“She doesn’t know what the City’s budget is; she is just a kitchen assistant.” An introductory post to the Urban Law Lab.

Urban Law Lab
05 March 2017.

“What’s the point of being near a school? What’s the point of them being near transport?”

These are comments made by Acting Judge Leslie Weinkove in the Western Cape High Court, located in Cape Town, South Africa. They were made in response to a matter brought by several residents of Bromwell Street in the inner-city Woodstock suburb of Cape Town, who had requested their eviction be suspended because the temporary alternative accommodation being offered by the City of Cape Town was located in Wolwerivier, located almost 30 kilometers outside the city.

Under the South African Constitution, the state is obliged to provide emergency alternative accommodation if an eviction will result in homelessness. Although the state provided alternative accommodation, in this case, the quality and location of the housing were deplorable.

So, too, it is argued, were the comments of Acting Judge Weinkove. Other comments used to buttress this argument include:

"If I rule that the City hasn't done enough, will the people stay in Bromwell Street at the expense of Woodstock Hub until the matter is finalised, however long that may take? If they are given land in the area, what about the hundreds of thousands of other people who would also love to stay in Woodstock?"

“What’s her name? Charnell? She [a Bromwell Street resident] is a kitchen assistant in Observatory and now she’s an expert… How does this person know what the cost implications will be on these properties? She doesn't know what the City's budget is; she is just a kitchen assistant."

“There are so many people who commute into the City for work from areas like Somerset West which is further than Wolwerivier. Whether or not these people can afford the taxi fare is something else,” he said.

“Wolwerivier is at Dunoon, where my parents had a farm … They have that nice MyCiti bus route - so it’s not an area that’s isolated.” (Source.)

We do not necessarily regard all of Weinkove AJ’s comments as deplorable, mainly because it is necessary to have a fuller picture of his thinking when making these remarks. In asking ‘what is the point of them being near transport’, he could perhaps have been pushing the residents to make out a substantial argument why public transport is integral in fulfilling other rights in the South African Bill of Rights, such as education, or healthcare. This, in turn, could very well have been used as a way of bolstering his own judicial reasoning in finding in favor of the residents.

On the other hand, Weinkove AJ could also have been flippant in his questions, reflecting a disregard for the transformative commitments inherent in the South African Constitution, and making the question more of an ignorant comment that people do not need access to public transport because, ostensibly, everyone has access to a private motor vehicle.

What these comments do demonstrate, however, is how law and the city are inextricably linked. Law governs our interactions with one another; how we use and engage with public and private space; how we participate procedurally and substantively in the decisions that affect us; how we use the law to make a claim to the city in some form; and, how judges in interpreting the law vis-à-vis these disputes make and shape the city in some form.

It is for these reasons that we decided to launch the Urban Law Lab. We see this as a collaborative platform which takes a critical approach to understanding the relationship between law, rights, and the urban. This platform is as concerned with understanding the law as it stands (a more ‘formalist’ approach), as much as it is concerned with what the law can be; how the law can transform our lives in the city for the better. This is an important endeavor as urbanization continues apace, and conflicting demands are made on increasingly constrained urban resources.

We hope to bring in a variety of other perspectives, presented through a narrative that is accessible and interesting to you, the reader. We hope you join us on this journey as a way of contributing to an informed discussion around the nexus of law, rights, and the urban.