Cape Town's development frenzy

Thomas Johnson on the Constantia controversy, and the DA administration's apparent determination to pave over the peninsula

Cape Town’s pro-developer policy causes conflict, ‘racism’ accusations levelled: A case study of mistaken entitlement

In Cape Town three development battles are being fought at the moment as a result of the city’s red-carpet approach to developers: a monster 60m-high-rise opposite Bo-Kaap; a shopping mall in Constantia and the Maiden’s Cove development.

Constantia residents are objecting to the Hadjie Abdullah Solomon Family Trust’s development of their “stolen” land on Kendal, Spaanschemat and Ladies Mile Roads. They responded to objections with the statement “we have the right to develop our land”, and invoked the ghost of apartheid under which their grandfather suffered.

They claim objections are motivated by racism rather than concerns about another inappropriate development in a sensitive area in the developer-friendly DA-run city.

In their belief their “rights” to develop are absolute, they invoke the manipulative, but irrelevant, image of the “pain and suffering” of their grandfather.

“The public impression that has been created adds insult to the injustice that was done. The Constantia Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association (CRRA), showed disregard and disrespect for the family’s rights and bordered on racism.”

Solomons’ grandfather’s experience is not unique, and their ownership was reinstated, so why are they making it an issue in a development dispute in the present day?

Around 1962 my late father was forced to sell his family’s smallholding in Alice, Eastern Cape. The house, a large, rambling structure on large grounds not far from town, had belonged to his grandfather – the Johnsons (Johansen or Johannesen before Anglicising) had lived in the region for generations.

According to my mom, my father was “swindled” out his property. The money he received for the sale barely covered duties and legal fees. She said the lawyer handling the sale was in on the swindle.

It’s unclear what happened because my father never spoke of it. Perhaps because it was a forced sale (the Group Areas Act was in force) he took what was offered. Perhaps the lawyer advised him to accept despite knowing the property was worth more.

In any event, the money he got from the Alice property was not enough to make an offer to buy the family’s rental in Claremont – today trendy Harfield Village – or nearby. When the family moved to the Cape Flats in 1963, as a result of the Group Areas Act, there was nothing left from the sale money for the deposit on our Cape Flats council house – he borrowed from his employer. The family spent the next 30 years paying the house off.

My father wanted to study law at Fort Hare. If he had he would have been a contemporary of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. Instead, he joined the South African Navy during his final year of school (Lovedale and matric at Dower Uitenhage College) and served in World War II. At 17 he was among the youngest of the crew on the ships he served on – among hard, older men – including HMSAS Barbrake and HMSAS Southern Maid (1943-1945) and sister ships, a time he remembered fondly.

After he was demobbed the best he could do was become a carpenter. He died of cancer at the age of 65 in 1991. Similarly, few options were available to my mom (she is 90 and still active).

Like most of our friends and neighbours in our working class society, there was little point complaining about apartheid although it defined our lives and the relatively limited options available to us. (However, my family made sacrifices for me to attend Pentech and “white” UCT). It was a fact of life and we dealt with it as best we could.

Today far too many blacks, as broadly defined, particularly the more prosperous ones and those who benefit from black empowerment dispensation, have a huge chip on their shoulder about apartheid and view everything through that lens, even when it’s irrelevant today.

We remember but don’t obsess about the opportunities denied my father over the alleged swindle of his Alice property. Who knows, had he been able to hold onto it we might have been wealthy Eastern Cape landowners now.

We don’t hanker over what ifs – I personally don’t know anyone who still blames apartheid for their problems of today, let alone problems of yesteryear. Except the ANC of course which appears unable to adjust to a democratic dispensation and often talks as if it were still fighting an anti-apartheid struggle only they fought.

So it appears to be for the Solomons family, wealthy landowners in Constantia, one of the most sought after and expensive areas in South Africa. For them to claim to still be victims of racism two decades after apartheid ended, and in so doing hold a mirror to the hardship and struggle all blacks faced during that time, when all they’re want is to close a property deal, is inappropriate and shameless.

This is a dispute about responsible and sustainable spatial planning and land management, not racism or apartheid.

