Observatory improving? Maybe, but for who and at what cost?


Observatory, Cape Town.

Using Observatory Cape Town as an example, I wrote a piece about was how our city spaces are anti-poor, owing to collusion between the state and elites. Observatory Improvement District Vice Chairperson, Katharine McKenzie responded, underpinning my initial argument with the assertion that the formation of the improvement districts as a “democratic process”, which is undertaken by the consensus of a majority of property owners.

Across the globe most improvement districts in cities have privileged property owners, owing to the assumed ‘logic’ that tenants have no real long-term interest in the development of a particular area among other reasons. But in a context of mass dispossession, in which both colonial and apartheid era urban planning policies were aimed at keeping poor, Black people out of the city, to have property owners at the centre of decision making about how city spaces are planned, used and designed is to both reproduce and produce old and new forms of dispossession.

Some people are not property owners, not by choice, but due to the historic and current inequalities of South Africa.  So arguing that the formation of an improvement district is democratic because a “majority of property owners” decided so, is as absurd as saying apartheid was democratic because it was voted for by a majority of whites.

In the OBSID’s response, they claim that to be have “borrowed” the improvement district model from international communities and that it represents a “sensible approach” to urban management. What they fail to “borrow” is a lot of lessons about how such a model has in many cities created forms of exclusionary development and how this has disproportionately affected Black people, immigrants, poor people and generally ‘othered’ groups in the different societies.

A lot of literature has shown how improvement districts in cities have often displaced poorer tenants in these areas. This can happen due to pushing up property prices, which in turn causes higher rentals, leading to the displacement of poorer tenants in the area. San Francisco is an extreme example of this, but others include New York, Manila, Kansas City, Philadelphia and London, among many others.

As early as 1991, the model has been deeply critiqued by urbanists across the globe. In a book titled “Secession of the Successful, exacerbating the pre-existing inequalities between urban neighborhoods”, Robert Reich explores how improvement districts can generate or exacerbate this ‘secession’ from municipal norms.

To paraphrase from Reich, improvement districts enable a more privileged sect of society (property owners in the OBSID case) to privately access better services rather than improve public services. He also notes that where improvement district services do not supplement, but rather supplant public services it enables local governments to reduce what may already be subpar services. I do not have a baseline for the city’s services in Observatory prior to the formation of the OBSID, so cannot use data to neither prove nor disprove that this has happened.

While McKenzie’s response suggests that OBSID supplements rather supplants, one can’t help but note how it has created conditions in which the city has shirked its responsibilities to the vulnerable in its streets.

We see this in how the City of Cape Town callously responded to my query about the treatment of the homeless by OBSID securities and in how they have responded to residents opposed to the treatment of the homeless in the area. Instead of taking responsibility, the city is able to shift accountability to private service providers contracted by improvement districts.


Observatory Kwik Spar, Cape Town. Photo: Flickr

During the 2013 dialogue on homelessness, which included various improvement district officials, private security firms and the private security regulator, the SAHRC noted that it has received numerous charges particularly from old and homeless people, but due to a lack of reliable and permanent contact information many of these investigations are hampered. The minutes from this meeting and a charge laid with the SAHRC show that some of the claims made against OBSID in this meeting include:

  • How at some stage residents in Observatory were encouraged to make citizens arrests, but without guidance and
  • In Observatory more money is directed to private security rather than social services.

These allegations are somewhat affirmed by an OBSID newsletter, which read:

“Help us try new strategy against harassment

SOME residents and businesses in Observatory have lately suffered harassment from very ill street-dwelling drug addicts who resort to aggressive begging, intimidation and serious disturbance of the peace. Through our efforts to deal with the problem, we have found out that, under normal circumstances, it is very difficult for the Police to act effectively against such behaviour. But there is one possible way in which community members can help the Police to deal with the problem – by applying for an interdict from the magistrate’s court at 90 Plein Street against such perpetrators. Such an interdict would typically bar the perpetrator from coming within a certain distance from a house or business. Ignoring the interdict would be contempt of court, and would give the Police a clear mandate to act. We do not know yet if this strategy will work, but we need members of the community to step forward to help us find out”.

According to McKenzie, I imply that improvement districts are a “draconian regimen”. I would respond to that saying to encourage people to charge alleged ‘drug abusers’ with harassment is draconian. It’s a cynical use of the law to rid the streets of ‘undesirable elements’ in a way that is too open-ended to not be abused. Who decides who is a drug abuser? Does drug abuse automatically mean you are a criminal? What about the rights of those charges are laid against? Why does the safety of the property owners matter more than the safety of those on the street, who can also be victims of crimes themselves?

In one incident, a homeless man arrested on very spurious charges. The prosecutor threw out the case, but by that time he had spent 2 or 3 days in prison. He was terrified. At the time he had five more years to wait to get his pension and he didn’t think he could survive prison. And this is also evident in how private security guards treat people in the area.

The issue of improvement districts is an issue of spatial justice. Critical urbanist Edward Soja, defines this as “an intentional and focused emphasis on the spatial or geographical aspects of justice and injustice. As a starting point, this involves the fair and equitable distribution in space of socially valued resources and the opportunities to use them”. OBSID, like other such districts which are really urban enclaves for the privileged, are the antithesis of this.

In a society as unequal as ours, what they are creating is cities within cities, where the same area is experienced differently depending on where one lies on the class spectrum, which can’t be separated from race in South Africa. They also deepen inequality within the confines of the city in which they operate, because of the divisions they cause both within the specific area and more broadly the different neighbourhoods in a city.

– Photo credit: Blogs From Betty’s Bay

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About Koketso Moeti

Mother. Campaigner. Political orphan. Blogger. Activator. Part time professional black. Liker of things. Lover of people. No sense of humour.