Reclaiming ‘public’ space for three years

House leader Tsukie Bhalindela with Nazeem and Nadeema Rakiep.

Reclaim the City (RTC) celebrated its third anniversary with a walk about of the old Woodstock Hospital dubbed the Cissie Gool House, which is now home to 700 residents.

They also celebrated a court order affirming that the 700 residents of Cissie Gool House are guaranteed a roof over their heads.

The Tatler reported on this earlier this month, where RTC lawyer Jonty Cogger said those on the list would have access to the premises and would not be faced with random evictions by law enforcement.

He said the City could still go the legal route for evictions, but for now it gave them some certainty (“Small victory for hospital occupiers,” Tatler, Thursday February 7).

During the celebrations, on Thursday February 1, the public was taken on a walking tour of the hospital, meeting the families that now occupy the space.

RTC also presented its “We are not criminals” photo exhibition, portraying the people behind the occupation.

In a statement, RTC said residents at Cissie Gool House had struggled to find affordable housing, some had been evicted from their previous homes, while others could no longer afford the rent.

“Right now, Cissie Gool House is the only place where poor and working-class people can find alternative accommodation. Since Reclaim the City was founded, we’ve faced hostility from those who think we are radical for asking for housing on well-located public land.

“The movement has successfully reclaimed three public buildings on prime land in our efforts to resist displacement and build solidarity.

“In this spirit, our movement has grown immensely since then,” the statement read.

One of the house leaders, Tsukie Bhalindela, told how she had been renting a place in Woodstock but had been evicted as she could not afford the rent of R3 500 on the R3 170 she earned through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).

She approached RTC and moved in at Cissie Gool House in August 2017.

Ms Bhalindela said they wanted to change the perception some had that they were criminals living at the old hospital.

“We are human beings who were in need of housing. There are people here who have been on the City’s housing waiting list for over 20 years, but you find 30-year-olds who have RDP houses,” she said.

She said there was too much development taking place in Woodstock and they found that landlords were doubling the rent forcing residents out of their homes, as they could not afford the rent hikes.

As a house leader, Ms Bhalindela said she ensured that everyone followed the rules, which included a strict curfew – 10pm in the week and 1am on weekends.

She said they also had floor monitors, who checked that all residents were in at 10pm, and a safety and security team, who monitored the premises at night to keep criminals out.

Floor monitor Nazeem Rakiep was born and raised in Salt River. He said he had been on the City’s waiting list for about 30 years.

Before living at the Cissie Gool House, Mr Rakiep and his wife, Nadeema, stayed wherever they could.

Mr Rakiep said they had recently also lived apart, as there was not space for both of them, but they were reunited when they moved in, in October last year.

“My wife told me about RTC and said we should attend their meetings. They have helped me to find a ‘home’,” he said.

Edwina Kriel and her family moved into Cissie Gool House in August last year after her landlord had sold the place they were renting.

At the time, she had nowhere else to go and approached RTC.

She lives at the hospital with her three children.

She thanked RTC for giving her and her family a place to stay, while they figured out their next step.

“I have learnt a lot from RTC on our rights as tenants and on housing issues. We are trying to get back on our feet now,” she said.

The Cissie Gool House, is also home to the Albert Road and Bromwell Street evictees.

Ms Bhalindela said they had each been given their own section of the building.

She said many of the evictees had been given places in Wolwerivier but they had not seen that as a viable option.

“Most of these people have spent their entire life in Woodstock. To move them 60km away to a place where there is no facilities does not make sense,” she said.

RTC has “reclaimed” three sites in the past three years: the Cissie Gool House, Ahmed Kathrada House in Green Point, and the Irene Grootboom House in Darling Street.

The Cissie Gool House is named after the anti-apartheid and civil rights activist who was the only woman to serve on the City council at a time when she did not have the right to vote.

Ahmed Kathrada House is named after the anti-apartheid stalwart who served jail time while fighting against the apartheid regime, while Irene Grootboom was a housing activist who won a landmark judgment in the Constitutional Court affirming the state’s obligation to provide housing in an emergency, yet she died living in a shack.