To better understand the role of WUCT, the Westlake United Church Trust, you have to understand where Westlake Village came from.
According to a ‘Cultural-Hstorical Assesment’ drawn up by the University of Cape Town, Westlake was used as a ‘secret’ army barracks during the second world war.
Existing structures on the site consist of several hundred military style buildings and bungalows organised on a north-south grid. Many of these take the form of long barracks, individual quarters, while others consist of administrative structures and “hangars”.
After the war, the facility was re-tasked to house ‘non-white’ medical facilities – the A.J. Stals Sanatorium, and the DP Marais Hospital for tuberculosis (both services relocated in 1999) and the Westlake Mental Hospital (a satellite of Valkenberg Hospital in Rondebosch). Pollsmoor prison was officially established in 1964 (though, from 1948 prisoners had been temporarily housed there while they provided labour for local farms). A technical college was also established (now incorporated in False Bay College).
The Group Areas Act, passed in 1950, led to forced-removals from neighbouring areas. One consequence was that, over the years, the lack of housing led to squatting in Westlake. Finally, in 1995, two years after opening in Durban, the Ark City of Refuge for the homeless obtained permission from the Province and began operating in the area.
An ‘Inclusionary Housing Discussion Document’ (p. 31) drawn up for the government of the Western Cape described the population of Westlake around 1999.
At the time, the land was occupied by three groups; the first was a group (approximately 800 people) who was renting “dilapidated” formal housing that originally accommodated prison and hospital staff, a second group (approximately 1200 people living in 318 informal structures) comprised of people living in the informal settlement called “Die Bos” (the bush) and a third group who lived at “The Ark City of Refuge” which was a shelter for homeless people.
The Cultural-Historical Assessment corroborates this, and characterised the state of the buildings at the time.
Today many of the barrack type buildings are occupied by homeless people attached to the Ark Mission…The existing environment is characterised by streetscapes lined with red brick, pitched roof bungalows and barracks. Vegetation and trees are well established but unkempt. A small number of structures have lost their roofs and become abandoned… The general state of preservation of buildings is good. This is mainly because of the low maintenance design of the buildings which are characterised by unpainted red brick, steel framed windows, pitched corrugated roofs and in some instances, simple porches.
Westlake’s land lies on the central spine of the Cape Peninsula, on a highway (the M3) that places it within a 25-minute drive of central Cape Town, and connects it to the out-lying suburbs in the far south via an easily traversed mountain pass (the ‘Ou Kaapse Weg’). It is also scenic, nestling just below the imposing bulk of Steenberg Peak and its neighbour, the Noordhoek back plateaux, part of the Silvermine Reserve.
Hardly surprising that, as Cape Town grew, developers became interested (Discussion Document, p. 32)
In the late 1990’s the Department of Public Works struck a deal with a group of private property developers, Rabi/Cavcor Property Developers, whereby the developers were granted permission to develop the land on condition that they use a portion of their profits to cross-subsidize the provision of low-cost housing to those families who were occupying the land at the time.
This was in keeping with ‘inclusionary housing’, an international urban-development philosophy that held that around 20% of new residential development should be allocated to low-income families. In the South African context, this was adopted to counter the ‘after effects of Apartheid spatial planning’ – the de facto economic segregation that persisted, and maintained previous racial boundaries by its tendency to keep the poor confined within their legacy, apartheid ‘group areas’. (Discussion Document, p. 29). Even more idealistically, hopes of a ‘deracialized space’ were mooted for Westlake, in which rich and poor would both have a share in a common community (Discussion Document, p. 32).
On the surface, the allocation of land supported these objectives. The developers dedicated 20 out of 95 available hectares in Westlake to low-income housing. This became Westlake Village (the ‘Westlake’ in WUCT). At the same time, they built 180 luxury houses next door in Silvertree Estate. They also built ‘a private school called Reddam House [one of the most exclusive in Cape Town] a business park called Westlake Square, a light industrial business component, two separate office parks, a retail development called Steenberg Lifestyle Centre and the US Consulate’. (Discussion Document, p. 31-2).
So far, so good.
Except there was (and is) no communication between Westlake Village and the other zones of the development. Westlake Village was walled off. There was only one road in, and that was completely separate from access to Silvertree estate. Moreover, Silvertree was well-buffered by the school and business park – the sight-lines were arranged so that Westlake Village could not even be seen.
