Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification (Part 2)

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city and ocean

View of Muizenberg from Buoys Drive.  Photo credit:  Flickr user André van Rooyen

Continued from Part 1

Shortly after it was established in 2005, the Muizenberg Municipal Improvement District (MID) Board went to work to eliminate the refugee/renter population.  This was obviously not how things were described, but the intention was unmistakable.  Moreover, MID insiders were quite prepared to admit this to residents – as long as they were white and middle class – on the assumption that those qualities guaranteed agreement with the board’s course of action.  I was one of those regularly taken into confidence by my MID-leaning neighbours because of my skin colour.

Two initiatives stand out.  First, the MID filed a flurry of code complaints against the absentee owners of the multiunit structures, as well as some of the row houses in the central village area.  Crucially, they were unable to bring action directly against the landlords but rather had to file complaints with the City of Cape Town calling for enforcement of by-laws against crowding, dilapidation, and so on.   Unfortunately for the MID crowd, the City of Cape Town had reverted to control by the African National Congress in the municipal elections of 2006.  Because of this, the City dragged its feet in responding to these complaints, mainly because the Muizenberg City Council seat was held by the opposition Democratic Party and therefore considered low priority.

Second, the MID Board contracted a private “security” firm, formed by ex-South African soldiers and security policeman with backgrounds in the border war with Angola in the 80s, to police Muizenberg for “code violations.”  As their Afrikaans nickname (Koevoet, or “crowbar”) implied, these were not social workers.  Their first order of business was to set up watch points on the slopes above Muizenberg to surveill the neighbourhood with high-powered binoculars and two-way radios with which they dispatched armed men in vehicles in response to any perceived “violations.”  They had a friendly relationship with the South African National Police Service (SAPS) post in Muizenberg, who basically let them do what they wanted.  Most of the Muizenberg SAPS officers were either “white” or “coloured” and had no sympathy for Muizenberg’s refugee population or for the local “riff-raff” who catered to their (perceived) illicit needs.

People in Muizenberg’s low-income population – especially prostitutes from neighbouring township areas – were terrified of the MID security force/SAPS alliance.  Allegations of beatings in the Muizenberg police cells were common, much as they had been prior to 1994.  As time went by, more and more Muizenberg residents, including many left-leaning whites, became disenchanted with the MID and came to see it as a continuation of apartheid sensibilities.

Ultimately, the Muizenberg MID failed to eject the low-income population, although the anti-gentrification advocates’ victory was achieved amidst much community strife.  A coalition of refugee/renter and “white” residents, many with backgrounds in the anti-apartheid struggle, proposed an alternative slate for the 2007 MID board election (the first since its founding).[1]  This group worked hard to educate Muizenberg residents about the agenda of the current MID.  It reached out to refugees/renters, who organised a self-census of the central village area so they could be armed with accurate information about themselves, and used the process to mobilise the MID vote.

The election resulted in major changes to the MID Board.  The overtly reactionary chair was defeated and a mixed group including “reformers,” businesspeople, and even renters took over and promptly changed to a more inclusive direction.  Contestation continues, but Muizenberg remains home to many low-income residents.

My experience in Decatur has been different – especially the absence of any organised resistance in the low-income community to domination by gentrifiers and real estate interests – but remains eerily similar in some ways.  Many of those who drove the exclusionary MID agenda in Muizenberg considered themselves socially and politically progressive, just as many Decatur gentrifiers do, and reacted with anger at suggestions of racism.  As in Decatur, vicious personal attacks and slander were directed at me and other “treasonous” property owners who sided with the refugee/renter population.  And as in Decatur, it was largely impossible to raise issues of equity and social justice with people who reduce all social relationships to impersonal market transactions, regardless of their effects.

Why did Muizenberg, unlike Decatur, successfully resist exclusionary gentrification?  Above all, it is due to South Africa’s political traditions of grassroots mobilisation, as well as a clear understanding of the links between race, class, and property forged in the long struggle for multiracial democracy.  Unlike Decatur, where low-income African Americans seem politically isolated and resigned to the outcomes of municipal elections, South Africans understand clearly that formal democracy is no substitute for direct action. Moreover, Muizenberg was home to many white veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle who understood that formal democracy had not undone the spatial and economic legacy of apartheid.  Despite the fact that they stood to benefit economically from the MID’s gentrifying agenda, they allied themselves with their poorer neighbours.

Also, South Africa’s success in resisting the imposition of a “cantonment” approach to local government, which the white opposition had sought in the constitutional negotiations of 1990-94, meant that Muizenberg remains part of the larger Cape Town metropolitan area.  This ensured a broader, inclusionary approach to municipal development issues and prevented local gentrifiers from using seemingly neutral by-laws to engineer a new form of apartheid.  Though not perfect, citywide government in Cape Town and other South African cities helps to keep such gentrifiers accountable to a larger community.

Indeed, to me, Decatur represents precisely the outcome sought by the “liberal” faction of the white population in South Africa in the constitutional negotiations of 1990-94: municipal cantonment as a substitute for formal apartheid.  By allowing the creation of micro-municipalities such as Decatur, Georgia law creates an ideal vehicle for exclusionary social outcomes dressed up as local self-determination and “development.”  As one commenter on my neighbourhood listerv stated,

“I say, be defensive on what we have. If you can pay the taxes and the rent … You can afford the great schools and police protection.”

A  white South African could not have put it better.

~ Ted Baumann

[1] I was nominated for the position of MID Treasurer.


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