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Bitter Almond Bushes

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In 1659, Jan van Riebeeck, founding father of settler South Africa, planted bitter almond and thorn bushes along the eastern face of Table Mountain, fencing colonists in and keeping the natives out.

Apartheid myth had this thorny perimeter as marking territory won in battle—the border of the old Dutch Colony. In fact the barrier expropriated fertile African ancestral grazing lands and tributaries. The slave-trading United East India Company (VOC) was the first—and largest—multinational in history.

Three hundred years later, the vivacious heart of Cape Town was torn out by apartheid planning and forced removals inspired by Van Riebeeck and ethnic nationalism.

This nightmare of colonialism and segregation continues.

Cape Town is blessed in the beauty pageant of luxury tourism. Hotels, swimming pools, golf courses, and gated playgrounds proliferate to pamper the wealthy. No bounty from the seductions of one of the world’s most vibrant, pluralistic cities is shared with the low-waged who make this wealth. Those who call Cape Town home are excluded from inner city and suburbs. No affordable homes have been built on state land in these areas since apartheid ended in 1994.

Domestic workers, gardeners, security guards, waiters, and shop assistants are squeezed into basements, storage, and “servant’s quarters.” Others endure dangerous, taxing daily commutes. Teachers and nurses cannot afford soaring rents.

Last year Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Minister Donald Grant racketeered state property in Sea Point to a private, mostly white school, violating their own laws, policies, and the Constitution. A small reclamation victory was won last week when the High Court ordered a halt to the sale of this Tafelberg site. The provincial government must now allow the people to challenge the sale in favor of affordable housing.

Here is an opportunity to reverse apartheid city planning and stop the eviction and expropriation of Capetonians from their own Mother City.

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Rachel Holmes is the author of three biographies, most recently Eleanor Marx: A Life, published in 2014. She is currently writing a book about Sylvia Pankhurst and is Visiting Literary Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.

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