Grootboom Dialogues put focus on urban land justice

The 7th Annual Irene Grootboom Memorial Dialogues were held last week. Organised by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and the African Centre for Cities (ACC), the four public lectures brought community leaders, civil society and academics in conversation around the issue of urban land justice.

Taking place at two interchanging venues, the Andile Msizi Centre, Khayelitsha, and the City Hall, inner-city Cape Town, the discussions explored the history of urban land dispossession, access to urban land in Cape Town in light of the impact of spatial apartheid on the majority of city residents, and the extent to which all people living in the city can have equal right to urban land.

The final evening, held at the City Hall, brought in five international urban scholars from different cities in the ‘global south’ to tell about stories and experiences of cities and land politics from Brazil, India, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.

First to take the stage after an introduction by Edgar Pieterse, director of the ACC, was Filip De Boeck, from the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, The Netherlands. Well known for his book “Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City,” De Boeck told the story of a peri-urban community coming into contact with ‘experts,’ in this case an academic researcher from the United States and a private company with mining interests in the area, and how the devastation left by their visit often remains long after they have come and gone.

The account resonated with the ways in which the rights of local communities in big cities too often get compromised by the impunity enjoyed by private/state interests, especially in the case of land occupation.

Teresa Caldeira, professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, gave a visually inspiring presentation of various informal settlements in São Paulo that have been designed and constructed through occupation by the residents of these neighbourhoods themselves. She referred to this process of city-making as “auto-construction,” that has led to the formation of peripheries that come to exist before intervention by the state. “The state comes after the fact,” and urbanises illegally occupied spaces with basic infrastructure.

This process of making the city has, according to Caldeira, empowered citizens as they become political agents, shaping city space and enabling themselves to inhabit the city. By occupying land and organising politically, these residents prove that their actions can even change the constitution.

Land occupations, or “overnight informal settlements,” as Ash Amin, professor of Geography at the University of Cambridge, refers to the phenomenon, have instigated much academic debate precisely due to the often impeccable organisation that takes place before they take place. Occupations are often as a result of collaborations between social movements, people who want housing, and university researchers who, together, design ‘models’ for how a neighbourhood should be constructed.

Amin enlightened the audience at the City Hall lecture on two land occupations in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and compared the success of each in creating community. Amin dispelled the notion of ‘infrastructure’ as being boring, suggesting through his observations that it is in fact the extent of community infrastructure present in a particular settlement that determines the extent to which the sustainability of a place can be secured. When communal infrastructure is built, “people feel that their futures are just as much about the future of the neighbourhood.”

With a presentation entitled, “What is a house?” AbdouMaliq Simone, a visiting professor at the ACC, offered a series of photographs of houses in his “weird” neighbourhood, Tebet, Jakarta. Highlighting the diversity of houses, Simone explained how this reflected the diversity of residents that live there. Comparing his neighbourhood to another comprising square, uniform apartment blocks, Simone expressed concern for how this type of inner city planning does not engender a sense of community.

For Simone, an availability of a range of everyday resources comes with a diversity of people within a particular neighbourhood. “Most of what I need I can find in my own neighbourhood,” Simone explained, and this is expressed through the material construction of people’s houses.

Last to draw the audience’s attention was Gautam Bhan, senior consultant at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Bhan told a story of land occupation in the city of Delhi, India that, unlike most of his colleagues at the presenters’ table, did not suggest a happy ending. The evictions and demolitions of informal settlements that have taken place in prime land in the city of Delhi over the past decade have affected the lives of thousands and caused mass devastation for the city’s residents.

Bhan described a community of people living in constant states of precariousness that “don’t know which way to turn, that don’t know what to sing in their songs” or what slogans to write on their banners. The sheer loss of hope Bhan expressed brought the conversation beyond occupation to a question of survival. What would it take for urban citizens to receive services “that take two years and not twenty? ” How can planning practice be used that help people buy time? The Delhi case was a reminder that, as much as these occupations inspire political participation, these neighbourhoods are not going to be left alone by the state.

To conclude, Pieterse raised the point that unequal access to urban land is not an accident, but a direct result of unequal power relations within our societies. ‘The planned city,’ if it exists, is exclusive, and it is clear that occupation of land is a necessary initiative on behalf of city citizens as a means of engaging the state. Though the question still remains as to whether formal planning should be something we aspire towards, the risks we take along the way in building the city for ourselves is something we need to address seriously.


Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.


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