March 22, 2018.
Cape Town, South Africa.
“We don’t want to be popular. We want to be necessary.” –Adrian Louw, Bush Community Radio, 89.5 FM.
Wednesday, 8:50 am. At this hour normally, the Cissie Gool Hospital (CGH) would likely be empty, left only with a few preparing to leave for work, children in uniform walking one block up Mountain Road for school. But yesterday, the building was livened with movement in and out, and last minute dashes to put on t-shirts with red and black stenciled lettering. The shirts read, “Reclaim the City: Land For People, Not For Profit.” Children wear them, cartwheeling down the halls in color-coordinated sneakers, and adults gather slowly outside, leaning on the brick walls next to the barbed wire that fences in the hospital, waiting for the taxis to come. A series of white vans will carry us, all individuals currently occupying this abandoned hospital in Woodstock as part of a movement to, physically and symbolically, reclaim public land, to the #LandForLiving march.
What does this mean? Before I go further, a quick bit of background before I discuss other aspects of this experience. On March 19, I moved from the nearby neighborhood of Observatory to the CGH Hospital, where I’ll be staying for about one week alongside 50 to 60 occupants. This is both part of a transition in my project, as I’ve focused in on more land rights-focused issues since the end of my time in India, and an intention to immerse as much as possible in the issues and every day realities that people are experiencing. Staying there are people from a range of backgrounds and experiences, mostly from Woodstock, but who have come to the occupation as a symbolic effort to make use of a vacant, provincially owned space as well as a space to which their families had deep roots and ties and lives. They’re also there because, for many, there was no where else to go.
One year ago, several young people who passed without an over the shoulder as students, spent time intimately learning the layout of the hospital. Shut down almost twenty years before, CGH sits expansive, a base of brick with wide panels of white paint stretching to the roof, at 77 Mountain Road, close enough to see the rock bones of Devil’s Peak and with views of the harbor’s cranes and a sliver of ocean. The area covers a substantial, fenced off area of well-situated land in Woodstock, a southern suburb of the city which has become increasingly costly and gentrified but historically was occupied by a working class, mixed race population. Researchers, who entered the building while film crews were using the space to film horror movies (can honestly say that I was not overly surprised to learn this…), slowly reimagined and drew out a floor plan, intended for recent evictees and landless people to occupy.
In April 2017, a group of five quietly moved in and occupied during a filming in the building, and over time, more and more people have moved in. Almost a year later, many of the original occupants are still there. Their photographs, taken in black and white, and testimonies hang in the upstairs hallway, reminders of pasts and memories that people have articulated for journalists, for outsiders, time and time again. Many people asked me when I first moved in if I had indeed read the stories. In print, they’re solid pieces of evidence, of commitment- no one has plans to move anywhere. They are pushing and waiting for what is next.
Each week, residents and others who are interested come to the Advice Assembly, organized by Reclaim the City and held in the CGH, to learn about different aspects of what to do when you are evicted. Different leaders of Reclaim the City and occupants of the house head discussions and workshop-like activities to help people learn about their rights in issues related to housing. When I attended this at 7 pm on Tuesday night, two days ago, the issue up for discussion was how to approach getting legal representation in an eviction case. Where do you go first? How do you know if your case warrants a lawyer? What sort of information is needed for forms at legal centers? These are the kind of questions that the discussion posed, and that the session sought to answer via an activity that got people moving between two sides that read “yes” and “no” on opposite sides of the room.
Residents of the house are also involved with attending meetings with local councillors; these duties are split up to ensure that at least a few members are present at community hall meetings. Tsukie, a house leader, and three other residents, went to a 7 pm meeting with three local councillors at Woodstock Community Hall (located in a yellow building just behind a park, where a number of houseless people live. Several people in the house said that prior to moving into CGH, they spent some time here, when they were unsure of where else to go) who were supposed to be speaking to the issue of housing for evictees.
After one house member raised her hand and asked about the current status of the government’s next step in providing affordable housing development, the councillor, a white man in a tidy collared shirt and tie, stated that this discussion would have to be for another time. He had responded, he said, to an email the provincial office had received from a Reclaim the City organizer in January, and not received any email in return. Then, at 4 pm today, he had received another one- to this, he would immediately engage and “fully avail myself.” After that, the issues, raised by a number of residents gathered in the crowd of red plastic chairs, became specific to issues in the surrounding neighborhood, but not to the concerns that the CGH occupation rises around.
