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By Thina Nzo

[First published in Daily Maverick]

While the coronavirus lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing spatial inequalities and the housing crisis in Cape Town, it contributed to the growth of informality and its symbiotic relationship with the formal economy that state institutions loathe.


Approximately 30km from the Cape Town CBD lies a newly established informal settlement called ‘Covid-19’, opposite Khayelitsha on the N2, aptly named for being established during the lockdown in March 2020. It now numbers 27,000 households without access to water, sanitation and electricity in this cold, wet winter.

The City of Cape Town has rejected providing any basic services, arguing that the settlement lies on privately owned land. Unlike most of Cape Town’s informal settlements, characterised by densely populated shacks stacked side-by-side, Covid-19 community members have carefully planned and demarcated their shacks to leave adequate yard space as a way of precluding the tsunami effect of domestic fires.

The informal settlement boasts graded access roads, made without help from the city government. Illegally connected electricity wires overhang and criss-cross shacks close to the main road street lights. In the absence of employment opportunities, the community has organised and established tuck shops, street food vendors, taverns, welding and illegal sand mining for sale to contractors in the formal construction economy.

The mining is a community initiative that generates substantial revenue, which is in turn dispensed on acquiring construction material for reinforcing the shacks on the unstable wetland, and leasing plant graders to maintain the gravel access road and to mine the sand. Covid-19’s everyday struggles reflect an untold story of survivors of the coronavirus pandemic and its lockdown that left an endless trail of disrupted livelihoods and displaced families.

Cape Town, an epicentre of the hospitality and tourism economy, had to halt many of its operations during lockdown to enforce physical and social distancing. It is estimated that the Western Cape incurred 159,000 job losses. This is despite businesses and SMMEs in the formal economy being provided debt relief to help keep them afloat. The national lockdown had a devastating socioeconomic impact on the vulnerable unskilled and semi-skilled population working in the hospitality and tourism sectors and living on the margins of the city without social housing security.

Simone Schotte and Rocco Zizzamia’s assessment of who was hit the hardest during the peak of the pandemic provides us with an insightful understanding of how startling socioeconomic inequalities, that pre-exist in provinces such as the Western Cape, were further exacerbated, leaving the majority of the vulnerable labour force with no social safety net.

Although experts are now drawing up a post-mortem of Covid-19’s impact, their reflection does not delve deep enough to demonstrate how the disastrous outcomes of the coronavirus lockdown further delegitimised the authority of the local state to provide social and economic security.

Despite the fact that the government and the banking sector came together and agreed on providing a payment holiday for up to three months on home loans — for property owners and landlords to avoid massive evictions — this, in reality, widened the spatial inequalities between historically vulnerable informal township settlements and the more privileged suburban homeowners.

Communities in Khayelitsha comprising either township property owners, shanty landlords or backyard tenants, were in no position to benefit from the arrangements provided for by the banks. Instead, most backyard tenants in township informal settlements lost their income and livelihoods: they could no longer pay their rent and were evicted by the township and shanty landlords. This displaced many township tenants, such as those left with little choice but to set up the Covid-19 informal settlement on a privately owned wetland.

Though the City of Cape Town boasts about its administration’s record of clean financial audits for many years, the City government has struggled to reconcile clean governance with spatial justice as a developmental outcome. The City has battled to eradicate informal settlements — a population of over 600,000 people waiting for more than 15 years to be allocated a house.

Land allocation for social housing has been the lowest priority on the City government’s agenda, leaving stranded poor and marginalised communities excluded from property markets from accessing affordable housing in the city centre and close surrounds.

In stark contrast, as a response to homelessness and land invasion, City officials have fixated on using legal instruments to criminalise homelessness and protect private property. This demonstrates a City government that has conceded to a dominant model of urban spatial planning — largely driven by, and for the benefit of, private property developers and elite suburban residents.

Its built infrastructure environment evidences how land use is prioritised for private property developers, giving little or no attention to unlocking land for social housing. Moreover, until recently, the City government has made minimal efforts to loosen the bureaucratic red tape that impedes township property owners trying to expand into the small-scale rental market to relieve the informal backyard dwellers.

Township property owners have shared their experiences about how the City used to apply exclusionary spatial planning and built infrastructure regulations by requiring large amounts of money for compliance in the approval of building plans, making it unaffordable for township property owners. Civil society organisations such as the Development Action Group and Ndifuna Ukwazi have been at the forefront of advocating for spatial justice, putting pressure on the City government to advance equitable access to land through the Spatial Planning Land Use and Management Act (Spluma).

It is noted that developers are only now beginning to volunteer to make affordable housing available to comply with the act, which is inadequate to address the urban gentrification. Avoiding and ignoring informal settlements, and depriving them of basic services — all this will not change the situation, but further negatively contribute to future environmental, social, economic and spatial problems.

The establishment and ongoing activities of the Covid-19 informal settlement are a gentle warning and reminder of what happens when a city government fails to balance economic and social development planning. In other words, while the coronavirus lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing spatial inequalities and the housing crisis in Cape Town, it contributed to the growth of informality and its symbiotic relationship with the formal economy that state institutions loathe.

Importantly, this has been done through the formation of community self-organising and self-governance, giving rise to twilight institutions that are beginning to wield public authority in the absence of a City government in informal settlements.

It can be said that the Covid-19 settlement is an active space of political mediation over the implementation of public objectives and the redistribution of public authority that needs to be carefully understood within the framework of spatial injustice induced by the local state.