The analysis begins with the powerful historic role of the apartheid state in shaping the city’s structure. We then consider contemporary economic forces through the property market, followed by the recent tendency of state-subsidised housing to reproduce segregation.
4.2.1 Racial Segregation: 1950s–1980s
Cape Town is a famously divided city, with affluent, leafy suburbs offering exceptional amenities and picturesque mountain and coastal settings, juxtaposed against austere and inhospitable dormitory settlements on the treeless sand-plains of the Cape Flats. At the heart of the city is the vibrant City Bowl, a natural amphitheatre that concentrates enormous wealth, surrounded by the stunning slopes of Table Mountain. A patchwork of intensely crowded informal settlements is barely tolerated in various parts of the city. These unauthorised shanty-towns reflect poor people’s efforts to access city opportunities without paying for formal accommodation.
Cape Town’s unusual topography and status as a biodiversity hotspot have other consequences for access to housing and segregation. Special nature reserves intended to restrict house-building cover more than 40% of the municipal area. The mountain also shapes the road and rail networks, which have historically guided property investment and acted as barriers between race-based neighbourhoods. The Atlantic Seaboard attracts super-rich international homebuyers and tourists, which inflates house prices throughout the market.
The city’s physical footprint expanded most in the second half of the twentieth century, when the economy was booming and the southern and northern suburbs became the preferred residential areas for the white middle and upper classes. Population density declined by about 50% between the 1950s and the 1980s (City of Cape Town 2018). This was when racial ideology was most pernicious and the state directly shaped the city’s form. Previous growth was slower and segregation by race was not all-pervasive. During the colonial era, the community was highly stratified and unequal, and white settlers exploited indigenous groups and slaves brought in from Asia and elsewhere in Africa (van Rooyen and Lemanski 2020). Discrimination and subjugation were widespread, but the city was not rigidly demarcated by race. In the early twentieth century, public health concerns (infectious diseases) provided the pretext for dispossessing most black Africans of their prime land and housing in the urban core and relocating them beyond the urban fringe. This laid the legal and political foundations for intensified segregation policies after the second world war.
The National Party won the 1948 general election and launched a spate of laws to entrench white supremacy using explicit spatial instruments, such as urban planning. People were rigidly classified by race and physically separated through a combination of controls and distinct institutions. The notorious Group Areas Act assigned people to particular places kept apart by buffer strips. The racial hierarchy was entrenched by allocating large central areas to whites, peripheral sites to black Africans and spaces in between to coloureds. Implementation destroyed well-established coloured communities and forced the removal of approximately 150,000 people to townships on the Cape Flats by the end of the 1960s. District Six in the City Bowl was most affected, with 55,000 residents forcefully displaced (van Rooyen and Lemanski 2020).
The impact was compounded by separate local authorities created for different areas, and separate schools, healthcare and public transport systems. This redistributed resources from working-class communities to the well-endowed white suburbs, and deepened the regressive effects of racial segregation (Mabin 2005). For example, the education system for whites was vastly superior to that for blacks, with better-equipped teachers, smaller classes and a more advanced curriculum. It is hard to overestimate the lasting impact on contemporary society.
The Cape was declared a ‘coloured labour preference area’, which inhibited in-migration by black Africans and explains the distinctive demographics today. Population movements were strictly controlled by pass laws. By the early 1990s, Cape Town was the most segregated city in the country, and less than 6% of the population lived outside the areas designated for their race, such as domestic workers (Christopher 2000).
Two immense districts on the Cape Flats—Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha—demonstrate the force of the apartheid state. Mitchells Plain was created in the 1970s as a coloured township for middle- and low-income families, 25–30 km from the CBD. Many residents were victims of forced removals. It was laid out with neighbourhood precincts, basic public facilities and wide arterial roads. There was no effort to develop local industrial estates, employment centres or small business units, let alone to restore the social fabric of dislocated communities. Many precincts soon deteriorated with rising unemployment, gangsterism, drug abuse, physical decay and shack housing. The current township population is around 300,000.
