Retrofitting, repurposing and re-placing

A multi-media exploration of occupation in Cape Town, South Africa





Occupation, retrofit, Cape Town, South Africa, housing struggles


The vast majority of city planning literature on informal occupations has focused on how residents occupy vacant and peripheral land, developing informal structures to address their basic needs. A smaller body of work, but one with much purchase in South Africa, explores the informal occupation of existing formal structures and how residents infuse these emergent places with social and political meaning. Across this work, occupations represent a dominant mode of city-building in the Global South. Contributing to this debate on city-making and occupations, this paper departs from an unusual case of South African occupation. We explore how displaced people have occupied a multi-storey vacant hospital building situated close to Cape Town’s city centre. Using documentary photography and interviews with residents, we argue that this occupation reflects a logic of ‘retrofit city-making’. We show that, through processes of repairing, repurposing, and renovating, dwellers have retrofit an institutional building, previously designed by the state for a very different use, to meet their needs and desires. As cities become more densely built and vacant land more peripheral or scarce, the retrofit of underutilised buildings, particularly through bottom-up actions such as occupation, will become an increasingly important mode of urban development. Not only are the practices of material transformation useful to understand, so too are the ways in which occupations reflect significantly more than simply survivalist strategies, but also care and meaning-making.





Abbott, J. (2002). An analysis of informal settlement upgrading and critique of existing methodological approaches. Habitat International. 26(3): 303-315. DOI:

Abellán, J., Sequera, J. & Janoschka, M. (2012). Occupying the #Hotelmadrid: A laboratory for urban resistance. Social Movement Studies. 11(3-4): 320-326. DOI:

Adebayo, P. W. (2011). Post-apartheid housing policy and a somewhat altered state role: Does incremental housing still have a place in South Africa. The Built & Human Environment Review. 4(2): 3-16.

Ahmad, P. (2010). Inner-city nodes and public transportation networks: Location, linkages and dependencies of the urban poor within Johannesburg. In A. Ayala & E. Geurts, (Eds), Urbanising Africa: The city revisited – Experiences with inner city revitalisation from Johannesburg (South Africa), Mbabane (Swaziland), Lusaka (Zambia), Harare and Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) (pp. 5-19). Rotterdam: IHS.

Aitchinson, G. (2011). Reform, rupture or re-imagination: Understanding the purpose of an occupation. Social Movement Studies. 10(4): 431-439. DOI:

Amin, A. & Cirolia, L.R. (2018). Politics/Matter: Governing Cape Town’s informal settlements. Urban Studies. 55(2): 274-295. DOI: Amin, A. & N. Thrift (2017). Seeing like a city. Cambridge: Polity

Amin, A. (2014). ‘Lively infrastructure.’ Theory, Culture & Society. 31(7–8): 137–161. DOI:

Ballard, R. (2015). Geographies of development III: Militancy, insurgency, encroachment and development by the poor. Progress in Human Geography. 39(2): 214-224. DOI:

Baptista, I. (2019). Electricity services always in the making: Informality and the work of infrastructure maintenance and repair in an African city. Urban Studies, 56(3): 510-525. DOI:

Bayat, A. (1997). Un-civil society: The politics of the ‘informal people’. Third World Quarterly. 18(1): 53-72. DOI:

Bénit-Gbaffou, C. (2012). Party politics, civil society and local democracy – Reflections from Johannesburg. Geoforum. 43(2): 178-189. DOI:

Bhan, G. (2019). Notes on a Southern urban practice. Environment & Urbanisation. 31(2): 639-654. DOI:

Bigon, L. (2020). An infrastructure of light and darkness: in visual conversation with

Baudouin Mouanda. Planning Perspectives.

Bonner, P. (1990). The politics of Black squatter movements on the Rand, 1944-1952. Radical History Review. 46(7): 89-115.

Caldeira, T. P. (2017). Peripheral urbanization: Autoconstruction, transversal logics, and politics in cities of the global south. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 35(1): 3-20.

