Academia: Spatial Dynamics, Contested Development, and Competing Rights in Cape Town, South Africa

7 07 2011

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by Duncan Ranslem, June 2011

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Geography)

Chapter 1

The right to housing needs to be dissociated from the right to property and returned to the right to inhabit.
-Don Mitchell, The Right to the City

Adopted in 1996 after the fall of the apartheid state, the South African constitution enshrines the rights of all people in South Africa. Enumerated among these rights is a right to property and a right to housing.2 The former represents the claims to ownership and private property that are familiar in U.S. law and Western tradition: the rights to possess property, and through this possession, to use it as one sees fit, to accrue any benefits that are derived from it, and to be protected from its undue expropriation. The right to housing, on the other hand, recognizes the fundamental need for access to shelter and basic social connections. Under its provisions, every home is protected from demolition, and its inhabitants protected from eviction, except after a court has considered all the relevant circumstances. Moreover, South Africa’s municipal governments are responsible, within their available resources, to realize the right to adequate housing for all. Juxtaposed against one another, these rights represent claims that are often contradictory. The underlying contradiction, in many cases, is that a person’s home is not necessarily that person’s property. Such homes may exist, either as, or located on, property owned by the state or by a private entity. In such cases, where the lawful property owner is met with the unlawful appropriation of his property as someone else’s home, the right to that property and the right to housing come into conflict.

This thesis examines these conflicting rights as they have unfolded in the new South Africa – a nation reborn after years of race-based segregation and oppression. In an international context, a right to housing is named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to article 25, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”3 A right to housing is included within this provision insofar as adequate housing is a necessary component to such a right. Despite this international framework, the idea of a right to housing is not deeply ingrained in the core national values of many states. In the United States, for instance, a right to housing was once proposed by Franklin Roosevelt as part of a “second bill of rights,” but never came to fruition.5 Given South Africa’s history of apartheid – and apartheid’s particular disregard for housing tenure through policies of forced relocation, confined movement and racial exclusion in particular places – a right to housing has, understandably, been written into the national constitution.

At its core, this thesis is a study of the appropriation6 of urban space – a study of when claims to land are honored, whose rights take precedence, and, importantly, under which conditions these rights remain valid. In unpacking these largely processual questions, new, multifaceted questions are raised: What kinds of forces drive urban appropriation? What kinds of effects result from the contested appropriation of urban space? Approaching these questions, we consider several artifacts of processes urban appropriation – both as drivers of these processes, and as effects.

These artifacts take various forms. For example, we consider the ways in which the appropriation of urban space takes place through legal processes, finding that concrete
circumstances and particular court cases inscribe themselves in legal doctrine with far reaching effects. Thus, one type of artifact we discover is a legal artifact. We also find that communities coalesce and social movements form through the crucible of the struggle to find adequate housing. These communities – in particular, the community dubbed ‘Symphony Way’ – are treated as another type of artifact. Through yet another lens, this study examines the emergence of a new spatial tool deployed in these processes: the Temporary Relocation Area (TRA), which is thought of as a physical artifact marking the urban landscape.

Importantly, these foci of analysis should not be thought of solely as products of processes of urban appropriation, but also as instigators and instruments of the appropriation of space. The task of this thesis, then, is to draw out these legal, social and physical artifacts in order to understand the processes that grow out of, as well as underlie, their unfolding. This emphasis on process, especially concerning processes of neoliberalization (which, as we will see, is significant in this thesis), draws methodological guidance from the work of Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Adam Tickell, who integrate strains of critical social theory with geography and urban studies research agendas.7 The consequences of such an approach, as Neil Brenner says, is a break with “’mainstream’ urban theory—for example, the approaches inherited from the Chicago School of urban sociology,” in that:

Rather than affirming the current condition of cities as the expression of transhistorical laws of social organization, bureaucratic rationality or economic efficiency, critical urban theory emphasizes the politically and ideologically mediated, socially contested and therefore malleable character of urban space—that is, its continual (re)construction as a site, medium and outcome of historically specific relations of social power.

Through a close reading of process, then, we can avoid treating the legal, social, and physical artifacts that have emerged as necessary. Rather, we view the narrative that unfolds as contingent taking a critical look at the uses of law and new urban forms. In this sense, this thesis tries to heed Lefebvre’s reminder that “(social) space is a (social) product.”9 Instead of assuming that the illegal occupation of urban spaces is automatically illegitimate, we seek to understand the ways that competing understandings of space (as property and/or as home) are produced. Out of this study of process, we will be able to develop a properly historical perspective of the spaces under study while also shedding light on the question of competing rights, particularly, on the very notion of a right to housing.

For the rest of the paper:

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