In abandoned Cape Town hospital, squeezed residents heal wounds of gentrification

Jennifer Louw (59), a part-time cleaner and occupier of the Woodstock hopsital, smiles in her room that she shares with her two children in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

About 1,400 people occupy the disused Woodstock Hospital and an abandoned nurses' home, in protest of the rising rents they say have forced many from their homes

By Kim Harrisberg

CAPE TOWN - Bevil Lucas never imagined that his doctor's old Cape Town office would one day be his bedroom.

Now the 57-year-old activist is one of about 1,400 people occupying the disused Woodstock Hospital and an abandoned nurses' home, in protest of the rising rents they say have forced many from their homes in the top tourist destination city.

The occupiers - made up of evicted families, homeless people and refugees - started protesting after the 2017 sale to a private developer of a 4-acre piece of public land in the affluent Sea Point suburb, which they say should have been earmarked for social housing.

Local housing rights group Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU) and workers movement Reclaim the City (RTC), who initiated the occupation in 2017, are due to challenge the city's and Western Cape province's decision to sell in the Cape Town High Court this week.

"The city just sees us as invaders," said Lucas, who started working with RTC in 2017.

"But what we are doing inside this hospital is recreating a displaced community," he said, greeting families as he strolled down the hospital corridors.

When apartheid was introduced in 1948, it created separate development areas in Cape Town for different racial groups, formally expanding the colonial style of urban development established in the 18th century.

A quarter of a century after apartheid ended, most of the city's white population still live in leafy neighbourhoods, while the poorest people – mostly black - are scattered throughout more than 200 informal settlements far out of town.

Mandisa Shandu, head of Ndifuna Ukwazi, said that gentrification is further squeezing affordable homes out of the city centre.

"The government has failed to tangibly break away from apartheid spatial planning," she said. Malusi Booi, a member of Cape Town's Mayoral Committee for Human Settlements, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the city had conducted a feasibility study on the Woodstock Hospital to earmark it for future social housing.

"I sympathise with everybody who is vulnerable," he said in an interview conducted on the streets of Cape Town. "But I cannot allow anarchy to exist."

There are currently 300,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in Cape Town, he added, and he cannot "prioritise invaders".

In the interim, the hospital has become a home, said occupiers, who gave its corridors and rooms the names of the streets on which they once lived.

"This is called Albert Road," said Lucas, pausing in front of an old waiting room where three women sat playing with their children.

The activists have also established a daycare, a tuck shop, and a vegetable garden. There is a cleaning roster and a disciplinary committee to manage disputes, and residents coordinate free, communal meals once a week.

"We are trying to rebuild communities that have been uprooted," said Lucas.

Bevil Lucas, housing activist, points to a shelf in his bedroom in the occupied Woodstock hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

SEGREGATION

With about 4 million people, Cape Town is considered the third most racially segregated city in the country, according to government data.

Over the past decade, the Woodstock suburb has seen an influx of trendy food markets, apartment blocks and coffee shops, locals say.

When rent in the neighbourhood became too expensive for Jennifer Louw in 2012, she spent the following years moving between different friends' homes.

One told her about RTC's community meetings, which she began attending. Then in 2017, the group offered her a space in the occupied hospital.

"I couldn't thank God enough," said the part-time cleaner, who uses room dividers and lace fabric to turn her single room into a home for her family of two children.

A toddler rides past a protest sign strung between trees at the occupied nursing home in Greenpoint, Cape Town in South Africa, 17 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

'SUCCESS STORY'

In September 2018, the Western Cape province announced plans to turn the Helen Bowden Nurses Home - about 5km from the Woodstock hospital and which some 500 RTC activists currently occupy - into 300 affordable housing units.

Yet the tug-of-war between occupiers and the city continues, spurred on by the contested sale of the Tafelberg site in the Sea Point neighbourhood.

The Tafelberg land is one of the "few remaining pieces of land in this area large enough to develop social housing", noted Shandu of Ndifuna Ukwazi.

It was discussed as a possible site for affordable residential units in 2012, according to RTC - but the province eventually confirmed the sale to a private school for 135 million rand ($9 million) in 2017, said Shandu.

Activists from RTC and NU hope the Cape Town High Court will reverse that decision, however.

"If the Tafelberg land is used for social housing instead this will be a success story for the city in redressing spatial apartheid," said Shandu.

"If we lose, we will appeal."

This month Booi announced that the government would launch a feasibility analysis from 2020 to research "affordable, well-located accommodation over the long term close to transport, employment and economic hubs" around Cape Town.

Children run up the stairs while Reclaim the City activist stand talking at the occupied nursing home in Greenpoint, Cape Town in South Africa, 17 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

A PERMANENT HOME

For now, the "experiment", as Lucas refers to the hospital and nursing home occupations, is going strong - but is not without its difficulties.

The disciplinary committee at the hospital, with help from the police, finds itself dealing with many of the same issues as any community, including vandalism, drugs, gender violence and noise control, he said.

Still, he hopes the abandoned Woodstock hospital will one day become a permanent home.

In the nearly three years since people started moving in, the old waiting rooms have been witness to weddings, birthdays and memorials, he noted.

Once-empty operating theatres now house single mothers and children play catch in corridors down which beds were wheeled.

"This place is not perfect, but it has become our home," Lucas said, as children ran giggling through the hospital's swing doors.

"This is an opportunity for thinking of innovative housing solutions in the face of gentrification."

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