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Mother City: a tough, passionate film about the battle for affordable housing in Cape Town

A third of the way into Mother City there’s a scene that characterises this tough, passionate film about Cape Town and its paradoxes of beauty and hardship, wealth and poverty, and the way it excludes the working poor.

Two women talk in a room, while one has her hair braided in anticipation of a celebration. They are occupants in the former Helen Bowden Nurses Home, an abandoned building near the South African city’s elite Waterfront precinct. The right half of the frame looks through the open window over the sea, where a luxury yacht cruises past.

“How can they ever think we can live next to the Waterfront?” asks a character wryly, looking over a view shared by residents of the hugely expensive apartments a few hundred metres up the road.

The shot is deliberate, just one example of how the filmmakers manage to balance on-the-spot action with careful composition to draw attention to the everyday experiences of the city’s poor.

Journalists Miki Redelinghuys and Pearlie Joubert spent six years following the activist group Reclaim the City to produce their documentary. The result is a hard-hitting and heartbreaking film that illuminates unsparingly how inequality in South Africa persists 30 years after democracy.

Mother City is a tonic to the postcard-pretty TV series set in Cape Town that routinely grace streaming platforms, part of my research into Cape Town’s screen identities.

The backstory

The story follows the Reclaim the City campaign, supported by the advocacy group Ndifuna Ukwazi. Their fight is against the spatial segregation they experience in Cape Town which is, in their view, perpetuated by the city and the province’s leadership. Activist and community leader Nkosikhona Swartbooi is the fulcrum for much of the action and also narrates several scenes.

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Cape Town has always been a divided city. Its spatial development is the product of centuries of colonial, apartheid and, more recently, neoliberal disfigurement. Apartheid practices, in particular, legalised the eviction and relocation of Black and Coloured people from their homes in Cape Town’s world-famous city centre beneath Table Mountain to the dusty outskirts of the city.

As a result, property in town is exclusive and zealously guarded, locking out the poor who work in the city centre. Reclaim the City fights for equality and the spatial justice promised by the country’s democratic leaders.

The film opens with a disruption of an address by Helen Zille (then premier of the Western Cape province). The activists are protesting the sale of the old Tafelberg school site in Sea Point to private developers. They argue that there is an urgent need for housing for working-class people otherwise forced to travel long distances every day to get to work. “What is so difficult about accommodating us inside the city?” asks one woman during her eviction from a flat in Sea Point.

City and provincial officials from the ruling Democratic Alliance are the antagonists, accused of derailing the potential for low-cost housing and, worse, selling land cheaply to private developers.

And so the strategy of occupying vacant properties owned by the city and the provincial government begins while legal actions and, sometimes, confrontations with private security firms play out.

The narrative is, through the subject matter, open-ended. Reclaim the City’s struggles inside and outside the courts continue.

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The story

Central to the film’s tension is a statement by then mayoral committee member for urban settlements, Brett Herron: “What successive governments have done under this huge pressure of delivering high numbers of housing is to focus on numbers at the expense of location.”

Reclaim the City shows how vacant land in prime areas becomes parking lots for corporates. Buildings remain unused while provision for housing continues to occur on the city periphery.

The directors do well to keep the film’s momentum going while intertwining multiple narrative strands: occupations at different sites, legal challenges and protest actions against the authorities’ intransigence, the impact of COVID-19 on the campaign and particularly on homeless people. There are also several personal narratives, particularly Nkosikhona’s as he deals with family tragedy in the midst of his activist work during the pandemic.

A short episode also shows members of Reclaim the City in Barcelona, Spain as they support reformist mayor Ada Colau and meet activists from other parts of the world. Colau campaigned on the issue of the housing crisis and against evictions in the city. It would have been interesting to see how successful the strategies have been in Barcelona to combat gentrification and the housing of the city’s poor, but the narrative returns to Cape Town as the activists’ multi-pronged occupations gather steam.

Is it worth watching?

While the approach by the filmmakers is largely informative, there are smart uses of location, sound and editing, for example, a cut away from the action to the windblown Wolwerivier settlement that is the city’s preferred relocation site for evictees. Or, in another scene, a move from the interior of a vast, abandoned public building to a property development conference at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The film’s pulsing score lends some scenes (like the occupation of Woodstock Hospital) the mood of a thriller.

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The film covers a lot of ground and the impact of COVID-19 sends it off in a new direction as battles over land are fought on the Cape Flats, an area on the outskirts of the city housing mostly coloured and black people. The footage here evokes memories of violent forced removals under apartheid.

Though brutal and distressing in places, Mother City is not only a document about occupation and protest but also reveals the emergence of communities within these spaces that celebrate religious festivals, anniversaries, memorials and residents’ birthdays.

The film makes for sobering viewing. It asks urgently whether this beautiful and unique city can be warm and embracing, a mother, to all its residents.

Mother City can be seen in South Africa at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival on 20 and 22 June.

Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of Cape Town


Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of Cape Town