In the dark, gunfire explodes close by.
hu Allahu Ahad!
Lam yalid wa lam yulad!
Wa lam ya kulahu kufuwan Ahad!
Keep your eyes closed!
La illaha illalah!
La illaha illalah!
Please open your door! Please open!
A child screams.
On the night of 29 January, a woman ran through the darkness, dropping to the grass, praying, seeking cover for herself and her child as the Red Ants opened fire on a land occupation next to the Rondevlei Nature Reserve near Muizenberg in Cape Town. She kept her phone video on, creating a record of how the notorious Red Ants security company shot indiscriminately into the dark, sending people running, terrified and afraid for their lives. “There is none worthy of worship except God!” she called out. The terror in her voice as she recited these passages, meant to remove fear of all earthly threat and authority, makes it clear she thought she might die that night.
Both the Rondevlei and the nearby Xakabantu occupations are on land adjacent to or overlapping areas proclaimed as nature reserves. The City of Cape Town’s recently drafted Unlawful Land Occupation Framework points out that areas “tangential to nature reserves” are high risk, making nature reserves and their surrounding areas particularly exposed to eviction violence. Nature reserves strengthen the justification of the City to evict, and excuse a cavalier violence that security forces, including the Red Ants, use against occupiers. Under apartheid, evictions and forced removals were done in the name of racist ideology, but the postapartheid City managers now need to find other justifications for their vicious relationship to impoverished Black urban residents. The “protection” of nature reserves has become a component of their new ideological arsenal.
People as part of conserved areas
Sociological studies of conservation note that violence in conservation is often associated with national parks and nature reserves. Rosaleen Duffy describes the spatial violence associated with conservation as “a proactive, interventionist militarised response that … extends well beyond protected areas and into the lands and communities surrounding them”.
Many aspects of the violence described by Duffy are witnessed around nature reserves within Cape Town. The City of Cape Town urgently needs to reframe its concept of conservation and expand it to include what conservation sociologists Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher term convivial conservation as an alternative to the militarisation of conservation. A core tenet of this approach is to support nature to thrive, with people as a part of the conserved space, rather than fenced off from it. This implies creating more space for nature to proliferate in cities, villages and human settlements, while at the same time integrating living spaces into ecosystems in a durable way.
Putting the City’s conservation efforts on the front line of its class war is both unfair to the conservationists and reserve managers who are council employees, and politically disingenuous. Arguing that the City must choose between “nature” and “people” sets up a false dichotomy in a country where nature reserves are historically tied to the social history of land dispossession. “Nature” should not be put to use as an alibi for the continuation of colonial and apartheid land use.
If we are to seriously consider the rights of non-human life and to preserve our relationship with the ecosystems in which we live, surely the City should focus its attention on its vast solid waste dump at Capricorn, abutting both Rondevlei and the major Cape Flats aquifer recharge zone and contributing to the heavy metal contamination of marine species in False Bay’s Marine Protected Areas? Or on the industrial and plastic waste that flows through urban rivers into Princessvlei and Zeekoevlei, protected by a Ramsar international agreement as a waypoint for migrant birds? Or on the sewage spills that have contaminated Zeekoevlei twice in the past year? Or on the City’s inadequate waste water treatment processes that release persistent chemical contaminants into the environment, which are bioaccumulating in marine species in Cape Town’s bays? When held up against these urgent nearby ecosystem crises, the brutality and militarisation brought down on unhoused people settling along the borders of nature reserves becomes less a project of conservation and more an excuse for the exercise of racist exclusion from just and equitable allocation of City services.
We argue that the land’s own history carries lessons about its potential to support productive urban ecology. Both the Rondevlei and Xakabantu areas adjacent to the nature reserves have long histories of Black land tenure and urban farming. The history of this part of Cape Town was shaped by a mixed community of Black smallholder farmers who lived in the Muizenberg, Vrygrond, Rondevlei and Hardevlei areas for generations, resisting decades of colonial and apartheid urban removals. Some families had land of 2 000 square metres, which they farmed, rented out to tenants, and on which they erected formal housing and shacks.
People made a living as farmers, gardeners and woodcutters. The area, with its wetlands, abundance of indigenous herbs, veld, birds, water, beer brewing hubs and livestock, provided for a thriving community where Khoi and San rituals were everyday practices and where Griqua, Shona and Xhosa communities intermingled. The well-known San practice of the gathering of uintjies, an edible plant, was still practiced until at least the 1970s in the sand dunes of Rondevlei before the impact of the forced removals and bulldozing of the veld, fynbos and sand dunes to resettle those forcibly removed from other parts of the City declared white.
In the early 1970s, residents were informed by the City that the landowners of Hardevlei and Rondevlei had to sell their land to the council to make way for a highway to separate the Black settlement area of Rondevlei and the newly established Lavender Hill from the white nature reserve of Rondevlei and white Zeekoeivlei. Owners were told their smallholdings were “in the way” and would therefore be expropriated for an apartheid highway to Muizenberg. Landholders were offered R1 000 per acre, which included payment for any dwelling on it. Some swiftly lost as many as 15 plots of land they had used for small-scale subsistence farming.