Chambers, D. (2019). Cape Town social housing company complains to police about ‘hijackers’. TimesLive. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from

Chari, S. (2009). Photographing dispossession, forgetting solidarity: Waiting for social justice in Wentworth, South Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 34(4): 521-540. DOI:

Charlton, S., & Kihato, C. (2006). Reaching the poor? An analysis of the influences on the evolution of South Africa’s housing programme. In U. Pillay, R. Tomlinson & J. du Toit, (Eds.), Democracy and delivery: Urban policy in South Africa (pp. 252-282). Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Chenwi, L. (2012). Legislative and judicial responses to informal settlements in South Africa: A silver bullet? Stellenbosch Law Review. 23(3): 540-563. DOI:

Cirolia, L. R. (2014). South Africa’s emergency housing programme: A prism of urban contest. Development Southern Africa. 31(3): 397-411. DOI:

Cirolia, L. R. & Scheba, S. (2019). Towards a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa: Weaving the ‘everyday’ with wider structural tracings. Urban Studies. 56(3): 594-611. DOI:

Cirolia, L. R., Görgens, T., van Donk, M., Smit, W., & Drimie, S. (Eds.). (2017). Upgrading informal settlements in South Africa: Pursuing a partnership-based approach. Cape Town: Juta and Company (Pty) Ltd.

Cousins, B. (2000). Why land invasions will happen here too. University of Western Cape repository. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from vasions_will_happen_here_too_april_2000.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Coutard, O., & Rutherford, J. (2016). Beyond the networked city: An introduction. In O. Coutard & J. Rutherford (Eds.), Beyond the networked city: Infrastructure reconfigurations and urban change in the North and South (pp. 1-25). Abingdon: Routledge.

De Boeck, F. & S. Baloji (2016). Suturing the city: Living together in Congo’s urban worlds. London: Autograph ABP.

Department of Human Settlements. (2004). Breaking New Ground: A comprehensive plan for the development of integrated sustainable human settlements. Retrieved July 26, 2018, from

Department of Human Settlements. (2009). The national housing code. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from

Department of Land Affairs. (1997). White paper on South African land policy. Retrieved September 15, 2019, from

Dugard, J., & Ngwenya, M. (2019). Property in a time of transition: An examination of perceptions, navigations and constructions of property relations among unlawful occupiers in Johannesburg’s inner city. Urban Studies. 56(6): 1165-1181. DOI:

Durand-Lasserve, A. (2006). Informal settlements and the millennium development goals: Global policy debates on property ownership and security of tenure. Global Urban Development. 2(1): 1-15.

El-Batran, M. & Arandel, C. (1998). A shelter of their own: Informal settlement expansion in greater Cairo and government responses. Environment and Urbanisation. 10(1): 217-232. DOI:

Fields, D. (2015). Contesting the financialisation of urban space: Community organisations and the struggle to preserve affordable rental housing in New York City. Journal of Urban Affairs. 37(2): 144-165. DOI:

Fischer, S. (2019). City of Cape Town budgets R2.1 billion for development of new housing opportunities. Eye Witness News. Retrieved May 15, 2019, from

Garside, J. (1993). Inner city gentrification in South Africa: The case of Woodstock, Cape Town. GeoJournal. 30: 29-35. DOI:

Ghertner, D.A. (2011). Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi. In A. Roy & A. Ong, (Eds), Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (pp. 279-306). UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Gillespie, T. (2017). From quiet to bold encroachment: Contesting dispossession in Accra’s informal sector. Urban Geography. 38(7): 974 – 992. DOI:

Gouverneur, D. (2015). Planning and design for future informal settlements: Shaping the self-constructed city. London & New York: Earthscan.

Graham, S., & McFarlane, C. (Eds.). (2015). Infrastructural lives: Urban infrastructure in context. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Greene, M., & Rojas, E. (2008). Incremental construction: a strategy to facilitate access to housing. Environment and Urbanization. 20(1): 89-108. DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0956247808089150.