Khayelitsha was created during the 1980s for black Africans and envisaged as the ‘solution’ to two problems facing Cape Town: the rapid increase in rural migrants from the Eastern Cape and overcrowding in other townships. Thousands of people were forcefully relocated to inferior housing and open land, 30–35 km from the CBD. There was even less effort to create local jobs, a commercial centre or public amenities, ensuring that this would become a major poverty trap. The current population is well over 400,000, with high levels of food insecurity, hardship, crime and informal housing. High transport costs and arduous journeys add to the burden people face in accessing jobs elsewhere in the city.
The stark challenge facing the post-apartheid government was illustrated by a map used by a senior planner from the city during a presentation in 1993 (Fig. 4.1). It shows the skewed concentration of opportunities in the historic core, with over 80% of all the jobs in the city, despite housing only 37% of the population. The Cape Flats is portrayed as a desert, with black communities locked out of job-rich locations and suburbs with good schools and quality services. The four arrows are poignantly unidirectional, indicating the imperative for the democratic government to enable Cape Flats residents to access the resources in the core. There is no hint of potential resistance from the suburbs to a more inclusive, integrated city. The other telling feature is the label pointing to the priority investment needs of the Cape Flats for economic and human development.
4.2.2 Market-Led Development: 1990s–2020
In practice, the post-apartheid government did not address the distorted form of SA cities with much determination. Apartheid legislation was withdrawn and institutions reorganised, but there wasn’t an equivalent commitment to push through a new vision for integrated cities. One reason was the stagnant economy following international sanctions and the turmoil of the transition. So the resources—public or private—weren’t readily available to invest in major public infrastructure and catalytic projects for urban restructuring. The victorious political party was an amalgam of ideologies, and the government—a compromise of different interests. The general mood and leadership disposition were towards reconciliation rather than retribution or restitution. Many progressive policies were approved, but not matched by concrete action (Statistics SA 2019). Institutional practices were often conservative and poorly coordinated across government, and bureaucratic inertia prevailed over calls for transformation.
The new generation of local political leaders lacked experience to formulate a coherent response to their divided cities and towns, and to challenge vested interests. There was an implicit political settlement with white middle- and upper-class households not to disrupt their lifestyles if they accepted democratic rule and continued to pay their taxes. The end of apartheid also coincided with a broader global ideological shift away from planning and state intervention towards the market and a lean state. This further discredited the spatial planning profession (already tainted from its role under apartheid) and creative thinking around urban compaction and integration.
Private investors and developers had a relatively free hand to do as they pleased. They could deliver tangible products and jobs, so decision-makers supported almost any kind of property development. Parliament passed the Development Facilitation Act that streamlined regulatory procedures and enabled municipal objections to be bypassed. Many conventional free-standing houses, shopping malls and business complexes were built at low densities in the suburbs and beyond (Turok et al. 2019). They were targeted at the (white and coloured) upper and middle classes, because demand was strong from the increase in white-collar workers, managers, public officials and professionals, supported by bank lending. Some took the form of gated estates and elite enclaves with privatised security arrangements to restrict access to ordinary citizens.
The private sector built about 10,000 housing units a year in Cape Town during the late 1990s and 2000s. The economic slowdown from 2008 onwards reduced this by a third. These suburban developments contradicted the new municipal spatial plans that envisaged densification, infill development and mixed land-uses so as to encourage urban integration, more efficient land use and better access to public transport for workers from the townships (City of Cape Town 2018). But there was no political appetite to negotiate concessions from developers, who naturally focused on unencumbered greenfield sites: “there continues to be sprawling development towards the edge of the city” (City of Cape Town 2018, p. 217). Key locations included the northern suburbs, west coast, Kuils River and Mitchells Plain, with smaller pockets in the southern suburbs and Somerset West. The public sector often had to fund the infrastructure, even though developers profited from the uplift in land values. The outward drift diverted public investment from upgrading and intensifying underperforming industrial and residential areas surrounding the central city.
