Modern Cape Town sweeps the poor aside

It’s a worldwide phenomenon in big cities – the makeover of rundown working- class neighbourhoods into hip communities. Woodstock in Cape Town is now in that process. For some residents, this gentrification became synonymous with displacement, concludes new research at The Nordic Africa Institute.

“Woodstock is a case of classic gentrification, a neighbourhood close to the city center with an influx of middle-class people. But at the same time the area has a specific background of race, identity and class”, NAI researcher Marianne Millstein says.

Together with NAI colleague Annika Teppo she has contributed to a fresh anthology, 'Global Gentrifications'. The book gives an overview of the remaking of cities around the world.

Gentrification is a shift in an urban community towards an increasing share of wealthier residents. Marianne Millstein and Annika Teppo have studied the effect of this process in three neighbourhoods in Cape Town.

Forced away
One neighborhood is Woodstock, with visible signs of a changing population, renovated houses, and art galleries. The year before the World Cup 2010, activist manifestations were frequent. They protested against the sale of tenement houses that would lead to the eviction of the residents, who would not be able to pay the new rents. The result of this gentrification was displacement of poor people from their homes.

The conflict ended with the forced removal of Gympie Street residents to a “temporary relocation area” in Delft, a township 30 kilometers east of the city center. The residents were given new housing by the government. But at the same time, they got problems making a living. Instead of walking to their jobs in central Cape Town they became dependent on expensive transports.

“Delft and Woodstock are two sides of the same urban development. For those who were forced to leave their homes, gentrification became synonymous with displacement. This perception was used by the activists”, says Marianne Millstein, who points out Delft as a non-functional but still government-planned community: poverty is widespread, transports are expensive and schools and services are of bad quality.

South African history and politics differ from the Western experience. The political wish to transform Cape Town into a modern global style city is accompanied with the post-apartheid moral rhetoric.  It emphasises popular social development with slogans like “renewal” and “uplifting”

“The government wants sustainable communities with a social mix of poor and middle-class people. This ambition is difficult to realise because of increasing prices on land in central areas. The undesired effect is that most subsidised housing for the poor are being constructed in already poor neighbourhoods, in the townships”, says Marianne Millstein.

In Gugulethu neighbourhood, also studied by the NAI researchers, a private investor built a new shopping mall in a poor neighbourhood. He disguised his vested interest with slogans as “renewal” and “uplifting” in order to give his business project a higher moral value. Nevertheless, one result of the new shopping mall was that already existing shopkeepers were forced out. Protesters labelled these actions as “shameful”.

Balance the elite
Cape Town continues to transform. To realise the rhetoric of inclusive urban development, politicians need to prioritise and act accordingly, says Marianne Millstein.

“What has happened in Woodstock goes on. Segregation continues, and nowadays it’s more about class than race. One challenge is to increase investment in poor areas to balance the progress that benefits the elite and the middle class. Experiences from Gugulethu and Woodstock shows that future gentrification will be accompanied by conflicts and resistance”, concludes Marianne Millstein.

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