Legal Geographies of “Community” in South Africa and the Tafelberg case (a children’s story)

By Sonya Cotton

This blog post is adapted from the final assignment of the module, Critical Geographies, run by UCD School of Geography (GEOG 40970). Thank you to Prof Kath Brown and Dr Carla Kayanan for their guidance. 

“In the heart of the Cape Town suburb of Sea Point stands a derelict school building now colloquially known as “the Tafelberg site”. Tafelberg was the name of a remedial school which the building housed until 2010, when it was relocated to purpose-built premises in the Northern Suburbs. This case concerns the future use of the Tafelberg site” – Judge Gamble, High Court of South Africa (Adonisi and Others 2020: para 1).

1. Introduction to the Tafelberg case

In August 2020, the High Court of South Africa overturned the sale of land purchased for the construction of private Jewish school, ruling instead that the land must be developed for social housing (Adonisi2020, which I will also refer to as the “Tafelberg Case”). This legal outcome was the result of four years of campaigning by a Cape Town-based group called Reclaim the City (RTC), which aimed to expose and combat spatial segregation resulting from apartheid urban planning. The land at the heart of the Tafelberg dispute is located in a previously “whites only” area situated between the mountain and the sea, and, through the activism of RTC, became symbolic of continued spatial inequality in post-apartheid South Africa (Eyong 2020). In this regard, Parnell, acting as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Adonisi, remarked:

‘While apartheid urban planning affected all South African cities, it was particularly effective in Cape Town, because of the city’s unique typographical layout and racial demographics. Mountains, oceans and other natural features serve as unwitting allies in controlling movement and land use…Cape Town today exhibits an inverse densification.  A largely poor and working class Coloured* and Black majority live on the urban periphery, in very densely populated settlements, far from jobs, and with poor access to amenities and services. Well-located central areas are dominated by middle class and affluent, predominantly White, households. These areas are characterized by relatively low densities, and an acute shortage of affordable housing options despite excellent access to amenities, services and employment opportunities.  This dislocation results in an unjust, inefficient and ultimately unsustainable segregated urban environment’ (Adonisi para 35).

*Coloured’ refers to a racial category in South Africa used in apartheid and still an operative and non-pejorative term (Coetzee-Van Rooy  and Van Rooy 2005).

The case has particular personal relevance for me. In addition to growing up on the slopes of Table Mountain, I am part of Cape Town’s Jewish minority (less than 0.1% of the country’s entire population) and the intended beneficiary of the proposed private school (and whose directors were included among the defendants brought to court by RTC). Having this “insider” perspective, I wanted to engage with the case in a manner that embraces my experiences and perceptions of growing up as a member of a tight-knit community in post-Apartheid South Africa, and tease out some of the contradictions animating our identities. For instance, during my twelve years a a Jewish school, I was taught a confusing fledgling post-apartheid syllabus that both promoted the narrative of the “rainbow nation” (Bained 1998), while also telling me that I was a member of a persecuted religious minority whose spiritual home was not South Africa but the ethno-state of Israel. Rather than exploring the legal arguments at play in the Tafelberg case, I thus wanted to examine how my community negotiated intergenerational trauma, related to a bounded and exclusive sense of our position within South Africa (Mengel 2016; Shein 2011; Stier 2004), with the desire to see a spatially integrated Cape Town. The latter draws on the Yiddish Socialist concept of doykeit, or “hereness”, which, in contrast to the ideology of Zionism, states “wherever we live, that’s where our country is” (Shmueli 2021).

On a more academic note, my interest in Adonisi emerged out of my wider exploration of what it means to be a “community” in terms of the law, which, as many critical geographers have observed, privileges abstract, universalist principles over the grounded interrelation of groups and their landscape (Graham 2010 and 2012; Lund 2011; Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos 2011). This falls short of a more critical understanding of “community” which recognises the concept as mutable phenomenon bound up in coloniality, law, space and property rights (Bartel, Graham, et al 2013; Comaroff and Comaroff 2014; Garavito 2011; Bhandar 2011 and 2010, Lixinski 2021; Young 2020).