Harrison, P., Pieterse, E., Scheba, S. and Rubin, M. (2018). Daily practices of informality amidst urban poverty. African Centre for Cities/University of Cape Town and University of Witwatersrand.

Hegazy, I.R. (2016). Informal settlement upgrading policies in Egypt: Towards improvement in the upgrading process. Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability. 9(3): 254-275. DOI:

Hidalgo, F.D., Naidu, S., Nichter, S. Richardson, T. (2010). Economic determinants of land invasions. The Review of Economics and Statistics. 92(3): 505 – 523. DOI:

Hoogendoorn, G. & Giddy, J.K. (2017). ‘Does this look like a slum?’ Walking tours in the Johannesburg inner city. Urban Forum. 28(3): 315 – 328. DOI:

Holston, J. (2009). Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil.

Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Howe, C., Lockrem, J., Appel, H., Hackett, E., Boyer, D., Hall, R., Schneider-Mayerson, M., Pope, A., Gupta, A., Rodwell, E., Ballestero, A., Durbin, T., el-Dahdah, F., Long, E. & Mody, C. (2016) ‘Paradoxical infrastructures: Ruins, retrofit, and risk’. Science, Technology & Human Values. 41(3): 547–565. DOI:

Huat, C.B. (2017). Introduction: Inter-referencing East Asian occupy movements. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 20(2): 121-126. DOI:

Huchzermeyer, M. (2002). Informal settlements: Production and intervention in twentieth-century Brazil and South Africa. Latin American Perspectives. 29(1): 83-105.

Huchzermeyer, M. (2006). The new instrument for upgrading informal settlements in South Africa: Contribution and constraints. In M. Huchzermeyer & A. Karam, (Eds.), Africa: Contribution and constraints. In M. Huchzermeyer & A. Karam, (Eds.), Informal settlements: A perpetual challenge? (pp. 41-61). Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.

Huchzermeyer, M. & Misselwitz, P. (2016). Co-producing inclusive cities? Addressing knowledge gaps and conflicting rationalities between self-provisioned housing and state-led housing programmes. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 20: 73-79. 17, 2020, from

Jacobs, R. (2018). An urban proletariat with peasant characteristics: Land occupations and livestock raising in South Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45(5-6): 884-903. Jaglin, S. (2016). Is the network challenged by the pragmatic turn in African cities? In O. Coutard & J. Rutherford, (Eds.), Beyond the networked city: Infrastructure reconfigurations and urban change in the North and South (pp. 182-203). Abingdon: Routledge.

Katz, S. & Mayer, M. (1985). Gimme shelter: Self-help housing struggles within and against the State in New York City and West Berlin. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 9: 15-46. DOI:

Langman, L. (2013). Occupy: A new new social movement. Current Sociology. 61(4): 510-524. DOI:

Lawhon, M., Nilsson, D., Silver, J., Ernstson, H., & Lwasa, S. (2018). Thinking through heterogeneous infrastructure configurations. Urban Studies. 55(4): 720-732. DOI:

Lehrer, U. (2006). Re-placing Canadian cities: The challenge of landscapes of ‘desire’ and ‘despair’. In T. Bunting & P. Filion, (Eds.), Canadian cities in transition: Local through global perspectives (pp. 438-449). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Lemanski, C. (2019). Infrastructural citizenship: The everyday citizenships of adapting and/or destroying public infrastructure in Cape Town, South Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 2020(00): 1-17. DOI:

Lemanski, C. & Oldfield, S. (2009). The parallel claims of gated communities and land invasions in a southern city: Polarised state responses. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space. 41(3): 634 – 648. DOI:

Levenson, Z. (2018). The road to TRAs is paved with good intentions: Dispossession through delivery in post-apartheid Cape Town. Urban Studies. 55(14): 3218-3233. Mattern, S. (2018). Maintenance and Care. Places Journal. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from

