Situated beside Kensington, Windermere was a settlement situated on the N1 highway in Cape Town near the Ysterplaat airbase. The Group Areas Act of 1950 declared that the space be occupied by Coloured residents and all other residents, the majority of whom were Black, were forcibly removed and relocated to townships such as Nyanga, Gugulethu and Langa.
The area initially consisting of subdivided farmlands, early Windermere residents were made up of owners and renters, as well squatters who largely migrated to Cape Town from rural areas such as the Transkei and Ciskei in search of work. Though earlier residents were predominantly Coloured, Windermere grew to become an ethnically diverse area and its population increased from approximately 2 000 residents in 1923 to between 20 000 and 35 000 in the 1940s. Researchers have indicated that, until the 1950s, few Black South Africans living in the Cape Town region had a purely urban or rural identity, negating the notion that the majority of Black residents were exclusively migrants who were less entitled to lay claim upon the land which they called home. Policies instituted by the apartheid government, such as the Coloured Labour Preference Policy further drove Black residents out of the region and disrupted communities such as Windermere.
The area was officially named Windermere after Lake Windermere in England in 1928, and was made up of the areas previously known as Kensington Estate (located between 2nd and 6th Avenues) and Kensington Estate Reserve (located between 6th and 13th Avenues).
Culture & lifestyle
Poverty was prevalent in the settlement which consisted of both brick homes and dwellings constructed from wood and corrugated iron, and because of its semi-rural setting, informal farming of small numbers of animals was common.
Gangs also operated on the suburb’s streets, with names such as the Peanut Boys and Black Diamonds. They traded in dagga and alcohol and each had control over a territory, usually consisting of one street.
Music was a large part of Windermere life, and the area was well-known in the 1940s for its dance-halls, frequently hosted in people’s houses where jazz was popular, and artists such as Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) honed their skills before achieving fame later.
Location and infrastructure
Windermere’s attraction lay in its proximity to workplaces (particularly industrial employment on Voortrekker road where many factories were located) in the city and its location just outside of Cape Town’s municipal boundary which offered a municipal tax loophole. However, this meant that it also suffered from poor infrastructure and municipal services. Residents commonly used the ‘bucket system’ of sanitation, and running water was scarce. Some residents were able to dig boreholes for water, and this way other residents were able to access clean water at a small fee.
The area was prone to flooding, and many residents recall the vast bodies of water which appeared with the winter rains and which entered their homes. Oral history accounts tell of this flooding as one of the many obstacles which the Windermere residents overcame in order to prosper – some even share humorous anecdotes about this phenomenon.
Nommer Drie (Number Three) and Mtsheko (a name derived from the word shack) were the areas of Windermere wherein the largest concentrations of informal or shack dwellings were located. They were located between 8th and 18th avenues, and residents constructed innovatively from any materials they had access to. Fire, sadly, was a great threat, and frequently plagued the residents of Windermere’s squatter settlements.
There were three notable sections of housing in Windermere. The wealthy residents lived in what was known as the Avenues: brick and mortar houses that were most frequently rented from Indian and Jewish landlords. The poorest residents lived in the Mtsheko regions, while those in between lived in ‘Timberyards’. ‘Timberyards’ or ‘Strongyards’ were a unique feature of Windermere housing, and consisted of open areas or courtyards surrounded by homes which served as communal areas and serviced by only one or two entrances, offering security and a unique social environment for those who lived there. Shebeens were a frequent feature of these Strongyards, and there are claims that some of these yards were made up of more than one hundred homes. An estimate puts the number of shebeens in Windermere at between 700 and 900 in the 1940s.
