Bridging the divide: landscapes and lawmakers in Ronda, home of Spanish romanticism

The Puente Nuevo in Ronda. Image: Claude Lynch.

Perched on a mesa in the middle of a wide Andalusian plateau, Ronda is a sleepy Spanish town much like any other. Its inhabitants number a meagre 35,000. The nearest city, Malaga, is 100km to the south. The town is unassuming from a distance.

And yet, as a place, Ronda has been home to more than its fair share of famous figures; since the 19th century, an air of romanticism has led artists from Irving to Rilke to Welles to Hemingway to visit Ronda, and write no shortage of poems and prose dedicated to the city. This was no doubt a testament to the town’s stalwart atmosphere; it is cited as the first home of bullfighting and maintains an almost village-like contiguity even in spite of its size.

But if any one monument defines Ronda’s ubiquity in the Romanticism of old, that monument would be the Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge, which spans the Guadalevín river cutting the town in two. The third of a series of increasingly elaborate bridges built over a series of centuries, the Puente Nuevo is not only incredibly architecturally sophisticated, but also effective; it connects the disparate halves of Ronda without requiring travellers to scale the mesa (as the other two do). It’s no coincidence that the town only really achieved notability after the bridge was finished in 1793, Ronda’s fame a testament to its majesty.

The question remains, however, what makes this bridge special? It’s hardly the only gorge-spanning structure in the world, or even in Spain. In fact, as far as arches go, it pales in comparison to the Aqueduct of Segovia. However, the value of Ronda’s Puente Nuevo lies less in its construction but its context, the way the town and its surroundings intermingle in the gentlest ways, less a dichotomy of urban/rural and more a testament to how the two can become one.

The bridge comes to represent how Ronda has overcome its natural surroundings, tied itself over the gorge of the narrow Guadalevín, yet maintained a special relationship with it. The bridge dominates the gorge, but the gorge still dominates the town, while spectacular vistas surround all sides. Ronda spoke to the 19th century Romanticists because it was emblematic of a more humble humanity that could run parallel to the awe of natural beauty, compared to the urban sprawl that, in their eyes, ran against it.

Now, the councillors running local government in Ronda find themselves defending the very same romanticism, but this time, in the 21st century. When first built, the Puente Nuevo enabled a series of new developments on the newer, northern side of town, such as the municipal gardens and the Círculo de Artistas building, where modern Andalucia was founded.

The north half of town now dominates the much smaller, older south half – a mixed use area of churches, tourist attractions, and older Moorish buildings. As such, it is the north side that houses an industrial estate, the local train station, and most modern amenities.This is why residents of the south side were up in arms when plans were introduced to restrict the use of private vehicles over the Puente Nuevo. As well as an integral part of Ronda’s identity, the bridge lies on the main road that runs north to south through the old town.

6,000 residents joined associations, put up placards, and penned condemnations in protest of plans to alter the bridge’s access timetable. Some might say their claims were petty, that southerners could simply reroute around the medieval wall and use one of the smaller bridges to access the new town. But this would go against the protesters’ central motto: “los puentes nos unen, los muros nos dividen” (Bridges unite us, walls divide us).

Some small displays of dissent on the south side of town. Image: Claude Lynch

The problem Ronda’s local officials face is not an uncommon one. How do these ancient European cities, built equally of medieval centres and expansive modern suburbs, protect their cultural heritage while designing urban spaces and rules that don’t feel increasingly prescriptive? The case of Ronda demonstrates the clear dichotomy at play here: The officials prize the Puente Nuevo, given its tourist acumen; meanwhile, the locals prioritise convenience and common sense. Of course, no real research has been done into the tangible effects that automobile use is having on the bridge’s integrity, so the council’s decision might be a case of speaking too soon.

A study of Ronda leaves the budding urbanist with far more questions than those it answers. Should we still prize a quixotic image of these ancient towns and cities? One of Welles’ unfinished manuscripts was a story of Don Quixote based here; Ronda’s quiet prestige is not a subject that ought to be taken lightly. However, before we revert to appeals to traditionalism, we should consider how structures like the Puente Nuevo earnestly contribute to a sense of place. From the plateau to the river bed, the bridge embodies Ronda’s relationship with every acre that surrounds it; the stones that compose it were mined from the very same mesa it crosses. Cities have symbols, and this grandiose display is Ronda’s; denying the Puente Nuevo a certain esteem would be a bridge too far.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.