The reason for the low payouts was because the City declared the land of “low residential value” because it was classified as “agricultural smallholdings”. Livestock farming and woodcutting were lost as livelihoods, and instead people went to work on fishing vessels or as domestic workers in white homes, and started to work in factories. The community was displaced and dispersed. Now the children and grandchildren of those families are unemployed or in unsustainable casual employment, and living in cramped quarters with nowhere to go. The current land dispute between occupiers and the City’s Law Enforcement with the support of the Red Ants, sustains an old and ongoing tenure antagonism. The disputed area includes more than 450 square metres of ancestral land of co-author June Bam’s grandmother, Katriena Basson, who lived for almost 100 years on that land. Bam writes:
“My father owned 15 plots of land in Rondevlei and we lived closer to the sand dunes next to Ousi Katriena. We had huge vegetable gardens, a well and livestock. My late father was also forced to sell his land to the council for next to nothing in the early 1970s to make way for the highway that was never constructed. It was in Rondevlei where we were taught the knowledge of plants, the basics of nature conservation and to read the moon, mountain, stars and dark skies.
“Many protest meetings were held by the landowners of Hardevlei and Rondevlei against the forced removals for the highway as Lavender Hill encroached increasingly on our food gardens and grazing areas of our livestock. Bulldozers were brought in to intimidate the landowners. It is a tragic untold story of forced removals, of how the forced removals of District Six, Harfield and others impacted on Black smallholding farming on the Cape Flats. My grandmother is a legendary figure of the history of Rondevlei. She resisted the bulldozers and the white intimidating council officials who visited routinely to force her family with their vegetable gardens and livestock off the land.
“The Griquas gathered here on this land and next door with the Fredericks and Kennedy families every Sunday and people collected food, bread and meat at Christmas from Ousi.
“During apartheid, the white council always had its eye on this land and always harassed people there because it was too close to ‘white environmental sensibility’. A frontier had to be created. My family could never sell the land. Today, my grandmother’s ancestral land and the envisioned highway road (known as Fourteenth Avenue, Rondevlei – my proud childhood address on the brown envelopes of my school reports), is known locally as ‘Moord Straat’ [Murder Street]. It has become a well-known place for Pollsmoor prison gangster number execution orders and gang initiation rituals. The council’s brutality and deployment of the well-known Red Ants and their gratuitous violence against homeless people complete the picture of brutality perfectly. The council has never bothered to listen to the people of Rondevlei. It is an old story, going back to when the District Six removals took place and a new area for the settlement had to be found. This was large land far enough away from the city centre of white Cape Town.
“Though Ousi Katriena triumphantly defied apartheid removal from Rondevlei and she did not give up her land, her surviving children (now in their 70s and 80s) have for years now been billed for municipal services never delivered. Nothing has changed, it seems. But there is a possible peaceful solution to the violent forced removals taking place currently on Ousi Katriena’s land, if the council cares to listen. The council can so easily buy the land from the owners and provide housing, vegetable gardens and Khoi herbal gardens for the homeless. That would be an appropriate memory to the land and its historic meaning for the Khoi and San-descendant people who owned this land. It was land that secured livelihoods and that served as the site for teaching indigenous knowledge. This was what this land was ancestrally in a balanced ecology with the Rondevlei reserve. As I write this, I can loudly hear my Ousi Katriena shout the ancestral ‘voert!’ (go away!) to the Red Ants from her grave nearby at Muizenberg cemetery – and I can visualise her defiantly swinging her white table cloth flag as she summons her horses. The Red Ants don’t belong there.”
Creating viable spaces
At the back of Vrygrond, on the edge of Xakabantu between the Coastal Park landfill site, the nature reserve and the township, Mike Khumalo runs a massive recycling business. He manages this infrastructure for the conversion of rubbish into resources for resale, which employs 45 people from the area. As a trade unionist organiser he spearheads the Back to Work Campaign for decent jobs, particularly in municipal work, and also keeps pigs on the piece of land he occupies. The City has taken him to court more times than he can count, removed his pigs and threatened his recycling business because they say he is illegally occupying a nature reserve. Khumalo’s father, Samuel Khumalo, was one of the first Black small-holder farmers to move into the area in the 1960s, growing food, keeping cattle and leading the South African National Civic Organisation structure in the area for 30 years. Samuel was a leader of Black farmers who successfully resisted and refused many attempts by apartheid urban planners to move them.
“Since when is Xakabantu a nature reserve?” Khumalo keeps asking the courts whenever the City forces him to defend his right to live and work there. The City started a process to proclaim Xakabantu as part of the Slangetjiebos Nature Reserve in 2010, but Khumalo says there was no consultation with the community living there, and no discussion when the reserve was signed into being in 2012. He is petitioning the City to allow for waste pickers to work on the landfill to earn a living as recyclers. The City has not only forbidden the waste pickers, but also keeps up a running legal battle against Khumalo’s claim on the land, and has now sent rubber bullets flying at his neighbours. The irony of closing down a Black-owned recycling business to preserve “nature” should not escape us.
Instead of responding with military-style security enforcements, why is the City not conceptualising these spaces as sites for viable community-led agroecology to support Cape Town’s many homeless and hungry, particularly in the Covid-19 crisis? Why are these occupations, along with local food-growing initiatives, not identified as the ideal places for the development of viable housing based on agro-ecology that will provide real, long-term solutions to Cape Town’s chronic housing and hunger crises, and address the failures of urban planning outside the fences of the False Bay Nature Reserve? In the absence of a just and redistributive integrative plan for the City that will actually be implemented, these sites are actively setting their own redistributive agenda, slowly chipping away at the legacy of the colonial city.
As citizens of Cape Town, as social scientists and as environmentalists, we reject the City resorting to brutal forced removals in the name of conserving nature and in the time of economic devastation. We say, “Not in our name”. Real solutions that address the challenges of homelessness and hunger are available even as conservation is taken seriously. To the brutalists in City governance who use ratepayer money to target the homeless with militarised interventions and call that a solution, we say, with Ousi Katriena, “Voert!”