Take Back the Common
Mahala, Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Christopher McMichael
This Friday communities around the Cape will march from Athlone stadium to Rondebosch commons for a three day ‘occupation’. The aim is a public space to discuss solutions to a range of issues: housing, rent arrears, evictions, political corruption and the ongoing segregation in the city.
The chosen site is loaded with historical symbolism. Used once as a military camp by colonial authorities, it was racially integrated before the mass erasures of the Group Areas act. Now a public space in name only, fenced off and unapproachable. The community groups that have chosen the commons are asserting the right to reclaim public space in a city that, even more so than the rest of the country, is deeply segregated by race and class.
Despite using the Occupy name, the initiative predates events in the US. And contrary to the idea that this is about disaffected middle class hipsters looking for something to do on the weekend, it is driven by civic groups and backyarder associations from some of the poorest areas on the peninsula.
Even if the commons is a pseudo-public space (for now) it remains a site where ordinary people are constitutionally guaranteed the right to gather and talk. But the City of Cape Town has behaved like other urban authorities throughout the country when dealing with political gatherings of this nature. Firstly, despite being given ample notification of the event, city officials refused authorization. Ignoring the Regulations of Gathering events which puts the onus of consultation with organizers on state officials, mayoral representatives axed an arranged meeting because some of the community delegates were “15 to 30 minutes late’’.
This petulant refusal to do their job was accompanied by attempts at pre-emptive criminalization. Completing her Darth Vader-like transformation from firebrand activist to Empress Zille’s chief flunkey, Patricia de Lille has claimed the commons occupation is a prelude to a land invasion.
At a City Council meeting this week she called the occupation an “apparent” invasion whose “agents of destruction will not be allowed to succeed.”
The subtext is come the weekend these “cowards” will be met with arrests and an officially authorized clampdown. So much then for an “inclusive” and “caring” Mother City.
This has been accompanied by scaremongering that protestors are planning to destroy the local environment. The “Friend of Rhondebosch Commons” have called for calm: “While the intention of the organisers may be construed as confrontational, we are appealing to community members to act with restraint and let the City of Cape Town, SAPS and other role players deal with the situation.” Of course, the call to act with restraint begs the question of what kind of vigilante tactics the “Rosebank Neighbourhood Watch” have been up to?
In fact it is the local government (and possibly a white upper middle class neighbourhood watch) who are being confrontational. The organisers have even invited De Lille to attend the Summit but it now seems most likely that what was intended as a peaceful protest will be met with a police clampdown. Alas this reaction will once again be construed as the DA resorting to type and falling back into its tested pattern of appealing to its mostly white, privileged electorate. Invoking fearmongering claims about “land invasions” as subliminal code for the swart gevaar. Behind this draconian and hysterical response is the fear that public space will be used to highlight the fact that Cape Town is still one of the most unequal cities in the world, seated at the foot of one the most unequal countries in the world.
We need experiments, such as the Summit, to drag these issues of race and class into the public sphere. Without it South Africa will continue to replicate draconian state tactics and re-elect bullshit politicians who pander to people’s worst prejudices.
As events of the last year, from Egypt to the woefully under-reported Occupy Nigeria, demonstrate we are living at a time of profound contestation of the hollowing out of public life. It is at the level of urban space where economic elites and their willing political “stakeholders” are being challenged. The real “occupation” doesn’t occur at events like the Summit, it is in the texture of everyday life. Occupation by a bellicose political culture of fear, occupation by a decrepit and morally bankrupt economic system, occupation by overbearing security systems and occupation by a consumer culture that bombards us with inescapable imagery of the desirable.
City of Cape Town trying to ban poor people from the commons
Jared Sacks, Cape Argus
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 the 27th until the 29th of 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
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
10×10 meter shacks, where some are paid millions and others spend
their whole lives underemployed.
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 forming 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
official’s 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 madeknown that at a City
Council meeting, it was resolved that if the symbolic occupation whent
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
Resisting the commons
What is so threatening about communities’ plan to Take Back the
Commons on the 27th of 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 in 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.