A Hipster Paradise: Gentrification in South Africa

A hipster paradise, a tourist’s dream, #12 of ‘Things to do in Cape Town’ on TripAdvisor. And so with these accolades, every sunny Saturday at The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, the tall, thick and rusty red gates open and welcome visitors to “a vibrant, warm-hearted little village … where talented people come together to share, collaborate and show off their heart-felt passion.” They ask you to “come and explore the Mill and meet some of South Africa’s most talented, innovative designers, artists, photographers, and connoisseurs of fine taste and décor.”


Awesome! Sounds great! Let’s go.


Awaiting those who look the part, with padded pockets and a western smile, is a hipster playground overflowing with things they like and consume at home but here; green juices, cOld-buscuit-millhopping board burgers, skinny fries and wooden things, coffee art, farmhouse cheese, vegan stuff and beard creams, beard combs, organic greens, poached eggs, broken cameras, and ‘no added’ creams. Wafts of single origin coffee float through the air on privileged ignorance and the rich smells of euros, dollars and pounds abound within the high brick walls.


The ‘Neighbourgoods Market’ selling white products to white people dignifies itself by nurturing the fashionable imaginary of ‘the local’; priding themselves on locally sourced this and home-grown that when in fact, the lLindie-Meyer_Neigbourgoods-Market_0022ocal and its people are consistently and violently excluded from Old Biscuit’s imperial dream. Across the road, street kids dance to the relentless beat of poverty that drums and hums a neo colonial tune, and impoverished ‘car guards’ spend the afternoon with eyes glued to Jeeps and other over sized cars earning their keep.


Pressurize, Fetishize, Militarize and Colonize; sinister imagery that infiltrates storefronts, restaurant windows and markets. Complete with top hats and tail coats, corsets and petticoats, ode after ode to the colonial past, in order to seduce only the desired citizens and refined urban participants. There is no flashing sign on the wall or a written law that says you can’t cannot enter, but please leave image3now because face it, you don’t fit in. Amongst the many eateries in Woodstock there is a restaurant-cum-gallery called Bread, and at the entrance stands an African doorman who greets passers by with ready-made slogans and a jammy smile. He wears a black waistcoat, white shirt, shiny black shoes and holds an umbrella – ‘ere ‘ere looks like a colonial fella. This imagery and undertone furthers the imperial vision of who should use the space through the manufacturing of traditional roles.


Every sunny Saturday, armies of expensive cars drive by and through the old and fading Woodstock, a neighbourhood once known for its racial integration amidst the segregation of apartheid. Now, much of Woodstock is characterised by the absence of money and the presence of fear. Many locals exist in run-down buildings and backyards off of the main road, just about surviving. The white old_biscuit_mill_IMG_1466wish to rid a place of ugly poverty is being granted by the government and the whiteness of legality in the name of ‘urban re-development’. Countless local families who have resided in Woodstock for decades are being evicted by their landlords who are selling the land to the commander generals of gentrification, whilst many more are incessantly pestered by alluring estate agents with the latest bids, offers and deals to shoo them like riff raff out of their own front doors; a once tightly knit community falling victim to the growing pressures of a creeping apartheid.


The atrocities that occurred at District Six are well documented and the plight of the 60,000 residents that were forcibly removed in the ‘70s is one of apartheid’s most harrowing truths, effects of which can still be felt today. An act of political poison that forced families to the fringes of society, unwanted and abandoned; a sense of history, a sense of place, white washed, forced to fit life in a suitcase. It’s happening again in Woodstock but in a more insidious, corrosive and contagious form of apartheid, a venomous violence that kills to ensure a slow and steady death. And where shall they go once the deal is sealed with house prices that sky rocket and locals who can’t afford a deposit. Well, have no fear, Zuma is here and he’s in a hurry to house his people.


blikkieBlikkiesdorp (which in Afrikaans means ‘Tin Can Town’) is a relocation camp 30km away from town and has been called a dumping ground for the unwanted; Somalian refugees that survived the xenophobic attacks in 2008, street kids cleansed from Cape Town before the World Cup, hundreds of homeless people, and a place in which many former Woodstock residents now find themselves. 32 million rand (£ 1.5 million) from the tax payer built 1,600 tin roofed, one room structures. Drugs, rape, murder and disease hang over the inhabitants of ‘Blikkies’ and unemployment, poverty and boredom now seem like simple facts of life. The promise of the temporary but the reality of the indefinite plagues the lives of these normal people who just do not fit the narrow and colonial vision of society. Gentrification provokes ghettoization and the cost of a jam jar cocktail is not just a lighter wallet; there are those who pay with their lives and the lives of their children.


The delis, the bakeries, the boutiques and the coffee shops exhibit an abundance of wealth and disposable cash, whilst families who live and breathe the daily grind exist in the background, as a backdrop to the theatrical fantasy of South African white privilege. A biscuit mill - a modern obsession with our industrial past that caters to the cream of the crop whilst locals drip drip drop from the gutters of gentrification. How can another coffee shop or another sparsely filled design boutique be justified when poverty is plentiful just outside their doors?  And how can these customers who desire an ethical and sustainable life drive past such tireless deprivation each and every sunny Saturday?


Whispers of exclusion further the marginalisation of the already historically marginalised members of a society that claims solidarity across racial lines. Nevertheless, the government’s got the paint and the private sector’s got the brush and together they are repainting the lines that were supposedly washed away by Mandela in 1994. Apartheid was a system of segregation enforced through legislation, whilst gentrification is an arrangement conducted by neoliberalism; both are systemic forms of oppression that have disproportionately abused and bruised those at the bottom of the hierarchy.


It’s now 2016, it’s post-apartheid but the commandeering of urban space is spreading the historical legacy of imperial control. So to the bearded hipsters with consumer power and to the policy makers with political power, this is a request for the rejection of ignorance and a demand for the creation of consciousness.




Botha, N. Woodstock: A work in progress?


Woodstock is still our home - trendy or not


A Dumping Ground for Unwanted People


Flemming. A: 2011: Making a Place for the Rich? Poor Evictions and Gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa: London School of Economics: UK

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