Dear Premier Zille,
I often think of Sea Point as one of the best suburbs to live in the country, and I feel privileged to be able to call it my home. My apartment is on a quiet road between Main and Beach roads, a short walk to the Sea Point promenade and not far from the old Tafelberg School site which has become the center of the Reclaim The City campaign.
In the four years that I have lived here, the school site (roughly the size of two rugby fields or one city block) has been vacant. Having previously worked in the architecture and urban design fields in Cape Town, I was aware that various feasibility studies and urban design frameworks had been commissioned for this site by the Western Cape Provincial Government, and I often wondered why it hadn’t yet been developed for public use. Was it intentionally being left to deteriorate and fall into disrepair? This was particularly perplexing as rents increasingly soared, forcing working families out of the neighborhood. As a Sea Point resident, I want to live in a diverse suburb where all its residents are accommodated in a dignified manner.
From 2013 to 2014, I worked for the government department responsible for the site – the Provincial Department of Transport and Public Works. This department paid for a year of my studies and I was required to work back some of that time. But by the time I was called to work there, I had already made a career adjustment and was no longer practicing architecture or interested in pursuing a career in the built environment. However, working for the provincial government for one year seemed like an opportunity to learn something new – an insider’s perspective into how Government operates, changing things from within.
After the interviewing process at Public Works, it was decided that I was to be placed in their “Regeneration Programme” which at first sounded relatively exciting. Especially since the Program Director described it as a sort of think tank committed at least in part to addressing Cape Town’s pervasive spatial inequality.
I found it strange however that the team was made up primarily of a private firm of external consultants based at the provincial government buildings. It was only a few weeks after I started working there that I learnt of the department’s true motives. It was far removed from being a think tank or agent for inclusive urban development. At the time there were seven sites (including Tafelberg) earmarked for ‘regeneration’ in the city center, yet I never once heard low-cost or affordable housing discussed as part of the plan, contradicting the Provincial Spatial Development Framework which prioritizes the development of affordable housing that is accessible to opportunities. It also contradicts the commissioned development frameworks and urban design guidelines by urban planning professionals advocating for the incorporation of mixed-use development and low-cost housing for these sites.
It became apparent that the Regeneration Programme’s sole internal mandate was to make provincial sites like the Tafelberg school attractive for private development and much of the work done by the consultant team employed in the Regeneration programme involved courting potential investors like banks and property developers. Essentially, disposing of public-owned sites for profit.
These practices are not only unjust, they are an indictment on the Western Cape’s ability to run this province. This province cannot “work” at all if the majority of its citizens’ basic needs are not met. Needs that include access to work opportunities and dignified housing. A concern I’ve seen fellow Sea Point residents express on some atlantic seaboard residents association social media pages about the potential development of the site for social housing, is that it would ruin property values if low-income earners are accommodated in the suburb. The reality is that there are already many low to mid-income earners living in Sea Point. Some are renting broom closets as rooms and at times are forced to share a bathroom with 10 other people in order to live closer to work.
Developing the Tafelberg School as a mixed income, mixed use site for public housing is an opportunity for the provincial government to take a long term, sustainable approach to development on the site and potentially redeem themselves in the eyes of the public in the process. Based on my experiences within Public Works, this cannot be done unless Premier Zille intervenes in the department’s ongoing objective to place profit before people.