In the crowd, I met one journalist, working for the People’s Post, a community newspaper. She sat in the front row, taking notes and occasionally strode to capture the politicians as they spoke into a microphone that traveled between them. Later, I asked people in CGH about what they thought of The People’s Post. Published each Tuesday, copies of it showed up throughout the area: I saw it stacked in the Observatory train station, tucked into the guard rail of houses, and in the hands of CGH residents reading it, flipped open on a bed as we ate dinner together. Occasionally, one good story about land issues comes up, my neighbor told me, but usually, this is not a paper of “real” news. Though it does engage with issues and provide spaces for people in the local area to be recognized (there was a spotlight on a long time sports photographer and his rise to working for many years for the paper; a front page piece on a group of dancers traveling to the USA; a piece about a young playwright’s work).
When we walk back to the house, Tsukie is annoyed, tells me in a flurry of words about the continued lack of answers which grows into an explanation of her own story- a forced departure from a shop that burned by the Shoprite grocery store. She points out the place to me, two blocks away, when we begin the ascent up the Mountain; tells me she’ll also take me to the tiny room where she temporarily lived afterwards. “They did not address us,” she said. “What is next? What is the next step forward? This meeting was not about that. They continue to brush us off.”
We bump into the other attendees, who come carrying Tsukie’s keys which she accidentally left on the floor next to her chair. Quickly, the intensity of our conversation fades as the three women begin joking about the politicians, the talking heads of which one woman cuts hair.
“JP winked at me,” Ursula, a woman who loaned me an extra blanket and says she is WhatsApp buddies with a minister’s wife joked, laughing. At other meetings, she said in brief encounters with politicians they ask for her email address, as if to continue the conversations, to seem interested in, the issues that rise and fall in the community hall.
“I say, ‘oh sure, here’s my email.’ But you think I use email?!” She laughs. “I’ll email you so I can get your phone number. If I had their WhatsApp, we’d be chatting, I’d be messaging them all the time.”
March 21 is Human Right’s Day within South Africa- before 1994, it was known as Sharpeville Day, a commemoration of the massacre on the same day in 1960 that claimed the lives of 69 and wounded 120. Protesters had been demonstrating nonviolently against the Apartheid state and against the Dompas, an Apartheid era mandate that required Black men over the age of 16 to carry a passbook to allow them to enter into white areas, which included nearly all urban areas as well. Every year in the time leading up to the lifting of Apartheid, people marched in memory specifically of that day. After 1994, the government declared the date a public holiday and officially named it “Human Rights Day.”
“Now, that’s a thing you should ask people,” Bevil Lucas, a social historian and trade union activist who is currently occupying CGH, told me. He lives across the hall from my room number 17, and is a supporter of a number of movements, land and education focused, across the city- a passionate and deeply dedicated source overflowing with lived and spoken accounts of history. “What do people know about the history of Human Rights Day? Now that Sharpeville isn’t a part of the name any more, what do people remember? What do youth think?”
I hadn’t known anything about the connection of Human Rights Day to this particular massacre, but as the day continued, links were explicitly made and people did know about the guise slipped over this bloody state atrocity. A seventeen year-old boy from the township of Khayelitsha told me that Human Rights Day came out of the shootings in Sharpeville; Richard of Woodstock, born in the same year, 1960, remembers protesting on this day and throughout the 1970s and the 1980s- “when we were youngsters, and they would shoot us down, shot at us. Now we have to reclaim the city again, to say that we are sick and tired of the things that are going on, every day.”
“For 58 years, I’ve paid rent. And now, all of a sudden, they want to kick us out? It’s not right,” Richard said. “We must stand up and see what we can get from the government today, every day. We are citizens of this country. They must look up to us, not tear us down.”
Along the march, a couple of other moments stood out to me; one, as a beautiful and thoughtful expression of intention about journalistic work, and the other, an important note of the fatigue of activists, of the sometimes draining nature of interviews upon those who are asked to tell and retell their stories.
At the opening circle, the back and forth marching along the road before the march began from Keizergracht, I met two South African journalists who are doing a long term documentary about Reclaim the City. Mickey, a filmmaker; and Ruth, a long time journalist. I asked Ruth about how she became involved in doing stories related to land struggles, and she spoke about how it came, naturally, once she began university at the age of 17. Apartheid was never a question for her, as it has seemed to be for some of the older South Africans I’ve spoken with – “it was so in your face, so blatant, so extreme, that it was never a doubt or question for me to support as an activist”- and she was on staff at a left wing Afrikaans newspaper when it was bombed in the 1990s. She has always positioned herself as a white, privileged, Afrikaans person amidst her work, telling stories at what she describes as the “fault lines of inequality”- but then, this has always shaped how and which stories she tells.
