guards were present when Singabalapha occupied the three-storey building. They went unnoticed until they approached the guards on the evening of 20 September. “We told them that we are occupiers, and we live with them here. We have been watching them, and we know they don’t do the full rounds so they missed us upstairs,” Vuza explains.
Rental and shack dwelling
The occupiers are domestic workers, hawkers or spaza shop workers. In other places, they would have to pay R400 for rent. But, because of unemployment or precarious work, they cannot afford to pay rent anymore.
“It is not that we don’t want to rent at all … what is the point of renting for somebody else and you are staying in a structure that is not conducive for you and the children?” asks Vuza.
She laments backyard living, saying their building material is often damaged when they move, requiring them to buy more material with no money. The material used for shacks is susceptible to damage that a concrete building is not. “If it’s a wall, it is only the roof that falls. In a shack, everyone is affected if there is a fire,” she said.
Salonica Mbambani, 33, has three children whom she supports using a social grant of R420. During their final eviction by private security on 2 October, she says they were given 15 minutes to leave even though some people were at work.
Mbambani, a former back-yarder in Langa, says many have given up, but as a group, they are still strong and adamant “because there is no way we are going back to the shacks”.
“They were harsh. They were not giving us any chance to even explain our side …We told them we want to wait for our children to come back from school because if they evict us from the building, our children will come back from school and find that we are not here, what will happen to them? They did not care, they did not even listen to us,” Mbambani says.
Singabalapha members claim social workers attempted to take their children away, citing an unsafe environment. They argue this was an intimidation tactic aimed at scaring them. “If they remove our children from us, it gives them the authority to remove us as parents,” she says.
Her last-born son is still traumatised by an early morning encounter with private security. “The trauma of seeing guns and dogs during the process of them trying to evict us … my son is still talking about it because to him it was like watching a movie,” she says.
Some of the occupiers’ possessions are effectively lost because they were barred from re-entering the building. There were also complaints of damage, loss and theft.
Vuza says at best Arcadia is a waiting area for them until they are given alternative accommodation. They do not believe that the original inhabitants will return, saying the building has been sold off for commercial and retail purposes.
Sandi Gelderbloem, spokesperson of the Cape Peninsula Organisation for the Aged (CPOA), says the building has become structurally unsafe. Gelderbloem explained that “half the site has been sold to developers for an extension of the existing Pick ’n Pay. Above this extension, apartments will be built that are also intended for social housing. On the remaining part of the land, CPOA will rebuild Arcadia in order to accommodate the previous residents and to provide welfare retirement to additional needy aged persons.”
How the City treats its citizens
Some of the occupiers are from the streets. “I would say things are worse since the introduction of the Cape Town fines on the homeless,” says Vuza. The City of Cape Town implemented a by-law that fines those living in public spaces R300 to R1 500.
Owen Nekeni, 39, was homeless before being told about the occupation. He was living for six months at Heaven Night Shelter for R15 a day before running out of money in September. He has been staying outside since then. He says living on the pavement outside Arcadia Place is a better alternative to living under the bridge near Groote Schuur Hospital.
“We need houses so we can relax and have our own baths and be able to take a bath because there are many of us here … a bed, a person to have their own room… I also live here but I don’t know when things will be okay for us,” he shrugs.
Manesseh Mangxola, 49, says he applied for housing in 1993. He has a family of six, with one child studying at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
“What disturbs me the most is the City of Cape Town failing us. We are citizens. I was born and raised in Cape Town … I’m from here … The City of Cape Town is failing us dismally. It’s ignoring us. It’s as if we don’t exist,” he says.
Mangxola moved out of his Gugulethu family home as it was already full. He has high blood pressure and a heart condition. “Our thing is not to disturb or disrupt. We just want houses … not everything has got to be done [the violent] way. There is diplomacy, and we are people of the democracy. We just want to be met halfway.”
City of Cape Town spokesperson JP Smith said the city was not obligated by any court order or mandate to provide accommodation, adding that this was a private matter before referring New Frame to mayoral committee member for human settlements Malusi Booi, who did not respond.
The occupiers believe the Western Cape High Court judges who issued the eviction orders were biased and prejudice.
“The judge said we are comfortable in the shacks we are living in so we must return to them, despite the fact that … we are backyard dwellers, so the owners have done something with this land, and it’s not going to be easy for us to go back there,” says Vuza.
Singabalapha’s representative, advocate Ayanda Gladile, said that funding and resources to take the City to the Supreme Court of Appeal was an issue.