Nkosikhona Swartbooi: “The city is worried about getting people to work early, but not about when they get home”

We talk to Nkosikhona Swartbooi, founder member of Reclaim the City, a collective that fights housing segregation in Cape Town.

Nkosikhona Swartbooi | Illustration by de José Antonio Soria | CC-BY

Nkosikhona Swartbooi | Illustration by de José Antonio Soria | CC-BY

Although 27 years have passed since the establishment of democracy, much of South Africa’s population is still living the consequences of apartheid, and access to housing and the right to the city are one of the areas in which this is most evident. Nkosikhona Swartbooi, an activist and community organizer, fights the spatial legacy of apartheid in Cape Town, because even today he sees that the further you travel from the city centre, the darker the colour of people’s skin. This is why he became one of the founders of Reclaim the City (RTC), a movement that works to make segregation a thing of the past and respond to the problem of access to housing for the poorest population. This conversation begins in late 2019, at a meeting of the Organising Cities project, and continues via video calls in early 2021, while working with his community on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swartbooi is head of advocacy and organizing of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a body based in Khayelitsha, the township he is from, a settlement with a black population that is closely linked in its origin to apartheid. The Group Areas Development Act of 1955 displaced the population by areas according to skin colour, leaving the city centre to the white population and separating families. But while some were expelled from urban centres, many others had to migrate from the rural world to the city, the activist explains:

People from rural areas were dispossessed. The government imposed taxes on herds and land. You need money to pay taxes, and our people have never had money; their wealth was the land they farmed and the herds they raised. Because they could not pay, the government took part of their flock or land, which is why many people migrated to the city.

Settlements around Cape Town grew until “the government said ‘This is a disaster, let’s get as far away as we can!’ So in the 1980s they moved 35 kilometres from the city centre to create Khayelitsha, which in Xhosa means ‘a new home’, though it is a name given by the government that forcibly moved people from other settlements.” Living conditions are still difficult today. “We are fighting for such basic things as water and sanitation; people have to use bushes as their toilet and fetch water from a neighbouring community because the government has not provided basic services,” he said.

Although the law no longer segregates, the market and the lack of affordable housing in the city centre have taken on this role. “But the spatial legacy of apartheid manifests itself in many other ways apart from the lack of affordable housing”, says Swartbooi, and one of them is transport. Despite the segregation of the population, job opportunities are concentrated in the city centre, and this involves commuting. “People have to spend between 40% and 60% of what they earn on commuting to work, and these journeys also have an impact on safety; you have to get up really early to catch a bus and walk to the stop while it’s still dark; you might get robbed, attacked or raped, and there are kids who disappear…”

We can’t push people to the periphery when the economic opportunities are in the city. Public transport is unreliable, and this exacerbates the spatial legacy of apartheid. It takes me 40 minutes to get to the centre by taxi, because there is a dedicated lane for taxis and buses, but that’s only to go to work. On the way back there is no bus lane, and it can take two hours when there’s a lot of traffic. The city is worried about people getting to work early, but not about when they get home; since they’re not going to work, it doesn’t care if it takes them five hours. This is time that is taken from people and it forms part of that legacy.

Swartbooi arrived at the NGO Ndifuna Ukwazi, in the centre of the city, with a programme of grants for young activists, and worked to politicize this unrest:

The only kind of politics we’re exposed to in communities like mine, with no libraries or even a culture of reading, is electoral politics: you vote, and this is where your political participation starts and finishes. What happens before or after is not your concern. Poverty and inequality become a source of votes for anyone who comes to share a meal or bring shopping to a family. For me, that just makes dependency greater. All you can do is wait for the government to do things. What we’re committed to is developing the capabilities of community members to participate in politics that involve them personally.

