Masiphumelele

The Nodars kindly introduced me to the Masiphumelele Library. Over the following weeks, I visited the library to work as a math tutor with Ikamva Youth’s participants, play chess, and help with a couple of websites. On my last Sunday in Cape Town, I visited Masiphumelele’s Anglican Church and was blown away by the Xhosa service and music.

Masiphumelele, also known as Site 5 in Fish Hoek, was originally an apartheid settlement for about 8,000 people. In recent years, it has expanded through informal housing to three times that population. A recurring problem is shack fires that sweep through the community, devouring the wooden shacks before fire crews arrive. I read about one of these fires the first time I heard of Masiphumelele in 2008, and they happen every year. The government’s response (to those whose shacks are formally registered) is to provide care packages, which include four wooden posts and five sheets of corrugated metal so that families can rebuild shacks according to the same fire-prone design. The most recent fire in Masiphumelele, at the beginning of May, killed one resident and left two thousand homeless. Seven of Masiphumelele’s Ikamva Youth participants lost everything they had.

Bus Stop House Shop

Houses for sale at a bus stop along Macassar Road in Khayelitsha

Houses for sale at a bus stop along Macassar Road in Khayelitsha

In my project application, I wrote that I hoped to observe the built environment surrounding bus stops. I didn’t imagine that I would pass bus stops where people were actually building the built environment. Indeed, on the UCT field trip I took, I saw a number of people at bus stops assembling shacks for sale. Other memorable parts of the trip included dodging skoro skoros (sedan taxis) and minibuses, seeing live chickens for sale (at prices slightly higher than imported frozen chicken from Brazil), passing the agricultural areas of Philippi (which, thanks to the industrialized food system, sometimes have to plow their produce under despite being adjacent to areas with high levels of food insecurity), noting that streetlamps were lit during the day (to deter potential metal thieves with the threat of electrocution), and learning about Cape Town’s strained water supply system.


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The wood and corrugated metal shacks for sale at the bus stops stick in my mind most clearly. People can buy a shack, cart it to an empty plot along a freeway right-of-way or in someone’s backyard, and move in that afternoon. With a severe housing deficit in the Western Cape, this relatively inexpensive, flexible housing expands to fill all available space in the Cape Flats. When a family receives government housing (almost exclusively single-family units on relatively large lots), they immediately seek to rent out the space in their yard. This practice helps explains why the population densities in places like Khayelitsha are some of the highest in the region. Khayelitsha struck me as a much more sensible name than some of the surrounding neighborhoods, which have apartheid-era names like Village 2 and Site C. I eventually learned that Khayelitsha, Xhosa for “New Home,” stems from the same history; when they were forced to relocate to the township, people referred to it as their new home.

Cape Town population densities (from the City of Cape Town)

Cape Town population densities (from the City of Cape Town)

The bus stop house shop initially struck me as being quite whimsical. Selling the shacks seemed like an interesting example of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The informal settlements comprised of these shacks are home to notable organizing (with Shack and Slum Dwellers International being one example). But slow delivery of basic services like roads, water, and electricity means that these matchbox dwellings are often deadly.

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Sights of Cape Town

Assorted pictures from the two months I spent living in Cape Town:

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Lion's Head

Sophia (a friend from Swarthmore who is now completing her graduate studies at UCT) invited me to join a group of her friends climbing Lion’s Head one afternoon. An hour-long ascent, which makes use of handholds and ladders in a couple of places, leads to the 2,200 foot summit. There are excellent panoramic views of Cape Town, the Atlantic Ocean, Table Mountain, and a string of peaks called The Twelve Apostles. Unlike many of the other climbers at the top, we did not stay for the full moon to rise (our hunger got the best of us).

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Gardens of Cape Town

Cape Town is home to a number of beautiful gardens. The Dutch East India Company’s Gardens are in the center of the central business district; closer to where I was staying in the suburbs are the Arderne Gardens and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. I enjoyed attending one of Kirstenbosch’s Sunday evening outdoor concerts, a Cape Town tradition.

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Karoo Road Trip

Pictures from my weekend road trip to the Karoo Desert, which lies to the north and east of Cape Town:

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The V&A Waterfront

Cape Town’s historic harbor, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, has been transformed over the last twenty-two years into a mixed-use development and one of the city’s largest tourist attractions. Visitors can tour the harbor by foot, bike, boat, or helicopter; board ferries to Robben Island; shop at an expansive mall; and ride the Wheel of Excellence (which, in my opinion, is not any more excellent than most other Ferris Wheels). This article has a great overview of the harbor’s history and the preservation efforts that have successfully kept it as a working harbor throughout its redevelopment. Despite its centrality in World Cup celebrations, it still remains relatively isolated from the rest of the city. Cape Town Partnership CEO Andrew Boraine has some suggestions on how to strengthen the Waterfront’s linkages to the rest of Cape Town.

I made one of my visits to the Waterfront on a Friday when the world’s largest ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2, was docking in Cape Town. It docked at the adjacent modern port, since it is far too large to access the Victoria and Alfred Basins. As is usually the case, the ship’s hordes of tourists had to make their way from the ship to the shopping on a fleet of tour buses.

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2010: The Pedestrian and Transit Legacy of the World Cup

After being announced as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup in 2004, South Africa embarked on a journey of transportation transformation. The looming tournament helped fast-track a number of infrastructure projects, and the nation largely met the challenges of moving hundreds of thousands of spectators: KwaZulu-Natal opened its new King Shaka International Airport a month before the first kickoff, Gauteng’s Gautrain (more soon) was able to transport fans from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton, and Jo’burg’s Rea Vaya helped clear Soccer City ahead of FIFA benchmark times.

In addition to these flagship projects, the World Cup (or simply 2010, as South Africans metonymically refer to the tournament) impelled some subtler changes in South Africa’s transportation landscape. A prime example is Cape Town’s Fan Walk, a corridor of pedestrian improvements between the city’s train station and Green Point Stadium. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, planners were completely overwhelmed by the massive turnout and positive response from both visitors and locals to this new walking infrastructure in the city; Capetonians have continued to use the fan walk for local soccer games, demonstrations, and (like me) the finish line festivities of the Cape Argus Cycle Tour.

The prodigious success of the Fan Walk demonstrates the power of walking as a “microprocess,” a term sociologist Saskia Sassen used recently in describing the potential of bike lanes (at a talk in Buenos Aires for the Our Cities Ourselves exhibit about transportation). As she said, to make global cities more sustainable “we don’t need the big flagship projects.” Indeed, the small infrastructure investment of the Fan Walk, hardly mentioned by city officials before the tournament, has served to catalyze and coordinate thousands of “pedestrian speech acts” (de Certeau) that collectively work to retake urban space from cars and reverse years of social division. The transportation legacy of 2010 is not just physical infrastructure, but, as Andrew Boraine writes, “attitudinal changes” as well.

It was only six years ago that architect Jan Gehl observed, “Pedestrians in Cape Town are a hunted race.” The World Cup helped with many improvements, but work remains to be done.

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