It was laid-out as an Area for Coloureds and erected to house the middle income group, about 30 years ago! Parts of it quickly deteriorated into little more than ‘urban ghetto's’ - a description so often applied to these ready-made slums erected by former Apartheid rulers to separate Whites from other race Citizens.
Mitchells Plain lies about 20 kilometres from the City of Cape Town at the end of a brand new railway line, just west of Langa. Mitchell's Plain is one of fifteen areas identified as high priority for action against crime and drug abuse - renowned for its gangster-ism and tik addiction among its youth. Many families relocated here from District Six when it was razed to the ground, and although violent gangs are a way of life, Mitchells Plain in no way resembles the Informal Settlements that line the N2.
Today Mitchell’s Plain Houses almost a Million Residents from a diversity of class and backgrounds. It is Economically divided into East and West - the Western half of Westridge, Rocklands and Portland's is wealthier than the Eastern half of Tafelsig, Beacon Valley and Eastridge.
AN INSERT FROM AN SETTLER IN THE CAPE, Chris Scott
"I arrived in Capetown in 1972 after hitch hiking from the copper belt [another story] then my money ran out and I got a job with the council’s Housing Building Unit as a technician/surveyor. All the staff on this unit were daily paid [R 16 in my case]and on 24 hrs notice. So well paid by the standards of the day but no pension etc like permanent staff. The HBU were responsible for building all council housing and infrastructure at the time. There had been for several years a policy of numbering all shacks in the municipal area and registering them for council housing or moving them to safer shack accommodation were shacks were only allowed to be 20 ft by 20 feet on a 40 ft x 40 ft plot [to avoid fire spread] 1 tap per 8 plots and latrines in blocks for 8 plots. Rent R 2 a month. Vrygrond next to Lavender hill was one such area.
I started work setting out the houses and flats at Lavender Hill.The area had been compulsory purchased from 22? Land owners all coloured. Don’t forget black residents in Capetown were then officially limited to 30000 and lived in Nyanga Langa or Gugulethu.
The housing was and still is a mix of detached houses, maisonettes [semi-detached] 1 flat down 1 up and 3 storey blocks of 18 flats. These blocks could be built in 6 weeks using a mix of prefabricated outside stairs and onsite casting of floors on the foundation slab then lift them to one side build up the walls using brick on edge lift the first floor on 2nd lot of walls, lift on the next floor 3rd lot of walls and roof on. Result-- housing for 18 families in 6 weeks that are still lived in today.
However all was not straight forward. One land owner refused to leave until alternative accommodation was found for not only his family but his donkey. This resulted in the land around his property being brought to construction level about 2 m higher than his house. He refused entry to all council employees. As 3 triple storey block could not be built until he left I was sent to survey an alternative position. Careful to not trespass I pulled the steel tape across the corner of his plot whereupon he rushed out with an ax, cut the tape and shouted “No council tapes either”. Eventually I think he was rehoused in Manenburg. Another owner managed to get his full sale price after waiting until the houses on his plot to be completed and then informing the council that as they had not finalized the sale of the land with him he could now legally sell the newly completed houses [still the law here I think]. All housing construction came to a halt as the council lawyers checked which land transactions had been completed and which hadn’t. At this time work on the roads continued with one well built and occupied original farm house right in the way. The owner asked me if I could save their home as the sale hadn’t gone through. I asked if he knew of the case above and as he did I advised him to contact the council as they could not be evicted if the land wasn’t transferred. Few weeks later I arrived on site to see the roof being torn off the house, the family in tears carrying furniture out and the dozen standing by. The owner rushed up and asked me to stop the demolition and I asked if he had contacted the council as I’d advised – he admitted that he hadn’t. As a lowly technician I would have had no authority to stop the workmen anyway but I will never forget that scene. Since I returned in 1994 I have tried to find out if any of the original owners of the Lavender Hill land ever lodged a claim for proper compensation but I believe none have.
Shortly after that the main infrastructure for Michells plain was started. This development 15 km by 6 km on the False Bay coast was an area of sand dunes up to 18 m high covered in cape fynbos and wildlife from herds of Cape Grysbok to poisonous button spiders with various snakes bids and rodents in between. It was so wild and extensive that when a gentleman talked his way passed security at the end of the partially completed Morganster Av [the first major road into the site off Welterveden Rd -- see its extent in the M’Plain 1975 pic the limit is the intersection with the now railway] to go to a farm sale one week end . It took a week to find his car and another 10 days to find his body. He’d died of thirst.
It had been in the design stages for 5 years and was to be the same as the existing townships of Manenburg, Lavender Hill etc. However after 18 months construction of the major roads, storm water and sewerage. The government stated they would give extra funding if it was all home ownership.
In order to fast track this huge task HBU was split into 2. Housing remained under Mr Reich and road and drainage was under Stanislav Bronofski [a real gentleman who had been orphaned as a child while walking from the trans Siberian railway to Theran with his mother and 2 sisters. Stalin simply stopped the deportation of Poles to Siberia when Hitler attacked and said “you are free go!”] By 1976 when I left, Road s and Drainage employed 1800 under Mr D. Riley and HBU 3500. All paid cash every Friday on site. There was never a robbery.
