Rondebosch Common: An occupation not a land invasion

Jared Sacks says City of Cape Town wrong to try and ban the protest

City of Cape Town trying to ban poor people from the commons

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 environment.

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 overcrowded townships.

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 10x10 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 went 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 legislation.

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 elite power.

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.

Jared Sacks works at the Children of South Africa and is an activist with the Occupy Cape Town movement. He writes only in his personal capacity. A version of this article first appeared in the Cape Argus.

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