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Reclaim the City

Under the cover of darkness on the night of March 27, 2017, housing activists snuck past the guards of two government-owned buildings in central Cape Town - a derelict hospital and an abandoned nursing home - and took up residence inside. The activists, who belong to a social movement called Reclaim the City, were protesting against gentrification and what they saw as the government's failure to provide affordable housing in what remains, nearly three decades after the end of apartheid, a deeply divided city.

Nearly six years later, they're still there, and the occupations that started out as simple acts of political protest have grown into a large-scale community-building project, providing a home for more than 2,000 people in half a dozen disused public buildings.

Since the occupations started, visible traces of the buildings' former use have slowly faded as the residents have turned the once derelict spaces into vibrant and welcoming home environments, despite the lack of mains electricity or water in several of the buildings. Satellite dishes dot the facades; vibrant colour schemes and murals cover the walls; laundry hangs in disused elevator lobbies and boys play football in the empty parking lots outside.

The buildings now house several shops, a library, communal eating spaces and even a makeshift movie theatre where a resident cat spends its days curled up in a broken pleather armchair in the corner. The corridors and hallways are renamed after the city streets on which their occupants once lived.

During the apartheid era, the government forcibly evicted tens of thousands of black and mixed-race South Africans from their homes in central Cape Town, resettling them in distant housing projects in an area known as the Cape Flats, far from the jobs and economic opportunities of the city.

Three decades after the end of white minority rule, the government has built virtually no new affordable housing in central areas, and rampant gentrification is further entrenching the racial segregation already prevalent in the city. The waiting list for government-subsidised housing now comprises over two million individuals.

The government says the occupied buildings have been 'hijacked' and is in litigation to have the occupants removed. The residents say they won't leave without a fight, and that the government left them no choice but to forcibly reclaim these spaces in a city that is gradually squeezing them out.
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