The Grootboom Dialogue Series: a Provocation to all citizens of Cape Town
Marcela Guerrero Casas
24 November 2014

The Grootboom Dialogue Series, a collaborative project between the Social Justice Coalition and the African Centre for Cities, coincided with the City Desired Exhibition this year. Under the title “Urban Land Justice” the series fit appropriately with the themes of the exhibition and highlighted key challenges in Cape Town. On one hand it aimed to bring together two often disconnected groups: academics and grassroots activists; on the other it addressed difficult questions about land in the city, its history and current limitations in terms of access and ownership.

Notwithstanding the different questions posed to each panel, all discussions surfaced similar issues. These included: the need for publicly owned land to serve the greater public good and not private interest; the urgency of providing services to those at the margins; the global phenomenon of “occupation” as a way of active citizenship; and the ‘right to the city’ for all.

Regarding public land, most speakers agreed there was an urgent need to hold government accountable. From a legal perspective, Sheldon Magadie from the Legal Resources Centre spoke about the lack of political will in Cape Town to address the housing crisis and the pernicious paradox of permits being sped up for private developments, while releasing land for those who are evicted continues to take years. Likewise, Zackie Achmat from Ndifuna Ukwazi highlighted the current “spatial Apartheid” and made a call to action to demand the implementation of the Spatial and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA) which allows the government to expropriate land for people who need it most, especially in the informal settlements.

In other countries, as it was highlighted by the international panel on 20 November, challenges are similar and there are lessons to be learnt. In Brazil, for instance there are legal disincentives for land to sit idle; moreover there are robust social movements driving change. As stated by Teresa Caldeira from University of California Berkeley “people make cities themselves; they build their houses and their whole neighbourhoods” and this process of ‘auto construction’ as Brazilians have termed it helps the poor “belong more in the city”. Similarly, Ash Amin from the University of Cambridge pointed to the process of building a community where “everyone feels their future is also the future of the neighbourhoods and where the collective pieces matter as much as people’s own private house”. Amin spoke about the crucial role infrastructure plays in a community and how communal spaces can be the key to success if they are built form the outset. Once a community functions, government has no alternative but to provide services. However, the Indian case, presented by Gautam Bham from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, showed the extremes which states may take to ensure a ‘world class city [for the rich]’ and the challenges faced in mobilising the poor against forced evictions.

Another key concept; ‘the right to the city’ as explained by Mirjam Van Donk, from the Isandla Institute, in its three dimensions: right to be in the city, right to city resources, and right to shaping the city was another clear thread in the series. From the right to education, discussed by Brad Brockman from Equal Education or safe roads that preserve the lives of residents as gruesomely illustrated in pedestrian death statistics in Khayelitsha by Hector Eliott from Provincial Government, to the right of writing one’s own story as persuasively articulated by AbdouMaliq Simone.

Finally, the notion of ‘occupation’ was highlighted by the international panel as a way to exercise citizenship and though controversial in nature, it is a concept that captured all audiences. It is the occupation of public space that becomes the Achilles heel in Cape Town. As pointed out by Edgar Pieterse at the close of the final panel, a city that erupts in outrage as a result of a public art piece of giant sunglasses constructed on the Sea Point promenade while ignoring the harsh reality of thousands of disposed citizens lacking services and dignity is a city that needs some ‘disturbance and provocation’. If the logic that public space is meant to serve the greater good follows then we must question the fundamentals of land distribution and utilisation around the city overall. The legacy of Irene Grootboom can help us continue to have this debate and engage beyond these dialogues to reduce the extreme inequalities that mark and scar Cape Town.

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