On a vast piece of land known as Mabcinde in Masiphumelele township, Cape Town, water laps at the bases of the homes people have built for themselves. Long reeds rise from the damp ground and a canal – littered with plastic bags and glass bottles – snakes through the settlement.
“We are drowning here,” says 31-year-old Khulansande Ghanyanza.
In Masiphumelele, this area is known as the wetlands. Its name, Mabcinde, means “on a temporal basis”, which is what people expect their lives here to be, temporary, until they can find a permanent home.
On a rainy Thursday in Cape Town, water underneath the ground rises up and swallows the bottoms of the shacks. Ghanyanza has a pair of rubber boots he uses to wade through the water so he can leave for his job in Kalk Bay, where he is a bartender. The money he makes supports his children and his elderly mother in the Eastern Cape.
“We can’t afford to pay rent, so we stay here,” he says.
In some parts of Masiphumelele, a room can cost between R1 000 and R2 000 to rent. The daily tasks of cooking, cleaning and doing laundry are made more difficult by the lack of running water and electricity in the settlement. But they brave the wetlands because they have nowhere else to go.
Five kilometres from the settlement, in the nearby town of Fish Hoek, there is a 7 000m² piece of land. The City of Cape Town owns the land, but leases it to the Fish Hoek Bowling Club. There are bowling greens and a clubhouse, where elderly folk in the town have formed a community around the sport.
To use this land, the bowling club pays the city R1 000 a year. “If we were to pay the normal property prices around here, we wouldn’t be able to afford it,” a club member tells New Frame.
Club president Cedar Ryan is passionate about the club and its value. “Fish Hoek is a small town and has historically been home to a lower middle class and working class community. Our members are virtually all pensioners with the average age about 75; we have a member who is over 90 years of age who still plays bowls on Sundays.”
The grounds are used three days a week for bowls and other classes, such as yoga, are held on different days of the week. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Cansa hold fundraisers there. But it is mostly the town’s older residents who have found a sense of community in the club. They defend it fiercely, saying it plays an important role in shaping their daily lives in Fish Hoek.
The club has managed to avoid much public scrutiny over its lease because its fees have not been as publicised as those of another sports club in the city.
Golf versus housing
Two weeks ago, the club’s committee would have watched as news emerged that more than 300 activists from housing pressure group Reclaim the City had occupied the Rondebosch Golf Course, demanding land for housing. A report titled City Leases, researched and written by housing law clinic Ndifuna Ukwazi, revealed that the golf club pays R1 000 a month to lease the land from the city.
While a furore erupted over the golf club’s fees in a time when rent on prime land remains costly in Cape Town, the Fish Hoek Bowling Club has gone relatively unnoticed. Its grassy green lawn, flanked by a wide white clubhouse, is empty on a Tuesday afternoon. But elderly residents are known to compete at the sports grounds during the week and on weekends.
Ryan agreed that there is a dire need for housing, but does not think Ndifuna Ukwazi’s solution to use the bowling club’s grounds is the answer.
“I agree that the housing crisis needs to be addressed, but the land we lease is very unlikely to make any sort of difference. We need large-scale solutions involving major tracts of public land. As it is, we’re already a very good user of land when one compares it against say, a golf club. A bowls green is around 1 400m² [38x38m] and can accommodate 48 players at any one time. That translates into some 30m² per player. This, to my mind, is a far more economic use of land than most other sporting codes,” he said.
The lawn here seems better kept than that of its sister club in Green Point, where a similar situation has unfolded in the affluent seaside suburb neighbouring the inner city.
The Glen Country Club, which referred New Frame to the City of Cape Town to respond to questions, pays the municipality R1 000 to lease 27 000m² of prime public land for bowling greens, two clubhouses and a vacant piece of land. Cape Town officials have already earmarked the site for inner-city housing but development has yet to begin.
Former Sea Point resident Busisiwe Mabanda* already believes that land is hers.
A home in Green Point
Mabanda spends her weekdays at a souvenir shop in the city centre, where she sells necklaces with Africa-shaped pendants in sterling silver and bags made from isishweshwe fabric. At 4pm, the 38-year-old knocks off work and hitches a ride with an old friend to fetch her granddaughter from crèche.
The old friend is a young man from Mabanda’s past. He lived in the same block of flats as her in Sea Point, a sought-after suburb bordering Green Point, two years ago. Their old home was cramped and unpleasant. A single bed took up half the space in a shoebox room, with a hotplate, fridge, table and groceries crammed into the remaining space. In Mabanda’s room, a pile of clean baby clothes and nappies would always be nearby.
These rooms are known as “servant’s quarters” in Sea Point. Many of the apartment blocks in the seaside suburb have these rooms in the basement for domestic workers.
