by Jared Sacks, Pambazuka
For months, communities from all over Cape Town have been planning a
three-day People's Land, Housing and Jobs Summit at one of Cape Town's
huge open pieces of unused land. This summit is set to take place this
weekend from 27 until the 29 January.
Yet, even though community representatives sent in their notification of
intention to gather on the Rondebosch Common and have complied with all
legislation governing the right to march, the City of Cape Town is
attempting to ban the march and summit altogether.
CLAIMING THE COMMONS
This Common is a symbolic public space with a notable history. The
Khoisan indigenous people who lived in the area used the entire Cape
Peninsula as a common – an inclusive space not owned by anyone and held
in trust by local inhabitants to be used for everyone's benefit
symbiotically with nature. Khoisan culture understood the importance of
sharing, using only what one needs, and protecting one's environment.
After the space was colonised, it was first used as a military camp and
sections of the Common later became a vibrant racially integrated
community much like the famed District Six. As more and more of the
Common was enclosed for housing and other types of developments, about
40 hectares remained. However, it was no longer an authentic commons as
people of colour were removed to comply with the Group Areas Act and
were not able to return until after 1994.
The Rondebosch Common, therefore, became a pseudo-commons. It was open
and accessible to the wealthy and mostly white population of the area
but unapproachable for the black poor who remained in distant and
For this reason locating the the summit at Rondebosch Common has special
symbolic significance for many of the participants. It represents an
immediate assertion of equality within one of the most unequal cities in
the world. By taking back the commons, thousands of poor and
working-class people, together with many middle-class allies, are saying
that they no longer want to live in a city which remains segregated
under the shadow of Hoerikwaggo (more recently known as Table Mountain),
where some live in huge mansions while others live in 10x10 meter
shacks, where some are paid millions and others spend their whole lives
If the commons is for all in name only, then it does not exist. Thus,
the Take Back the Commons movement aims to liberate public spaces such
as Rondebosch Common. It must be for all to use and enjoy, not only for a
privileged few to hoard.
THE TRUE PURPOSE OF THE SUMMIT
Despite scaremongering by opponents of the summit, the 'occupation' of
Rondebosch Common is not a land invasion by poor and homeless
communities set on destroying endangered fynbos. No one is currently
planning to build informal dwellings on the Common (although I do
believe such an action would be justified given the obscene segregation
of Cape Town's neighbourhoods).
Instead, participants are planing on gathering together for a number of
general assemblies, group teach-ins, and self-led discussion groups
whose aims are to eventually plan further actions with participating
communities. All this will be done with the utmost respect to the
environmental conditions on the Common.
The goal is to leave the summit with a better idea of how to achieve the
redistribution of land, the building of decent and well located
housing, the creation of full employment, and the ending of oppression
in our society. Through a three-day liberation of the Common, we will
make a collective effort to build a space where all are welcome and
treated with dignity and respect; a space that mirrors our aspirations
for a new world.
A POLITICIAN AND THE COMMONS
When Patricia de Lille was beginning her political career after years as
a trade union leader, she supported the famous Freedom Park land
occupation in Mitchell's Plain. Since that time, de Lille has migrated
from the Pan-Africanist Congress to form the Independent Democrats and
now on to the Democratic Alliance.
Ironically, since she assumed the mayorship of the City of Cape Town,
she has become just as disparaging of land occupations as her
predecessors, aggressively attacking all informal forms of land
redistribution and house building.
This week, however, de Lille finally fell fully in line with the DA's
authoritarian right-wing agenda: the criminalisation of the poor. It was
reported in the People's Post that de Lille supported City officials’
attempts to ban the People's Land, Housing and Jobs Summit from taking
place on Rondebosch Common despite repeated invitations by organisers to
attend the event.
Patricia de Lille's reasoning was that this public park was the 'private
property' of the City. It was also made known that at a City Council
meeting, it was resolved that if the symbolic occupation went ahead the
City would authorise police to clamp down hard on the occupation of the
Rondebosch Commons and that warrants would be issued for the arrest of
the event organisers.
ILLEGAL BANNING OF GATHERINGS
Based on Section 17 of our Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings
Act, we can conclude that the City is attempting to illegally ban the
three-day event on public land. Their excuse was based on
technicalities: organisers arrived ‘between 15 and 30 minutes late’ for
their meeting with officials and organisers insisted on having all nine
elected representatives present in the meeting as opposed to four.
However, legislation clearly states that it is the responsibility of the
City, not the organisers, to ensure that such a meeting takes place.
Furthermore, the Gatherings Act says that the gathering cannot be
prohibited except as a measure of last resort and only after such a
meeting has taken place between the government and the organisers.
Even though there have been repeated requests to reschedule the meeting,
the City has refused to engage with the organisers. As such, the City
of Cape Town is acting in contravention of South African legislation.
RESISTING THE COMMONS
What is so threatening about communities' plan to Take Back the Commons
on 27 January? Why would the City undermine the law, authorise draconian
measures against protesters and even issue warrants against organisers?
It seems most likely that the real reason de Lille has weighed into the
fray to prevent the march and summit from taking place is that it
threatens to put the real issues facing poor communities at the
forefront of the socio-political debate.
For the first time in decades, the Occupy Wall Street movement is
placing inequality and class at the centre of American politics. Here in
South Africa the rebellion of the poor has been raging for the last
decade within townships and shack settlements. Yet, for the first time
since 1994, the take over of Rondebosch Common threatens to put ongoing
racial segregation, the urgent need for land redistribution and the
popular opposition to the privatisation of public space right smack in
the face of Cape Town's politics.
This is threatening for any DA or ANC politician as it means that they
can no longer expect the poor to merely tolerate the politicised
delivery of substandard public services within their ghettos. It means
that the poor are demanding the radical restructuring of Cape Town's
socio-political landscape and taking their demand into the space of
If I was a politician, I too would also be afraid of what might happen
when taking Rondebosch Common morphs into taking back all the commons.
Here is the mayor's statement labelling us violent agents.
Click here for a short video about the summit.