The Government put immense pressure on, to get results. I recall a site meeting at which Mr Reich was asked by the City engineer why he was not building houses when 6 foremen with attendant artisans and labourers were standing on site. The City Architect, Heads of design departments, construction heads and land survey were all there. He turned to me and asked why I was not setting out the houses. I replied that to do that I required registered land survey markers to work from for position, I needed finished road levels to fix the house floor levels. And even if those were available I would need the house designs mark the corners and shape of the floor slab. None of which were available. Desperate discussions then took place and a minimum of 6 weeks was quoted as the time to get the info to me. The City Engineer then said” so you can start next week” after a stunned silence someone said that’s just what we’ve been talking about for the last hour. The CE then said “oh well I’m sure you’ll all do your best and left.
This policy decision must have been prompted by the declaration of middle class areas such as Lansdowne, Ottery, Wetton and many others across the City and Bellville as Whites only areas. The need for non rental property was also driven by relatively well paid numbers of artisans etc living with their parents In rented council property. Any way this led to scrapping 5 years of design work because each home for sale would need its individual sewage water and electricity connection from the street whereas townships could have services across common areas of council owned land from block to block.
The first area for the new layout and design was Westridge [area a] which was originally intended as a sports field. Homes in the area were sold to start with at R 2750 which quickly rose to R 3750 and to R 4250 by the end of 1976 when I left for the UK.
The whole idea was that those who could afford their own homes would move to Michel's Plain expected population 250000 in 5 years this would free up existing rental units for those living in shacks. They would move to formal housing and the shacks would be gone. The only problem was that someone calculated that with the then population growth housing for an extra 250000 would be needed in 5 years anyway!
The construction was chaotic. Nothing of this size had been attempted before and many manufacturers were not geared up to supply in such quantities. Waiting foreman on site would hijack each other bricks and cement to keep their own men working. One foreman when proudly presented with architects drawings said “Are these for those houses over there?” He not waited and built from the original sketches. [see attached Malay house pics B/W as built, colour taken on a visit in the 1980’s] Another quantity surveyor was nearly reduced to tears when his long list of quants taken of plans – work of over a week; simply had a line drawn though them as he was told “They are already built!”
Site offices were repurposed double-decker City Transport busses. [see in distance in 1975 pic] We uncovered the routes and fare stages for the different population groups in the display panels. Those classed as black could travel furthest, Coloreds a little shorter and whites the shortest of all for the same fare. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a bus conductor then!. Under the Capetown info was the original London routes as they were all 2nd hand London buses.
Weather was sometimes a problem I recall one Friday when work was stopped for a bad South Easter. Men were sheltering in manholes and pipes. That weekend a recently cleared and leveled area had 200000 tons of sand blown away as far as Langa, lowering the land surface by 300 mm over a 500 m x 600 m area and necessitating redesign of road and service levels for this whole area. As a result of this problem over 50 ladies were employed specifically to break up, spread and plant the straw bales imported by the train load from the Free State in an attempt to stabilize the cleared and leveled ground before building began. As you can imagine the number of women employees on an all male construction site came with its own problems.
The first houses finished were the face brick two storey terraces of 4 which now face the fire station. They were utilized as site offices and the buses were phased out. They were not popular with the prospective clients as they claimed they were too small [5 m wide 8 m long = 80 sq m on 2 floors] but also that whites “didn’t live in 2 stored houses”. [see offices pic] When I told them my brother in the UK had just moved into an identical home I was accused of lying. Just as I was in the UK when telling people there of the massive investment by the then government in housing for its working classes both at Mitchells Plain and at Atlantis.
Work continued through the unrest following the Soweto Uprising though there were a number of absentees in the work force and persistent reports that workers were being intimidated to stop them going to work. One Monday morning one of my chain men [he was known as” Bullet” his professional boxers name] arrived at work with a gash to his scalp covered in folded newspaper and his cap. He told us that he’d been hit with a panga to try and stop him coming to work. I took him through to hospital in Pinelands passing people who’d been shot by police the night before and he was stitched up. A couple of days later he never came to work and though normally after 2 weeks of non attendance labourers were paid off; the wages clerk was persuaded under the circumstances to delay for some 6 weeks. Eventually I asked his colleagues if they knew what had happened to him. They were amused but reluctant to say. Then one admitted that he hadn’t been cut with a panga, but had cut his head climbing out the back window of a looted liquor store with a crate of beer. Unfortunately for him he’d got so drunk that he took the empties back to the same store where he was recognized and arrested! He was in jail.
The sports field next to Westridge was covered in R 30000 worth of roll on grass and the first football match was in late 1976 between teams representing the first residents and the construction staff. So the very first match was multi racial! [see football photo half time distribution of oranges] on the left site engineer[No 10] next myself both from the UK, various nationalities seated Mr Solomans our senior site foreman seated at back from the Bokaap. Lady at left wage clerk /my future wife, lady at right Delia site clerk, boy at right my future adopted son who couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go on the beach at Muizenburg on the way home. [Whites only]
About mid 1976, Strandfontein was started also by the City Council. Woodlands was developed by the Cape Provincial Council but I don’t know if it started slightly later or concurrently. I think it was late 1976 that prime minster Vorster came to officially open the development but it may have been earlier. I left on 31st Dec 1976 to get married in the UK only returning permanently in April 1994."
a letter from a Reader: Chris Scott