Apartheid and forced removals of Black people
Black South Africans experienced much insecurity in the Western Cape prior to the 1940s. With the majority relocating to the Cape from rural areas such as the Transkei and Ciskei from the 1930s onward, their lives were marred by prejudiced policy and practices even before forced removals sought to exclude them from the city altogether. Living not only in official ‘locations’ (Langa, Nyanga), Black residents also lived in peri-urban suburbs such as Windermere and urban suburbs throughout Cape Town where they owned or rented property and lived among the majority Coloured and White residents. Their position was precarious as the ‘outsiders’ whom the oppressive government vehemently despised and sought to exclude. When the Nationalists came to power in 1948, they furthered the existing prejudiced practices by tightening controls over townships and the movement of Black residents. They implemented legislation such as the Group Areas Act and enforcing forced removals throughout the country. Forced removals fell under the responsibility of the local authority, namely the Cape Divisional Council (Divco) and the Cape Town City Council (CTCC).
Official statistics puts the Black population of the Western Cape at 14868 in 1936 and 37005 in 1946. Estimates for the area are much higher, with approximately 80 000 Black South Africans estimated to live in the Cape Town region in 1945. In 1955 it was estimated that 309 000 Black people lived in the Cape, a growing population which the Nationalist government wished to eliminate. Apart from forcible removals, Black people’s rights were violated through employment limitations such as the reduction of the time allowed wherein people could seek work (from two weeks to three days), and the issuing of ‘dompasses’ which were referred to as ‘references books’. These reference books and work permits determined who would be allowed to stay in the region or not when officials first began pushing people out. Some were relocated out of the Cape entirely (deportation), while others were moved to official locations such as Langa.
Divco and CTCC enacted their evictions under the following apartheid laws: the Native (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act (1945), and the Prohibition of Illegal Squatting Act 52 (1951). Under this legislation, emergency camps were established into which ‘illegal’ Black squatters were removed while their homes, referred to as ‘shanties’ were demolished. From there people were moved to official locations, the main one of which was Langa (run by the CTCC) by the end of the Second World War.
Windermere was determined by the apartheid government to be the future site of a ‘model Coloured township’, and forced removals from Windermere began in 1953, removing all Black, White and Asian residents from the area.
Windermere’s population compared with other suburbs
The largest concentrations of Black people in the Cape lived at Windermere, where 1955 estimates put figures at approximately 15 000. The northern areas of the Peninsula were populated by approximately 13 000 black residents, the CBD (including Salt River and Woodstock) home to approximately 9300, Retreat with 5 500, Rylands/Athlone with 5200, and approximately 3800 people in Cooks Bush.
A 1983 survey of 200 Nyanga residents showed that 90% were forced to move to the area. Oral history accounts of former residents of Windermere can be found in the works of Msokoli Qotole (2010) and Sean Field (2001).
Oral History Excerpts from former Windermere Residents
“Ah, we grew up there with coloured people, Sothos and all, and all the different kinds of people. As a result you can see now people who are from Kensington they’re quite different from people from the rural areas or other places. You can see the difference because they grew up with coloureds, Sothos, Zulus and all the different kinds of people, you know. Ah, it was nice growing up there. Now, the whole issue started when we had to move from Kensington, the Group Areas Act started.” - Mr BT, former resident of Windermere, now resident of Langa. From Field, 2001.
“People at the Timberyard were from different areas. It was difficult to secure a place because you needed to be recommended by one of the residents. Life was wonderful there because we did not experience any problems. Troublemakers were beaten up by the residents and chased off the area.” - Mrs Mbiza, former resident of Windermere. From Qotole, 2001.
• Field, S. 2001. “Remembering Experience, Interpreting Memory: Life Stories from Windermere”, African Studies, 60:1, 119-133, DOI: 10.1080/00020180120063656. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00020180120063656
• Legassick, M. “Forced Removals in Greater Cape Town, 1948-1970”. https://abahlali.org/files/ch7Removalscapetown%20(1).pdf on www.abahlali.org.
• Qotole, M. 2001. “Early African Urbanisation in Cape Town: Windermere in the 1940s and 1950s”. African Studies, 60:1, 107-117, DOI: 10.1080/00020180120063674. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00020180120063674
• Western, J. 2002. “A divided city: Cape Town”. Political Geography, 21: 5, 711-716 DOI:10.1016/S0962-6298(02)00016-1. https://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.uct.ac.za/science/article/pii/S0962629802000161