Using the same self-pitying logic, (white) developers of the monster high-rise opposite Bo-Kaap, Princess Vlei, Philippi Horticultural Area, Maiden’s Cove, Sea Point Pavilion and future Cape Town Stadium precinct could also accuse objectors, including Bo-Kaap residents, of “racism”.

I know the Kendal and Ladies Mile Road area. That part of Southern Suburbs still retains a rural feel, a rare and valuable natural resource in the over-developed Peninsula and its environs. Another nondescript strip mall – Shoprite Checkers are known for bland, functional designs like the rejected Princess Vlei mall in a similarly sensitive area, adds nothing except urban sprawl, traffic, congestion and all kinds of pollution.

(Disclosure: back in the day I worked on their Muizenberg store; Christo Wiese was at the roof wetting and we greeted; he seemed nice)

The family trust, consultants, contractors, Checkers and city will benefit from increased revenue, but how will the surrounding Constantia community? Shoprite Checkers is keen to build there, but would they do so opposite controlling shareholder Christo Wiese’s similarly rural Lourensford Wine Estate?

Profit-driven developers have the mistaken belief their “right” trumps their neighbours’ constitutional environmental and geographical rights. This hubris and carpet bagging is encouraged by an equally hubristic and clueless Cape Town political administration that’s eroding those rights with their self-styled red-carpet approach to developers and obstinately wrong planning decisions.

The Spatial Planning and Land use Management White Paper, quoting Rio’s Agenda 21 states:

“The broad objective is to facilitate allocation of land to the uses that provide the greatest sustainable benefits and to promote the transition to a sustainable and integrated management of land resources."

Note the emphasis on sustainable benefits. The DA claims they are committed to densification, but how does promoting urban sprawl into rural, semi-rural and agricultural areas – Philippi, West Coast (Wescape) and Constantia – promote densification, and the sustainable benefits and Agenda 21 of national spatial planning policy?

I think they have a Mr Hyde/Mr Hyde – no good Dr Jekyll to moderate the bad other – approach to development and good governance. They tell citizens what they think we want to hear while, in private, assuring their developer friends nothing gets in the way of another monster high-rise or sprawling township. Or perhaps, prosaically, they don’t know what they’re doing.

The Constantia development will end at the “independent” municipal planning tribunal. More than half the members are city officials, and they will vote to approve per their superiors’ instructions. The city declined to give me CV’s of members, so I do not know if non-city members are connected professionally to developers, in which case, they too are likely to approve.

Constantia is the latest fight in a long line of infamous planning decisions by the DA – those mentioned above and the unnecessary “luxury” Chapman’s Peak toll plaza the Western Cape government made the taxpayer pay for. All met with unanimous or near unanimous condemnation from the public, academics and planning and other professionals.

However, according to the DA we are wrong and don’t know what we’re talking about. In the Maiden’s Cove matter the DA’s media manager in the City of Cape Town, Cameron Arendse, accused objector, film-maker Mark Jackson, of “peddling false information” and campaigning for the ANC. Jackson has begun a “Save Cape Town” Facebook petition against the DA.

The DA’s policy is divisive and dangerous, setting citizen against citizen and citizen against developer. And now with the Constantia development it has unintentionally created the conditions where racism accusations have been levelled in the tinderbox that race relations are in the country, although I acknowledge the Solomons family’s accusation is unfair and wrong because it does not address the issue of concern – the scale and appropriateness of the proposed development.

But the fact is, in general, DA planning and land use policy is the cause of public unease and conflict and a concern across social and economic strata. (This concern is of a different type to service delivery protests, which the ANC blames the DA for.)

Jackson, Constantia, Bo-Kaap, Maiden’s Cove, etc residents should have begun campaigning before now in the hope to change or at the least moderate the DA’s mismanagement of spatial, environment and land management, not on the eve of elections. Complacent, indifferent and oblivious voters will give the DA the nod again to keep the ANC out.

Constantia residents are the customers of the proposed development. I suggest if it goes ahead without addressing their concerns, they inform Shoprite Checkers and Christo Wiese they shall vote with their feet once the centre opens. And next elections, vote the DA out, not to replace it with the ANC, but something far better and unsullied.

A shorter version of this article is appeared in the opinion page of the Cape Argus.