Activists in Cape Town have occupied an abandoned hospital to show how unused spaces could be transformed

Cape Town's City Hall. Activists have taken on city leaders to protest a lack of affordable housing. Image: Danie van der Merwe

Less than a fifteen-minute walk from Test Kitchen, one of the best restaurants in the world, I am standing on an empty street in front of a dark hospital.

Woodstock Hospital, vacant for nearly two decades, has for the last month become home to a rotating group of activists under the campaign ‘Reclaim the City’.

The hospital has 201 rooms and is three stories tall, but the activists currently occupy only one small corridor.

Janine, aged 47, sleeps on a blow-up mattress in the corner of one room.

She had been living in Pine Road, a nearby informal settlement. Social housing had been promised to Pine Road residents since 2006, but no progress has been made.

Janine’s arms have visible burn marks – without electricity, residents in informal settlements often have to rely on open flames for light and heating, making shacks prone to fire.

Down the hall, Shane is a white kite surfer and former pharma sales representative who found himself on the streets after a bout of unemployment.

I quickly get over my fear of ghosts, and start to see the humour and craft in this home-making situation.

A fridge from the 1960s had been found and fixed up; new posters were hung; an old operating theater bed was re-appropriated as a lounge chair.

Woodstock Hospital as seen on Street View in 2009. Image: Google Maps.

The occupation of the Woodstock Hospital by community activists is emblematic of the growing impatience over housing delivery in Cape Town.

Here, the Apartheid-era Group Areas Act famously evicted hundred of thousands of coloured and black residents from their inner-city homes, displacing them to underserviced townships in the barren Cape Flats on the city’s outskirts.

Broken promises

When Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party was elected, central to his campaign was the promise of housing for all along with a plan for urban integration.

More than twenty years later, inner-city Cape Town is still largely occupied by wealthy, white homeowners, while informal settlements for blacks and colored people continue to expand.

No affordable housing units have been built since 1994.

From the city’s perspective, however, there are numerous challenges in constructing well-located affordable housing.

The number of people needing housing is overwhelming: nearly one million residents now live in Khayelitsha, the city’s largest township.

Central Cape Town, which is still largely white-dominated. Image: Lwoelbern.

Like many other developing cities, Cape Town’s informal population is bourgeoning as a result of migration from rural areas and neighbouring African states, making it difficult to determine who qualifies for housing subsidies.

And the fixed subsidy given to social housing units, high real estate prices, and residents’ low disposable income cause a perfect storm of complications, rendering creating viable financing models for new development challenging.

According to Riaan Van Eeden, the value of government subsidies has not increased sufficiently in line with development costs and the income bands of targeted beneficiaries for these projects has also remained the same for a number of years.

The key motivation behind this newest incarnation of urban activism has been the decision made by the Western Cape Province in March to sell a 1.7 hectare piece of land it owned, the now-defunct Tafelberg Remedial High School, rather than convert it into social housing.

This decision comes after the government released a feasibility study last November for mixed-use development, which included 270 units of affordable housing.

But the Province has now promised to develop two alternative abandoned sites instead – the Woodstock Hospital and the Helen Bowden Nurses home.

Activists fear that these promises will ring empty.


“There has been promised social housing in Woodstock on seven sites since the early 2000s, but not a single unit or building has been built” says Sarita Pillay, one of the original occupiers.

After the Tafelberg sale was announced, a decision was made by Reclaim the City to occupy both the Woodstock and the Helen Bowden sites.

According to Sarita, the group felt it had exhausted all methods of political participation and wanted to use these occupations as a statement to pressurize the province into overturning the Tafelberg sale and expediting affordable housing development on both sites.

So far, activists’ political demands have been largely ignored.

While they initially expected to be evicted within days, they have now successfully occupied the buildings for more than one month, even sharing the same set of keys with the local security guards.

A self-imposed limit of fifteen sleepers per night has been set for the Woodstock Hospital, with ten semi-permanent squatters and five individuals rotating each night. All activists are made aware of the inherent illegality of squatting, and the concomitant risk of being evicted, and children under 18 are not allowed on the premises.

Crowd-sourced funds, food, and cleaning supplies have helped lower the costs of the campaign.

The longer the activists stay on site, the more they start to wonder: could this not become permanent?

Sustainable squatting

Hundreds of families could live in this building: it has over two hundred rooms, many of which need only minor repairs, along with five kitchens, twenty-seven bathrooms, and two ironing rooms.

“I wish everyone could see how nice it is here, and could have a chance to stay in a place like this, Janine says.

Excitement fills the halls as the occupiers discover a locked room with a functional 90s-era PC. “We could make this the computer room, where we hold computer classes to teach people IT skills!”

It’s a thought, certainly. What if, instead of pressurising the government to create social housing in situ, a cooperative model could be established and managed by the community itself?

Financing the development would be a major challenge. On the streets or in Pine Road, the occupiers were previously paying from zero to 700 rand (£42 per month) for a place to sleep.

Low-income households like theirs can afford to spend no more than 1000 rand per month (£60), and therefore would need subsidies to afford utilities and repairs.

Navigating the activists’ complex relationship with the city government, which holds the keys to electricity and service provision, is another challenge. And that’s not even to mention the concrete management issues with running such a large estate.

That being said, it’s not entirely impossible.

According to Sarita, the occupiers are learning from previous squatter movements. They watch documentaries on São Paolo’s squatters, and are meeting with successful movement leaders from Johannesburg – and the UK can offer plenty of examples where squatters were able to form housing cooperatives and negotiate a leasing agreement with the city.

It’s that, or the streets.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.