The salutary story of Hangberg

zilleAs I read the Public Protector’s report this week, I tried to calculate how many legal procedures had been flouted in the construction of Zuma’s Nkandla Estate.

And I was overwhelmed once more (as I often have been during my years in executive office) by a sense of powerlessness and frustration at the innumerable obstacles that impede housing delivery for the poor.

For “priority” infrastructure projects  —  such Nkandla and the World Cup — regulations are either eased or ignored altogether.  But when it comes to housing for the poor, every millimetre of red tape (planning, zoning, environmental impact, traffic impact, heritage impact, visual impact, bulk services, repeated rounds of public participation etc)  is measured and audited.

It was far easier to deliver a World-Cup stadium, the biggest-ever infrastructure project in Cape Town, than it is to even get started on a modest housing project.  Cape Town Stadium was completed within two-and-a-half-years from conception to the World Cup kick-off.  But housing projects initiated as early as 2006, are still limping along — almost eight years later.

Yes, the complex regulatory environment (planning, zoning, environmental impact, bulk services, public participation, etc) all contribute to the delays.  But nothing does more to prevent progress than conflict within the beneficiary community.

This struck me again during a recent visit to Hangberg (Hout Bay), where Mayor Patricia de Lille and I turned the first sod for the new Council rental flats on what is arguably the most beautiful piece of waterfront real estate in Africa.

It was the deepest irony that the media reports on the event focused on the complaints, by a small group at the ceremony, that “the City and the Province are only taking an interest in Hangberg because of the coming election”.

The truth is the exact opposite.  There is no community in Cape Town — not a single one — that has received the ongoing attention of the Mayor and myself, or the sheer commitment of resources, that Hangberg has.  We have met with elected representatives of the community at least 30 times in scheduled and unscheduled engagements (and at least 300 days have been consumed by ongoing mediation and facilitation, excluding email and telephonic communication); we have spent more than R2-million on facilitation and mediation to resolve conflicts in the community, and a further R8-million on purchasing new prime property for new housing units for poor communities; we have provided a FreeCall Line at the Hangberg Advice Office, computer and office space to facilitate communication and we have a dedicated task team of personnel from the City and the Province to detect and monitor the progress of implementing the “Peace and Mediation Accord” that was made an order of court in 2011.

Even the seven-week long process of electing an inclusive body, the Peace and Mediation Forum, by every sector of Hangberg (from row house rental dwellers and backyard dwellers to ratepayers and informal dwellers)  failed to stem the conflict and instead became the locus of intense infighting, delaying the project for months at a time.

Had the community worked together with the City and the Province, and stuck to negotiated agreements, we would by now, have seen the development of the most beautiful suburb in Cape Town with the best located low-income housing on the continent of Africa.  The 142 new council flats would have been completed, and we would have finished our first model in-situ upgrading programme of informal houses on land that is usually only home to the ultra-rich.

That certainly was our vision in 2006.  What went wrong?  I have spent much time thinking about this.  On an individual basis I have come to know many people in Hangberg who are honourable, law-abiding citizens.  But we cannot seem to find a mechanism that will enable them to work together harmoniously.  I have often asked myself how we can lift the debate above the incessant jockeying for positions, and the deliberate flouting of the law in ways that demand law enforcement.   I have concluded that it is easier to remain marginalised and reinforce the perception of victimhood, than it is to seize the extraordinary opportunities and take responsibility for the development and transformation of their community.

Hangberg is an enclave in Hout Bay, on the beautiful slopes of the Karbonkelberg peak.  It is ravaged by poverty, and because local fisher folk lost out on permit allocations, its faltering fishing economy has been partially replaced by a narcotics economy based on bartering poached abalone.

The plan to upgrade Hangberg and provide additional housing began in 2006, when the City wanted to pioneer new aspects of its housing policy.  One involved in-situ upgrading of informal settlements.  The other involved the building of Community Residential Units, or flats for rental to low income communities.  Hangberg offered an ideal opportunity to try both.

Behind the Hangberg row houses, in front of the firebreak and the nature reserve, is an informal settlement where informal builders have built dwellings in the most creative ways.  The topography kept the densities limited, making it an ideal pilot site to provide formal services and upgrade the dwellings where they were.

In 2006, the Development Action Group facilitated agreement to an upgrading plan.  Part of this was a commitment by the community that no further structures would be erected in the informal settlement as the relatively low densities were essential for the provision of services and upgrading.

However, in violation of the agreement, more structures were built, and extended into the firebreak that separates Hangberg from land belonging to the South African National Parks Board (SANParks).The firebreak prevents regular mountain fires from spreading to the houses below.  It is, obviously, unlawful to build structures in the firebreak.

Despite numerous meetings and repeated requests to the community to demolish the illegal structures voluntarily, we made no progress.  Eventually I judged it necessary to ensure that a few “land invaders” did not jeopardise a pioneering upgrading project to benefit the entire community.  I and the Mayor requested the police to remove the illegal, unoccupied structures. The result was a stand-off between the City’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALU), assisted by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the community, in which the police were stoned, and in the resulting melee, three community members tragically lost an eye.

At the same time, the City went to court to ensure that occupied, but illegally erected structures were removed from the firebreak.

The court ruled that a mediation process should be pursued to resolve the matter. After 10 months of mediated negotiation, the Peace and Mediation accord was signed between the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Government, SANParks and the Hangberg Peace & Mediation Forum as the elected leaders of the Hangberg community. This multi-partner agreement was made an order of the High Court, which means that any violation of its requirements, such as the continued erection of illegal structures, is contempt of court.

Both local and provincial government have demonstrated a commitment (and resources) to holding up their end of the bargain, making land purchases, initiating the environmental impact assessment that is required by law before earthworks and construction could begin, extending free basic services and providing appropriate support for in-situ upgrading, among other responsibilities. However, the ongoing surfacing of community conflict continues to act as a brake on progress. We have had scant assistance in consolidating the shack settlement or removing the new illegal structures that violate the court order.  And our attempts to get the new rental units going, were fraught with difficulties, as some people refused to vacate the site for temporary relocation units, and competing interests sought to control the allocation process.

The City engaged with the democratically elected Forum leadership, who found themselves in conflict with other members of the community.  The elected leadership eventually withdrew.  This was interpreted by the rest as a resignation. An AGM was convened and new leaders were elected, after which the conflict only escalated.

The Mayor and I have often been tempted to withdraw from the Hangberg process altogether, and concentrate on communities more amenable to co-operative development.  But we hang in because this beautiful suburb, with so many fine people, has enormous potential. We have a formal agreement in place that spells out the responsibilities of all the stakeholders and is backed by a court order. We have the resources of the government at hand to bring in free services and development. We have the will and determination of the City and the support of the majority of the Hangberg community to drive progress and facilitate an improvement in residents’ lives. We now have to make it happen and not allow the infighting of various leadership factions to derail the process.

Helen Zille

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