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Ready for takeoff

By Mark van Dijk

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Ready for takeoff

By Mark van Dijk

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4 min read

An educational initiative is providing the communities living around Cape Town International Airport with access to home-building skills and affordable housing – building communities, and laying the foundation for the city’s long-term growth.

In early 2018, Cape Town International Airport received final approval from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) for the construction of a new realigned runway. It’s a huge project. Costing R3.8 billion and built to international specifications, the new 3,500-metre-long runway will enable growth of passenger and cargo traffic into the Mother City, driving tourism and economic activity. With more and bigger aircraft (like the Airbus A-380), it’s reason to celebrate, says Cape Town International Airport spokesperson Deidre Davids.

‘This project is about growth, not only for the airport and the network of Airports Company South Africa airports, but also for the region as a whole,’ she said at the announcement.

Naturally, the project could only begin after a DEA-approved environmental impact assessment had been conducted. More aircraft will inevitably mean more noise and more pollution … and then there’s the potential social and political nightmare of the three informal settlements – Freedom Farm, Malawi Camp and Blikkiesdorp – located in the direct line of aircraft flight paths. You won’t find those townships on any official maps, but if you’ve ever driven to CTIA, you’ll know exactly where they are. Dusty, sandy and ramshackle, the living conditions are unimaginably difficult, and the people who make their homes there are desperate to work their way out of poverty. Situated so close, these settlements are so far, far removed from the jet-setting lifestyle of the nearby airport lounges.

Right at the start of the airport runway expansion project, back in 2014, Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) released a Final Scoping Report that outlined the impact that the new runway would have on these communities. At the time, ACSA said that it was investigating the feasibility of relocating the Freedom Farm residents from their current homes on the airport’s northern boundary, near the intersection of Robert Sobukwe Road and Stellenbosch Arterial, to land on the eastern side of the airport, in the Symphony Way Development Corridor.

ACSA owns the land on which the three settlements are located, and the relationship between the residents and the company has hit a fair amount of turbulence over the years. In 2012 residents of Freedom Farm and Malawi Camp staged large protests to demand proper houses, setting tyres on fire in an attempt to create enough smoke to disrupt air traffic.

So forcing those residents – almost 700 families, by some counts – to leave their homes was always going to be a tough ask. It didn’t help that the 2014 ACSA report let slip that the company had been discussing the matter with the City of Cape Town since 2010, while a Freedom Farm community leader was telling the Cape Times that ‘no one is communicating with us about what’s going on. There’s no communication from ACSA, there’s no communication with community leaders.’ ACSA had a problem with – it seemed – no easy solution … until it decided that, instead of working around the people living in Freedom Farm, Malawi Camp and Blikkiesdorp, it would work with them. The result is a good-news story that plots out a way forward for similar infrastructure projects, and that shows the benefits of engaging with communities to empower them with marketable skills and sustainable affordable housing.

In September 2018, 45 community members from Freedom Farm and Malawi Camp were enrolled in Competency Based Modular Training (CBMT) in house building. The training – provided by CTIA at a cost of R1.3 million – was part of an ongoing upskilling initiative, intended to drive formal housing developments in the communities. The training covered key house-building and construction skills like bricklaying, carpentry, painting and plumbing.

‘Skills training such as this immediately makes these community members more employable and will hopefully help to improve their access to work. We are immensely proud of the 98% pass rate, something for which the students must be commended,’ says Deon Cloete, General Manager: Cape Town International Airport.

‘These students have risen above their current circumstances and have shown tenacity in seeing the programme through. One of the students managed to complete the programme despite being pregnant and giving birth during the process. The communities see the value, and are determined to complete the courses presented to them.’

City of Cape Town Executive Mayor Dan Plato added: ‘The specific focus of upskilling community members will afford them greater opportunities to become entrepreneurs or to look for job opportunities as skilled artisans, bricklayers, carpenters, painters and plumbers – all valuable and important skills needed for our growing economy. We are pleased that these newly skilled graduates are now ready and able to enter the job market.’  That job market, ironically, may very well include positions at the airport. ‘With our pending expansion programme at the airport, we intend sourcing skilled resources from various communities surrounding the airport for our projects, which makes these skills key,’ says Cloete.

As a continuation of this training programme, provided through a partnership with Northlink College, ACSA plans to provide further scholarships to students who qualify to complete the 12-month comprehensive Community House Building programme and the Recognition of Prior Learning programmes. Twelve community members from Freedom Farm have also been offered scholarships in Early Childhood Development by the Western Cape Education Department, with ACSA contributing to the funding to ensure that those students are transported from the community to the campus.

The training initiative, then, delivers multiple solutions to what was steadily becoming a very complex problem. It provides accredited training that will allow graduates to enter the job market. It empowers students to use those skills to build and refurbish their own homes. And it provides a practical education to those learners, allowing them to study further.

Graduates. Students. Learners. Those aren’t words one would necessarily have associated with the people living in Blikkiesdorp, Malawi Camp and Freedom Farm. Yet that transformation – in the communities and within the people themselves – is a positive spin-off of ACSA’s active community engagement. Instead of forcibly relocating three entire informal settlements, this initiative has created a platform for affordable housing, employment, and community upliftment.

‘We have gone out of our way to engage interested and affected parties,’ says Deidre Davids. ‘We remain committed to being a responsible developer upholding all environmental and other requirements.’

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