Earlier this year, six families residing in the Searle Street cottages in District Six brought a bold application in the Western Cape High Court to compel the state to expropriate their homes to avoid their eviction and displacement.
Three generations have lived in the cottages since the 1920s, but now the families are being evicted by a purchaser from Gauteng, who bought the cottages for R2.4-million.
The families are among the last of the original inhabitants of District Six, most of whom were evicted during apartheid. The cottages, located on church land, were exempted from the eviction orders under the Group Areas Act after intervention by the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
However, in 2022, the Sisters sold the cottages to a private developer. The families challenged the sale but were unsuccessful and they are now asking the state to expropriate the land from the buyer so that they will not be evicted.
Their presence remains as a monument to the resistance against apartheid and a sign of hope for the return of those forcibly removed from their land.
While the families fight to stay, the City of Cape Town has rejected the proposal that the homes be expropriated and instead offered emergency housing in Mfuleni, over 30km away. This has become a dumping ground for people evicted from other areas.
The Searle Street cottages case is important in many ways.
Firstly, it raises an important discussion about race and class. The buyer of the cottages is a white developer who intends to demolish them and make a profit. The affected families are coloured and are part of the working class. The harsh reality persists: high-quality, well-located housing in Cape Town is still tied to factors such as race and income.
The second aspect to consider is the housing value. In Cape Town, housing is primarily regarded as a financial asset, rather than a benefit belonging to society. This means it is accessible only to a privileged minority due to high levels of wealth inequality.
Undoubtedly, the City of Cape Town has begun to recognise the importance of land to society, by prioritising social housing in well-located areas, such as Woodstock, Salt River and Pinelands. Despite these genuine (though belated) efforts, the City cannot keep up with the exclusionary practices of the private property market as the dominant provider of housing.
The third aspect of the case concerns the government’s approach to housing and the private property market. The private sector is not legally obliged to provide affordable housing, and so only caters for the high demand for luxury housing. The state, on the other hand, faces extraordinary demands to provide affordable housing, but due to delays in the process, mainly addresses this issue by offering emergency housing solutions.
The net effect is that low to middle income families at risk of eviction are relocated to emergency housing, which the City provides (because it is constitutionally obliged to) but only in peripheral areas, compounding a family’s housing emergency. Another effect is the unlawful occupation of public land by families in urgent need of housing and unable to wait through excessive delivery delays.
Without innovative strategies to reduce the financialisation of the property market and safeguard families from forced removals, the government finds itself stuck. The more it promotes expensive housing, the greater the need for emergency housing, and the deeper the housing crisis. The first step to break this cycle is the treatment of land and housing as social goods linked to the fundamental human rights of life and dignity.
Given this context and the enduring legacy of apartheid, the legal battle to force the state to expropriate the Searle Street cottages and preserve existing affordable homes might offer a solution. This avenue should be explored to shield these families who survived eviction during the apartheid era only to face a distressing repetition of that trauma through market-driven evictions.