McCann, E.J. (2002). The cultural politics of local economic development: Meaning-making, place-making, and the urban policy process. Geoforum. 33: 385-398. DOI:

Meth, P. (2013). ‘I don’t like my children to grow up in this bad area’: Parental anxieties about living in informal settlements. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 37(2): 537-555. DOI:

Millington, N. (2019). Critical spatial practices of repair. Society and Space. Retrieved March 18, 2020 from

Miraftab, F. (2007). Governing post-apartheid spatiality: implementing city improvement districts in Cape Town. Antipode. 39(4): 602-626. DOI:

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2012). Image, space, revolution: The arts of occupation. Critical Inquiry. 39: 8-32. DOI:

Pieterse, E. (2008). City futures: Confronting the crisis of urban development. London: Zed Books.

Ndifuna Ukwazi. (2016). Struggle for dignity in Cape Town’s informal settlements: The facts. Retrieved January 18, 2020, from

Ngwenya, N. (2013). The pursuit of urban justice: Managing processes of decline and regeneration in Salt River, Cape Town. Unpublished masters thesis, University of Cape Town, Cape Town.

Pirie, G. (2007). Reanimating a comatose goddess’: Reconfiguring central Cape Town. Urban Forum. 18(3): 125-151. DOI:

Ramanathan, U. (2006). Illegality and the urban poor. Economic and Political Weekly. 41(29): 3193-3197. DOI: 10.2307/4418470.

Shatkin, G. (2004). Planning to forget: Informal settlements as ‘forgotten places’ in globalising metro Manila. Urban Studies. 41(12): 2469 – 2484. DOI:

Sheriff, R.E. (2001). Dreaming equality: Colour, race, and racism in urban Brazil. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Sihlongonyane, M.F. (2005). Land Occupations in South Africa. In S. Moyo & P. Yeros, (Eds), Reclaiming the land: The resurgence of rural movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America (pp. 142-164). London & New York: Zed Books.

Silver, J. (2014). Incremental infrastructures: Material improvisation and social collaboration across post-colonial Accra. Urban Geography. 35(6): 788-804. DOI:

Simone, A. (2004). People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture. 16(3): 407–429. DOI:

Smart, A. (2001). Unruly places: Urban Governance and the persistence of illegality in Hong Kong’s urban squatter areas. American Anthropologist. 103(1): 30-44. DOI:

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R.K., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with indigenous nations. Decolonisation: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 3(2): 1-32. DOI:

Strauch, L., Takano, G. & Hordijk, M. (2015). Mixed-use spaces and mixed social responses: Popular resistance to a megaproject in central Lima, Peru. Habitat International. 45(3): 17-184.

UN-Habitat. (2015). Habitat III Issue Paper on Informal Settlements. Retrieved March 12, 2020, from

Van Noorloos, F., Cirolia, L.R., Friendly, A., Jukur, S., Schramm, S., Steel, G., & Valenzuela, L. (2019). Incremental housing as a node for intersecting flows of city-making: Rethinking the housing shortage in the global South. Environment and Urbanization.

Vasudevan, A. (2015). The makeshift city: Towards a global geography of squatting. Progress in Human Geography. 39(3): 338-359. DOI:

Vaz-Jones, L. (2016). The politics of claims-making on Cape Town’s urban peripheries: The Ithemba farmers’ land occupation. Unpublished masters thesis. University of Toronto, Toronto.

Watt, P. & Minton, A. (2016). London’s housing crisis and its activisms. City. 20(2): 204-221. DOI:

Whittingdale, J. (1973). The development and location of industries in greater Cape Town 1652-1972. Unpublished masters thesis. University of Cape Town, Cape Town. Wilhelm-Solomon, M. & Pedersen, J. (2017). Crossing the borders of humanitarianism: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in inner-city Johannesburg. Urban Forum. 28(1): 5 – 26. DOI: