[OPINION] Will Bo-Kaap be heard?
The year is 1966. The heart of a city beats with trepidation. Its blood is about to be pulled from the veins of its inhabitants. District Six has been declared a whites only area by the apartheid government.
The civilians move around uncomfortably. The merchants, artisans, traders, artists and immigrants whisper words of worry. The rattle in the graves of the slaves who settled there in 1867 is an audible protest, but a helpless one.
The sixth district of Cape Town, just south of the Castle, hung on for as long as they could dare on the frayed seams of marginalisation and neglect. But without success. The tapestry of a once-vibrant community ripped apart by whites.
Slowly, the once-crowded tenements and narrow alleyways became the rubble of white ambition. Suffocating entitlement shut down the streets of “liberty”, community and love.
Who were these people? What did they look like? What were the things they wanted to say? Did the pillagers look them in the eye and listen?
It’s over half a century later and the ghosts of privilege, power and property developers still hang over the city. Their latest project? Bo-Kaap.
According to Bo-Kaap Rise, the civilian organisation leading the protests against gentrification, more the 15 developments have taken place in the area, and that number keeps rising.
“We have never backed down, but our voices have stopped being heard. Where is the heritage protection overlay zone we called for years ago? Probably still sitting on some official’s desk gathering dust. Why has the city not made provision for social housing when they are constantly rezoning?” says a statement issued by the organisation.
In contrast, one of the latest developers, Blok, quickly becoming controversial because of their somewhat questionable power in the property development industry (Blok is constantly under the spotlight in Sea Point as well, where the poor are being nudged out for high-end developments), have defended their Bo-Kaap building by saying: Blok will be launching a new development concept in the Bo-Kaap. Not only will the new development feature a brand new product with an aesthetic designed to appeal to a new audience, it will also provide urban homes to a more diverse range of incomes.
Diverse, in this instance, can be read as your standard higher income white resident who can afford a one bedroom at R1,975,000. Diversity in this instance is an “all-inclusive” tagline no different from say, this idea of a “rainbow nation”… right of admission reserved.
More so, Blok’s managing director and co-founder, Jacques van Embden, has quite clearly stated who their target market is: “The aim is to provide urban apartments that serve the currently uncatered-for middle-income market that will be incorporated within our planned development. Our goal with this project is to evolve a model that can be used to illustrate the role of developers in the development of the city and create awareness around their ability to undertake similar projects that will begin to assist in contributing well-located urban housing targeted at the middle income market.” Embden also insists that Blok hopes to, “collaborate with the community on certain elements in and around the development”.
To date, no such collaboration has taken place. The statement by Bo-Kaap Rise clearly states: “We want to know how the land for 40 on L by BLOK developers was acquired when we were promised that public land will be used for social housing after the “urgent sale” of the public land in Rose Street. We want to know why they say they have interacted with the community when no such meeting has taken place. The Civic did not give the go-ahead for any development, so whom else have they spoken to who could have given consent”.
Blok speaks of affordable housing when the lowest-valued apartment costs R1.97 million. According to Bo-Kaap Rise, 12 families have been offered the Blok apartments for an “affordable” 30% - 50% off the price - approximately R1 million. At a bond of around R10 000, what working-class family can afford this monthly?
It’s age-old wisdom. When the rich move in, the poor move out. Blok has gone so far as to insensitively and ignorantly advertise the aesthetic of 40 on L (their development on Lion Street in Bo-Kaap) as one that is designed to appeal to a new audience.
What’s wrong with the “old aesthetic”? You know, the one you find on tourism websites and pamphlets? The one that features in countless advertisements? The one that’s constantly taken advantage of without compensation for the community? And while we’re on the subject of community, what’s wrong with the “old audience”? Have they taken up space on prime property for too long? Has privilege been quiet for too long, and now their time is up?
Apartheid is over. The Group Areas Act has been put to sleep. Money talks and bullshit walks, right? But the people will be heard.
They have faces, they have names, and they have stories. Theirs is not the circumstance of their people of the past. And developers cannot hide like the cowards of their ancestors, blind and safely guarded by a cloud of dust from those who are most affected.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.