A distinctive feature of Cape Town is the strength of the CBD as the principal economic node with approximately 200,000 jobs. Other SA cities have experienced an exodus of property investors and occupiers to satellite centres in the suburbs (Turok et al. 2019). Institutional property owners took early action in partnership with the municipality to prevent ‘crime and grime’ from causing business relocations. The unique qualities of the City Bowl foster a mixture of diverse activities—tourism, leisure, business and professional services, government functions and higher education—that feed off each other to spur growth and investment. This has coincided with a shift in fashion within the housing market towards apartments in well-located, well-managed areas. The city’s historic core has been the biggest beneficiary. Figure 4.2 shows the concentration of apartments in and around the CBD, followed by the main transport corridors in the southern and northern suburbs. The distribution of free-standing houses is quite different.
Yet, the commercial success of the CBD has inflated property prices and promoted gentrification in surrounding working-class districts, causing the displacement of poorer households. The shortage of affordable housing forces clerical and hospitality workers, shop assistants, security staff and cleaners to undertake lengthy commutes from the townships. Meanwhile, the transformation of Johannesburg and other city centres has improved access to jobs and low-income housing for black working-class communities. A final point is that across all of Cape Town’s economic nodes, the growth in labour demand and earnings has not been sufficient among lower ranking occupations to lift these groups out of poverty, to narrow the income distribution or to encourage private housing developers to broaden their product range to meet the majority’s needs for affordable accommodation.
4.2.3 State-Led Housing: 1990s–2020
The government has acted with unusual resolve to provide housing directly, using fully subsidised contractors. Apartheid denied blacks the right to own property in the cities and stopped building them houses to discourage urbanisation. This caused serious overcrowding and gave rise to many squatter settlements. The 1994 government saw decent housing as the key to reducing squalor and restoring dignity and respect. Housing was treated as part of a ‘social wage’, along with welfare grants and free basic services. Households below a certain income were promised a free housing unit on its own small plot.
Direct state provision gave the government control over the quantity of housing it could deliver, without relying on the vagaries of private developers. Ambitious targets were set and broadly met. About 5,000 government houses have been built in Cape Town every year since the early 2000s, amounting to a quarter of all housing supplied, and almost half of the formal supply (City of Cape Town 2018). This could have changed the city’s physical growth pattern if it was carefully targeted.
There have been undoubted benefits for households moving out of shacks or overcrowded family homes through improved privacy, protection from the weather, internal services, children’s safety and an asset for security. However, the state has borne the full cost, letting the banks and private developers off the hook. Most houses have been built on the outskirts to economise on the land. Large greenfield sites have enabled mass construction of standardised units. A separate production process for private sector housing has kept the occupiers far apart. This has avoided NIMBY resistance, but contradicts the goal of racial diversity and integration.
Most government housing in Cape Town has been built around the periphery, in Delft, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Kraaifontein and Somerset West. This is far from jobs, good schools, training colleges and other opportunities for advancement. The municipality estimates that poor households spend up to 40% of their disposable income travelling to work, which “inhibits upward socio-economic mobility and deepens household dependency. These features are common to many SA cities but tend to be more acute in Cape Town” (City of Cape Town 2018, p. 215). Many households are trapped in marginal locations because they are not allowed to sell their homes for eight years and have not received their title deeds (Turok 2016). Many build shacks in their backyards to generate rental income (Scheba and Turok 2020). Their concentration on the Cape Flats is shown in green in Fig. 4.2.
A National Treasury review concluded that housing policy: “reinforces the legacy of apartheid and relegates the poor to areas that are far from economic opportunity” (GTAC 2016, p. 1). There is public land available within Cape Town’s historic core that could be developed for affordable housing. Some are large parcels that could accommodate tens of thousands of dwellings, including Culemborg, Ysterplaat, Wingfield, Youngsfield and Denel. There has been insufficient determination to release these strategic assets in the public interest (Turok 2016). Civic activists have begun to target empty buildings, golf courses and undeveloped land to protest at the inertia (Turok et al. 2019).