In 2016, when the provincial government attempted to sell a plot of public land at Sea Point in the city centre, Ndifuna Ukwazi launched a campaign to stop the sale and demand the construction of affordable housing. “We would leave our offices at lunchtime and go in pairs to all the shops to talk to workers during their break and call on them to participate,” Swartbooi recalls. “And we went looking not just for domestic workers, but also the rich people of Sea Point to tell them, ‘They’re your workers, we’re talking about the woman who gets up at four in the morning in Khayelitsha and has to leave her children unattended to come and take yours to school and look after your homes’.”

All of this was the seed of Reclaim the City. In 2020 they achieved a ruling on the case that calls on the government to redress spatial apartheid, but their mobilization has gone much further.

After the collective’s initial victory in the courts, the provincial government once again tried to sell the land, and RTC decided to occupy two empty public buildings in 2017 as a means of pressure.

Our idea was to stay there for a weekend until they responded to our demands, but they didn’t, and first a month passed, and we couldn’t believe it, then three passed, and in the end we decided to change the nature of the occupation and turn it into homes. We told anyone who’d been evicted and needed a place to stay to bring us the eviction papers and we’d give them a room if they became part of the movement. We’re the only people offering housing for evicted people in Cape Town, but for us this has to be linked to a political agenda. The aim can’t be just to offer shelter, because we can’t build a movement in that way; it has to be shelter in a context of resistance to evictions and the struggle for a just, egalitarian city.

The law prohibits evicting people into homelessness, so Reclaim the City’s occupations are ongoing in the face of a lack of solutions from the government. Since they began, five buildings have been occupied, providing homes for some 4,000 people.

But this type of struggle also involves challenges, especially organizational ones.

I remember a rally with about 5,000 people, and we were wondering what to do about it. We decided to form a tenants’ union, but unions don’t have a good reputation in South Africa. We took some time to think about it, and during this first stage the leadership of Reclaim the City fell to those of us who worked at Ndifuna Ukwazi. While we were having these internal debates, we went to Barcelona to take part in the Fearless Cities meeting, where they told us about the Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca (PAH, Platform of Mortgage Victims) and we wanted to find out about it. We saw the group advisory meetings they organized and thought, “That’s it!” We had a lot of people all over Cape Town who came to us for help to stop an eviction, but we only had four lawyers. When we got back, we organized advisory meetings, adapted to the South African context, creating something that more than a union was a movement, like the PAH. For me, it’s very interesting to see how the struggles connect, in Barcelona, in Sydney, in Tokyo or in São Paulo, because before I wasn’t aware that the problems we face in Cape Town are global problems, and that poor people all over the world have to deal with inequalities.

After the experience of fighting to conquer the city centre, although Nkosikhona Swartbooi is still linked to Reclaim the City, he now works at Khayelitsha, at the Social Justice Coalition, and one of its challenges is connecting the struggles of those who want to be able to live in the city with the struggle to improve living conditions in the city periphery, “because we cannot accept that people living in the periphery should have to live there without the basic services.”

RTC is well located, and all the doors of institutions we have to knock on are close by, so it’s easy to organize a quick protest. You go and do an escrache, like we learned from the PAH, but in Khayelitsha you need money so that people can go to protest in the city centre. The SJC has to spend 20% of its budget on transport and food, because we can’t get people to protest and just take up the time they could spend working to pay for their next meal. Geographical barriers are a very big factor, and this difficulty often leads people to protest where they are, but this is not the most effective way, because what it does is inconvenience people who already have inconvenient living conditions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite orders to stay at home and a ban on leaving people on the street, there have been evictions of individuals and families in Khayelitsha.  “There was major police surveillance of people moving around when it was announced that we had to stay at home, so people had to get a roof over their heads somehow,” Swartbooi said. Many empty plots of land have been occupied and christened with ironic names like “COVID-19”, “sanitizer” or “social distancing”, to recall the context of occupation. A community action network is now working to accompany these people and demand that they have access to basic services. “The city has failed to support people who were evicted, and people have had to look for alternatives,” the activist concludes. It is the umpteenth missed opportunity to deconstruct the legacy of apartheid.

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Nkosikhona Swartbooi: “The city is worried about getting people to work early, but not about when they get home”