Apartheid gentrification haunts Cape Town and the world

Last Monday, Reclaim the City reported, “Reclaim the City has been approached by a woman (who wishes to remain anonymous) whose rent has been increased by the City of Cape Town (‘the City’) by more than 2000%. She has rented a City council home in Salt River from the City of Cape Town since 1995. When her and husband moved in, they signed a lease agreement with a rental of R220 per month. The house was an uninhabitable mess. Over the years, they improved, fixed and maintained the property at their own expense. Due to minor rental increases, her rent is now R243.81. She has never defaulted on her monthly payments and has lived happily in her home for the last 24 years. In August 2019, the City of Cape Town sent her a letter saying they are increasing her rent to R5 500 per month. This is an astronomical increase from the R243 she is currently paying.” For millions across the globe, this is an all too familiar story, but what exactly is the story? In what world is it acceptable that anyone receive a rental increase notice of more than 2000%?

1995, Cape Town. Apartheid is officially ended, and, across the country, the new South Africa is on everyone’s lips, minds, and hearts. Reconstruction and Development Programme community flora are meeting everywhere … or almost everywhere. There’s a new President, a new Parliament, and a new dispensation.  A rainbow hovers over the nation and over the Mother City, as Cape Town is called.

While some of this picture is accurate, missing are the plans to “re-develop” Cape Town, to turn Cape Town into a thriving “global city”, replete with a metropolitan economy largely driven by real estate development. In the midst of all this, a couple move into public housing, twenty-four years ago, in the working class neighborhood of Salt River, a neighborhood known largely for second-hand shops, a diverse array of working class communities, and Community House, a center for community and labor organizing. It’s also known for the empty textile and garment factories that closed during the 1980s, when the apartheid regime invested heavily in Export Processing Zones that gutted the vibrant garment and textile economies of the Western Cape.

So, this couple moves in, signs the lease, fixes the place up (at considerable expense to themselves), never misses a payment, makes a home for themselves and for their neighbors. This couple survives and makes a life of dignity and self-respect. For their great labors and contributions to the municipality’s well-being, they are rewarded with amounts to an eviction notice. 

The couple have appealed, Reclaim the City and their supporters are organizing to help them remain in their home, the City continues to threaten eviction. Given the recent pattern of “spiraling” evictions in the Cape Town region, this comes as no surprise. As Reclaim the City notes, “If anyone needs more proof that the City is anti-poor and anti-black, this woman’s exorbitant rent hike is case and point.”

Anti-poor, anti-Black and committed to growing inequality as the key to urban development. For millions across the globe, and especially those living in so-called urban cities driven by service sector economies and predatory real estate development, this is an all too familiar story. But what exactly is the story? Remember, this working-class couple in Cape Town live in public housing. Their landlord is the City. The City raised their rent by over 2000 percent. When they responded and asked for help, the City threatened them with eviction. In this instance, eviction is exile, because a couple seeking to pay less than 300 rand a month won’t find anything anywhere near livable in Cape Town. 

What is public housing, if this is how the State acts? What is the public, if the State has committed to exploiting, oppressing and, if all else fails, assaulting the working populations who make it possible for the Public to function? What exactly is the story? That question has been answered recently in the streets of Ecuador, Sudan, Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong and beyond. This story is not yet over, neither the local one in Cape Town nor its global counterpart; the struggle continues. Apartheid gentrification, gentrification that condemns working people to forced removals to distant regions, haunts the world. In what world is it acceptable receive a rental increase notice of more than 2000%? Our world. Another world must be possible.

(Photo Credit: Twitter)

The Black Woman in the basement: A note on segregated reading

It only really hit me after coming to the United States to study. It had always been there at the back of my mind, dispersed as unconnected memories of conversations with friends. But now those memories have cohered to form a narrative. The catalyzing event that facilitated this fusion was, and continues to be, my experience of segregation in Washington DC. This is the narrative of segregated reading practices across axes of race and gender. White readers self-segregate in ways that reflect and reinforce physical boundaries that account for persisting racialized gender tensions and inequalities across the country. Segregated reading practices involve avoiding literature by other races and genders, particularly those who have been historically subjected to discrimination. It is a form of literary solipsism where the self, and close approximations to it, is the only candidate worthy of attention in a book of fiction. This literary self-segregation engenders a narrow reading of the world that does little to dismantle prejudicial attitudes and unconscious biases held by those in power. 

More often than not the Black people I see within and around my university’s campus are often working in positions of servitude. On seeing this, I wondered whether this accounts for the few times that white students or professionals in the area engage with Black people on a daily basis. Can you imagine that almost every time you see a Black person – especially if you are white – it is to be served by them? And then, when speaking to people about their favorite novels you realize that they rarely ever mention reading books about women and men of color? Can you imagine living in a country where everyone who is not white is flattened and exists outside the range of a white person’s engagement with fully realized human beings, both in the realms of the physical and fictional? 

Men do not read enough novels by and about women. This is a simple truism that can be expanded through a race and gender disaggregation. White men do not read enough novels about white women or people of color, white women do not read enough novels about people of color, men of color do not read enough novels about women of color. Women of color, especially Black women, and especially Black women who are queer, occupy the bottom of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s metaphorical basement and have had to read up the ladder of human experience with little reciprocity. This isn’t to say that fiction is a panacea for society’s ills or that it can or should function as a replacement for engaging with actual people. There is certainly a performative aspect to some people’s reading practices, as though reading about Black women, and acquiring the language to speak about them and their experiences, are enough. It isn’t.

However, there is something to be said about the way that people’s lives are separated in the physical realm, and how that gets translated to their reading of the world. There have been too many conversations with men, both white and Black, who would rattle off their favorite books of fiction by other white and Black men while failing to mention a single novel by a white or Black woman. I’ve also often read several online pieces, such as The New York Times’ By the Book, where public figures proudly list the books that impacted them most in life. The majority, if not all, of those books center a white male imprint on human experience.

Another note on segregation. Trains in DC, at least the ones I take, perform a sort of magic. When I get onto the train in central DC there are crowds of white people who are tired after a long day of work, eager to get home, like me, to relax. As the train travels further away from central DC, this crowd slowly disperses until all the Black people – previously hidden among a sea of white – are revealed. Except, this isn’t a magic trick. I almost always know when the last white person in the train car will get up to leave before it ventures into more “dangerous” locales. This is the work of systemic racism that bleeds into how neighborhoods are organized. It bleeds into who we associate with, live next to, empathize with, humanize, and spend time with in books. I knew about segregation and gentrification prior to moving to the U.S. Knowing that didn’t diminish the culture shock. 

I’m somewhat pleased to note that efforts are now being made to include more women of color – within and beyond the global – into the fold of lionized literary wunderkinds. Recall former President Barack Obama’s summer reading lists, this year’s Booker Prizes long and short lists, this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the ever-increasing number of “woke” Bookstagrammers sharing their favorite books by women of color and discussing intersectionality. That most of these Bookstagrammers are women is not surprising, but it is my hope that, with time, the effort to read more books by Black and Brown women will occur in tandem with increased efforts to desegregate neighborhoods and dismantle systemic racism. Whether it’s Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo, Beloved or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, it’s time to destabilize privileged locations of storytelling by reading about the constellations of women’s experiences; of women who continue to exist in the margins in the mind of country plagued by a white pathology.

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: ThoughtCo / Robert Alexander / Getty)

Apartheid haunts domestic work

In Los Angeles County, there is one bus route, the 305, that directly links the low- and no-income residents of the southern suburbs to the wealthy homeowners of the West Side. Millions rely on the 305. Millions of employers, millions of workers. The 305 only exists because of decades-long struggles by people of color, in the streets, in the courts, in the corridors of power, in the living rooms and kitchens of neighbors and family. And after all that struggle, there’s one line. And that line is about to be closed.

It’s called an efficiency. Close the one line that actually serves low-income workers of color, and replace it with `a hub’. How’s that worked for the airline industry? Not so well, but that makes little to no difference. After all, what’s a few more unpaid, and costly, hours in transit in the daily lives of workers of color? It is estimated that the hub system will double the length of commutes and triple the price. Los Angeles doesn’t allow for free transfers from one line to another. It’s called efficiency.

Who are these workers? Janitors, nannies, maids. Women of color, women of color, women of color. Women of color with names. Guadalupe Lopez. Ana Hernandez. Marina Tejada. Silvia Conjura.

Every day hordes of `colored’ and Black women board the buses, and travel for hours, to tend to the needs, desires, idiosyncrasies, and mess of wealthy, more-often-than-not White individuals, families, households, neighborhoods, communities. Every day, women workers of color pay more and get less. Every day their debt increases. Every day their own families, households, neighborhoods, communities suffer the irretrievable lose of time. Every day.

And every day, the State figures out a new way, through efficiencies, of seizing yet another dollar, yet another hour, from the pocket, purses, bodies, and days and nights of these women of color. If this sounds familiar, it should. It was the logic of `public’ transport under the apartheid regimes in South Africa.

For coloured and African women workers, the State made transportation impossible and necessary, unaffordable … and required. It was a clear weapon in the war of some against the many. To this day, the country still struggles with the apartheid geography of impossible and unaffordable transport. As one writer noted yesterday, commenting on the death of his own nanny, Florence Mbuli, “You can now easily replace the word `Bantustan’ with `township’ or `informal settlement’”.

Yes, we can.

Across South Africa, women workers organize daily on the trains that take them to work. They organize domestic affairs, they organize political interventions, as women workers, as women of color. In Los Angeles County, the same is true. Women workers, every day on the bus, are organizing, organizing information, organizing domestic affairs, organizing political interventions.

Florence Mbuli lived to see the apartheid regime end. She lived to see her children grow up into “very successful people”. But the trains remain, the buses remain, the collective taxis remain, because the distances between home and work, the distances created by an apartheid logic of efficiency, remain. In fact, in many places, most notably the Cape Town metropolitan area, the distances have grown greater since 1994.

Today, Florence Mbuli rides with Guadalupe Lopez, Ana Hernandez, Marina Tejada and Silvia Conjura. Together they measure the time, the cost, the distances. Together they organize. The State can claim to reconcile individuals, even communities, but it can’t reconcile space. It can’t reconcile distances. From Watts to Westwood, from Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain to Claremont and Rondebosch, and beyond, apartheid haunts domestic work.

 

(Photo Credit: Monica Almeida / The New York Times)