As litigation became inevitable, the language adopted by those defending the use of the land for a Jewish school further challenged me to think about the concept of “community”. The term “community” in a legal context is often used as short-hand for indigenous or marginalised groups, whose collective status may offset the power of individual private rights (Lixinski 2019). However, in the Tafelberg case, defendants of Jewish school’s purchase of the land used the language of minority and community rights, illustrating that such “toolkit”, typically associated with dispossessed peoples, may be strategically appropriated by an affluent minority. For example, supporters of the sale argued that interference with the transfer interfered with our constitutional right to community (Adonisi para 47). Other articles published on online South African Jewish newspapers framed resistance to the sale in terms of antisemitism and Jewish persecution (SAJR 2018). In response to the momentum of RTC’s opposition to the sale, an email was circulated urging Cape Town Jews not to meet with or speak to the housing activists stating that

‘[T]he Cape Town Jewish Community has a firm economic and legal interest in the Tafelberg Property…Please be aware that any engagement on your part (even in a personal capacity and however well intentioned) may be detrimental to the community’s interest given the sensitive nature of this matter at this time’ (Ground Up 2017).

However, it is erroneous to suggest that this was the only response from my community. A number of Jewish South Africans urged the community to support RTC and social housing, resisting the narratives pushed by defendants of the land sale (SAJR 2017; Daily Maverick 2017).

In response to these competing narratives which attempt to situate ourselves either within or among the wider South African community, I created a short children’s story describing the events of the case that recognises our status as both vulnerable immigrants and settlers (Mamdani 2020; Zreik 2016). It is hoped (or imagined) that this might represent an educational intervention against narratives of Jewish exceptionalism and trauma (Zerubavel 2002), and instead commemorate the work of the Jewish Cape Townians who worked to promote and participate in achieving spatial justice and decolonisation.

While I cannot pretend that many in my community did not feel threatened by the housing activists and signed a petition to such effect, my story aims to provide a counter-narrative that acknowledges settler-colonialism, apartheid and generational trauma from antisemitism, but still comes to the conclusion that it is better to build strong and integrated communities where we are.

2. Methodological considerations

I employ methods of autoethnography, drawing on my first-hand experiences, history and interpretation of the facts of the case (Stanley 2015). In contrast to ethnography, which attempts to replicate a shared experience of a particular group, autoethnography can be used to ‘speak against, or provide alternatives to dominant, taken-for-granted, and harmful cultural scripts, stories, and stereotypes’ (Boylorn 2014 in Adams et al 2017: 3). Autoethnography also supports creative and non-standard approaches to academic subject matter (Stanley 2015: 148-149) and may be used as a pedagogical intervention (Barr 2019), both of which are reflected in my approach to this project). Finally, my use of autoethnography is an attempt to invert the ethnography gaze, reversing the colonial and orientalist tradition of using black and indigenous peoples purely objects of study, and hence rendering whiteness as the default ontological position of what it means to be human (Butz and Besio 2009).

To create the images, I used a combination of water colour pens and downloaded an open source image editor called Krita which is used to create digital art. Where I did not draw images myself, I used Google Image to find images (mostly stock images where I could find them), which I edited or collaged as needed.

I created nine pictures in total. The format references cumulative songs sung at Passover, a religious holiday celebrating exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. These are themes that are relevant to our position in Cape Town and reflect our origins as migrants and role in maintaining segregation in post-apartheid South Africa. Specifically, the Passover song being referenced is echad mi yodea (or “Who Knows One”), an Ashkenazi song tracing to the sixteenth century (Adelman 2015). Each stanza starts with a number connected to a symbolic religious meaning (one is God; two are the tablets of the Torah; three are the patriarchs of Judaism, four are the matriarchs, five are the books of Moses, etc) (ibid). The format of the song makes it an excellent mnemonic devise and educational tool. I loved it as a child and still remember all the words. While traditionally there are thirteen stanzas, my telling of the Tafelberg case goes from one to nine.

3. Concluding thoughts

By the time of the final judgement in the High Court in 2020, the Jewish school had accepted the refusal to purchase the land. However, the other named defendants in the case, including the Province of the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, were still given leave to appeal many of the conclusions at the Supreme Court (Daily Maverick 2021). Therefore, the Tafelberg story is ongoing. Given the slow pace and issues with noncompliance of court proceedings, the final outcome of the case with regards to affecting spatial justice remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I hoped to conclude on a positive note, imagining (perhaps self-indulgently) that one day I might show this project to my baby relatives, increasingly scattered from South Africa, to explain a part of our history and also how “communities”, like laws, can be seen as a stories constantly unfolding.



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Online Sources:



  • Adonisi and Others v Minister for Transport and Public Works Western Cape and Others; Minister of Human Settlements and Others v Premier of the Western Cape Province and Others (31 August 2020) CASE NO: 7908/2017.