And then, soon before the protest began and, after touching arms in a goodbye, we lost each other in the crowd, she said this really beautiful thing:
“If given the choice to tell stories of the stones I’m throwing versus the stones that other people are throwing, I would always choose the stones of others.”
Stories are stones, and throwing is power, the boiling over energy of speaking. We stood together on the island between the two sides of the road, watching the protesters behind the banner and the police cars sitting in front of them, blocking off their path until written off permission was given.
This is not my story, she said. But I have never felt silenced in telling it.
It is not our stones that need to be thrown and hit ground. But we can aid in the reach, skip them further. This is most important.
Time and time again, this theme has shown up in my explorings of journalism reported from different levels of privilege; beautiful examples of extended limbs, telling the untold, going further and deeper to find things that don’t easily reach the surface.
1 pm. Walk at the right moment, and the wind will topple you onto neighboring feet, to the side. Protesters are gathered, sitting on the ledge and in the square in front of the Civic Centre, waiting for answers after the memorandum was presented. It’s the famous wind, the one that blows air up from Antarctica with a few changes of carrier. Kids are beginning to get hungry, and volunteers walk around selling chips for 2 rand.
I find WiFi, a kind of magical free network that appears to belong to public space, and begin sending Voice Memos to Bush Radio, a community radio station, which mentioned that they might like to use some voice recordings for a program on the march. And then, on my left shoulder, I feel a head; Jennifer, who lives down the hall and helps me coordinate getting keys to the house, is smiling behind me. All Reclaim the City folks are wearing black bands, wrapped around their wrists or arms, in memory of a comrade who was recently stabbed to death by a security guard. When they passed through the crowd this morning, Jennifer wrapped hers around her head, just below her hairline. Almost four hours later, it’s still there.
As she looks over my shoulder, I tell her what I’m doing, speaking with people and sending off the interviews in case Bush Radio would like to use them. Since there’s not too much going on at that particular moment, the waiting for answers, ask if she might like to do an interview about the march and its place within the collective demands presented. She sighs kindly and shakes her head, leaning back on her left heel, sneaker sole up. I regret my question immediately.
“I’ve done so many interviews,” she said, looking at me in the eyes,”And I just don’t want to do any more, telling my story again and again and again.”
Jennifer was one of the first occupiers of the house; her story is one of those on the wall, told in several long paragraphs. In April, in June, she met with journalist after journalist, telling her story to the point of exhaustion. “When some one comes to you and asks for your help, you often want to do it.” But there comes a certain point where it becomes too much. “You will not be the last journalist,” she says, and there will continue to be more speaking, more sharing of painful experiences.
We continue to speak, but not as an interview; rather about the fatigues and ups and downs of the struggle, of the inner dynamics of CGH, of her former job as a chef, her relationship with her partner. At one point, she holds up a black rounded bag in her hand and takes out a pink camera.
“Ruth gave it to me, to give me a break from doing interviews and take my own photos,” Jennifer says. Now, I remember seeing her, walking out ahead of the crowd during the march, up on the high balcony above, looking alert and surveying the space before her, the camera hardly present. She starts to show me the photographs she’s taken, pointing out one she likes in particular of the start of the march, the browns of Table Mountain and blue of the sky picking up the tones in a school girl’s uniform. She really enjoys doing this, and narrates, commenting on them under her breath; the photos, too, are beautiful.
“She told me to take as many photos as I’d like,” she added. Soon, Jennifer explains, she’ll begin helping out more formally with documentation for the project Ruth and Mickey are putting together. I asked her what she will do.
“I will go to my friend’s houses, talk with them, take photos of them, write down what they say,” Jennifer says. For some reason, her word choice of “write down” rather than “record” sticks with me. She does not need to record because she knows, needs only the details of the intimate specifics, pencil marks for the purpose only of a production.
We continue to talk; she tells me about what she will do in the event of different possible hardships, how she can’t imagine what will unfold if certain grounds are shaken from under her. And yet, she does not worry about these things for now.
“I am still me, I am still Jennifer, no matter what happens,” she says, shrugging. “You have to keep going. We have to keep going. Life goes on.”
Later, too, sitting on the steps, Bevil tells me that he saw a lot of hope, energy, good possibility in the march.
“People told me that they found this march to have more energy than any others in a long time,” Bevil says, sitting with his back towards the wind. “I think this could bring good things.”
“We will see.” And then, one by one, the white vans came and carried the occupiers back to their hospital, born forth and occupied again with life.