And, there was more that wasn’t right: Westlakers had to walk three kilometres, down their single access road and around the perimeter of the development to buy essentials at the nearest shopping centre – the so-called ‘Steenberg Village Centre’ – even though, geographically, it was only a hundred metres from the boundary of Westlake Village…
In a newspaper article entitled ‘Tokai Wall: the New Apartheid’, Enrico Abrahams, a resident spoke out. (Cape Argus. 7 Mar. 2005. WUCT Scrapbook.†)
“The people who designed our village should have known we needed to get to the shops. But they left us with no access to Steenberg Village, the only place nearby where we can buy electricity. Perhaps they did it on purpose. We were forced to break down part of the fence and up to now we were using a footpath along the stream, but that too is coming to an end.”
The Westlakers had grounds to feel unwanted.
All the same, the developers went on to win the international Fibiaci Rene Frank Habitat Award for Westlake Village, for the improvement of the ‘quality of life of people living in slums, squatter settlements and shanty towns around the world’. Laura Pyke-Jean, Marketing and Communications Manager of FIABCI put their point of veiw. (‘Westlake Estate Wins International Award’. July2004. WUCT Scrapbook.)
“Before the redevelopment, the community of Westlakes’s 95-hectare derelict site were living in corrugated iron and cardboard shacks with no roads, running water, or sewage facilities.”
Nonetheless, the Westlakers’ pride had been injured. They felt used, discarded. Excluded. For some of them their only compensation was that now, if they needed money, they could sell the houses that had been given them.
In her article, ‘Hybrid Gentrification in South Africa’ (2014) Charlotte Lemanski comments,
“…the re-sale of state-subsidised houses has been a [South African] national trend, but what has been significant in Westlake village is the high class/income profile of property purchasers, the majority of whom are local employers seeking accommodation for staff.”
This was reflected in an impassioned newspaper headline at the time, ‘Selling Their Homes for Alcohol’. (Beatty, Ursula. 22 Nov 2001. WUCT Scrapbook.) The article quoted Mathilda Fish (who, by the time the article was written, had been running a soup-kitchen in Westlake for seven years, and was affectionately known to the residents as ‘Tillie’) as saying,
“They do not know how to handle the money responsibly and they buy alcohol and drugs and squander their money instead of buying a new house. Then they land up on the streets and the plight of the children again becomes an issue.”
(Mathilda had been complaining that in spite of the provision of housing she had seen an increase in in homeless families on the streets.)
In the same article, Omnipless a company set to move into the newly built Westlake Business Park admitted,
“We will be buying houses in the surrounding community for [our workers]. As far as we know, the owners that we have approached in Westlake Village have title deed that have been passed to them.”
This, and the overtures of other buyers generated a furore in the community at the time. In their newspaper article, Daniel Ashbey and Di Caelers tried to introduce a more balanced perspective. (WUCT Scrapbook)
‘With isolated wealth on one side and a community in despair on the other it may be easy to stereotype the business community as ‘corporate villains’, but Di Forrester of the Westlake Upliftment Project [run by WUCT] urges people not to walk that road: “We are working with the people here to equip them with skills such as sewing, bead-work, and IT, to become more employable to the developers.”’
And indeed, as the years passed, things settled down – to an extent. Some Westlakers have, at times, found employment in the business park, and some businesses have become regular donors to WUCT and through them, the community.
In this post we have glimpsed Westlake’s story, told from the perspective of it’s land-use, from the 1950s up to the time shortly after Westlake Village was built. It’s a complex, and often confused picture. I’m sure you will have picked up on some of that complexity from the quotations – they echo the multitude of different, sometimes antagonistic voices that have contributed to the narrative, each with its own outlook on life, and on Westlake.
This is the environment that the WUCT volunteers entered into when they began their mission. In the next post we’ll take a look at who they were and what they did.
Hart, Tim & Neville Denis. ‘Phase 1 Cultural-Historical Assessment of the Proposed Westlake Development Area.’ ‘Sahris’. (1 May 1998, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Cape Town.) 6 Mar. 2020. <https://sahris.sahra.org.za>
Western Cape Provincial Spatial Development Framework. ‘Inclusionary Housing Discussion Document’. ‘Western Cape Government’. (Mar. 2009, Urban Environment Management Program.) 6 Mar. 2020. <https://www.westerncape.gov.za>
WUCT Scrapbook. This scrapbook contains a decade’s harvest of newspaper articles about Westlake and the Trust. It was compiled by the organisation’s trustees and is kept at the WUCT offices. Unfortunately the articles were often only partially attributed: dates, authors and the paper of publication were omitted.