Despite the limited space, Mabanda called this flat her home for 20 years. She was evicted in 2017, after a lengthy court battle and pressure from her new landlords. Her old landlord had left, but tried to convince the new landowners to keep Mabanda employed as a domestic worker. When they wanted her out, Mabanda showed that she had paid her rent timeously and said they had no reason to evict her because she had stuck to the rules of the block.
In 2017, the Western Cape high court ordered Mabanda to leave, giving her two days’ notice to find a new home. “I did nothing wrong,” she says, before heading back to the place she now lives.
Mabanda moved into an abandoned building in Green Point that Reclaim the City has occupied while advocating for low-cost housing. The site is one of two buildings the group has occupied for more than a year, with many of the people living there in dire need of a home.
Mabanda has lived in Sea Point for more than half her life. She has no idea what it would be like to live in a place like Masiphumelele and so she has set her sights on the Green Point bowling greens for her future home.
The City of Cape Town acknowledged the rental fees for the sports club, but says the council approves how fees should be determined.
“It is based on a tariff rental structure for sporting leases approved by Council. It should be noted that it is the responsibility of the lessee to cover costs related to all maintenance, operational and security requirements, and utility costs,” councillor Zahid Badroodien, member of the mayoral committee for community services and health, told New Frame.
Badroodien added that the rent is adjusted each year.
Tariffs and fees
Hidden in the 700 pages of the City of Cape Town’s Tariffs, Fees and Charges Handbook is a small paragraph that spells out what Badroodien is talking about: “Tariff iro [in respect of] land (incl. improvements) leased for social related use purposes (Welfare, Community, Cultural, Creche, Early Childhood Development Centre, Place of Worship) as well as for sport and recreational purposes… R953.00.”
The R953 figure is for 2017-2018. The handbook, which is publicly available with a bit of digging, does not yet show a figure for 2018-2019.
While the City has said that the low fee is for “social related” use, Nick Budlender, a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi, said that the membership of the sports facilities contradicts their social value.
“It is important to note that the leases in the report are not anomalies, and hundreds of sporting facilities across the City pay the same price. From the City’s perspective, they charge such low prices because some facilities are perceived to provide ‘community value’,” said Budlender.
“Unfortunately, facilities such as the golf course only provide value to a very small and privileged group, and the low fees charged are effectively a subsidy for the rich. It seems that this approach is replicated by cities across South Africa.”
The Rondebosch Golf Club did not respond to questions by the time of publishing.
A City report by the parks and recreation department dated 6 April 2018, which New Frame has seen, reveals additional sports and recreation leases for tennis clubs in Camps Bay and Clifton, as well as sports clubs in Green Point, which are only due to expire in 2041.
The housing plan, and the people who wait for it
In 2017, the City committed to building transitional and low-cost housing on 11 parcels of land around the inner city. But as of March 2019, plans for development were yet to be finalised.
Meanwhile, residents in and around the city have been left to fight for housing. In a small passage of the wetlands in Masiphumelele, Buyiswa Litye has seen her one-room house turn to ashes.
She bought the land for R750 from a woman who claimed to own it. There was a small one-bedroom shack on it and Litye needed to be closer to her job at a local NGO. But in 2016, she nearly lost her life.
In the early hours of a summer day, the flames licked at her house. Unbeknown to a sleeping Litye, a fire had ripped through the shacks in Masiphumelele and hers was the next to be swallowed.
“It came from the bedroom side, I started to feel the heat. It wasn’t inside yet, but it was coming,” she remembers.
She lost everything, but managed to run out just in time before her life also was reduced to ashes. She spent R750 to rebuild the shack into a small home. Since 2016, she has spent R3 500 to extend her shack into a more spacious four-room home for herself, her daughter and her spouse. But now she is under pressure to leave. A street committee has claimed it owns the land on which her shack is built and they want it back.
In Masiphumelele, there is always a battle for land. For years, residents have been in a row with the city over a vacant field where they want housing built for those forced to live on the wetlands.
Accusations of corruption
But while that squabble has gone back and forth, Litye and others in the settlement have faced fights over land with their neighbours. Dumsani Nhlapo, the ANC branch secretary in the area and an elected community leader, is shocked that other leaders in Masiphumelele are being accused of corruption, such as in Litye’s case.
“No one can say they own that land, because it is public land. The city owns the wetland lands, there is no one else,” the tall activist says.
When he walks through the township, Nhlapo towers over everyone around him. But it is his work at the forefront of the fight with the city for land, rather than his height, that sets him apart for those who support him. He knows that if cheap land is available in Fish Hoek, then his people will go there to find a home.
“It’s unfair. If land is being rented for minority people for certain short money, then for us they [the city] undermine us. The city must allocate that land for low-cost housing. We have police who stay in that wetland, we have nurses, teachers who stay in that wetland. The city can take that land and develop it for gap housing whereby someone who is earning less than R5 000 can qualify to be there,” he says.
For Ghanyanza, living in the damp Mabcinde is not a choice. He has nowhere else to call home.
“There is nothing we can do,” he says.
*Not her real name