The ‘instant coloured city’ with a rich history

Simoné* de Bruin

Referred to as the “instant Coloured city” in the Civic Bulletin of December 1979, Mitchell’s Plain emerged in 1974 from the desolate dunes that stretched for miles on end on the 3 100 hectare property to officially become home in 1976 to thousands forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act and those who became first-time homeowners.

The need for a “Mitchell’s Plain” was envisaged way back in the mid-1960s, with the first report on the project being submitted by the council’s city engineer in 1965.

Interestingly, on May 6 1966, the council’s department of planning advertised its intention to proclaim all the land west of Swartklip Road, including Mitchell’s Plain, for white occupation, but no further action along these lines was taken and in October 1971, this area was proclaimed for coloured housing.

Research showed that the only ground available for a development of this size was an area of 3 100 hectares south of Philippi.

The land was recommended for purchase, but only expropriated in 1974 and the final purchase price was determined only after lengthy and costly arbitration.

In a City Council memorandum, dated June 23 1972, to the then Minister of Transport, Ben Schoeman, it was recommended that the name “Goeie Hoop” be adopted for the area. It is not clear from council documents why the name was never adopted or why another suggestion, namely that Westridge should be known as “Southdowns” was turned down. The motivation for the name stems from the fact that the land was once the southern portion of the Downs Field Cornetcy.

Although it is speculated that Mitchell’s Plain’s name is derived from the owner of the land, a farmer by the name of Mitchell, another theory is that Mitchell’s Plain was named after Major Charles Cornwallis Michell who was the first surveyor-general at the Cape.

Until Mitchell’s Plain was established, most of the housing projects had been low-cost letting schemes such as those in Manenberg and Hanover Park, with inadequate facilities and amenities that were funded from the municipal rates account.

Towards the end of 1974, the National Party government gave the go-ahead for the Mitchell’s Plain development, described as trail-blazing in that the government was prepared to make finance available for a full development for house ownership, including facilities and amenities.

It was agreed that the council would not have to contribute to the financing, but would have the responsibility for the planning, designing and construction of the new “town” as the agent of the then department of community development. And so, “the Mitchell’s Plain Giant” was born and stirred into life, manifesting over 40 years into the form we see today.

On May 9 1980, the Mitchell’s Plain housing project was voted as the “Most outstanding civil engineering achievement for 1979” by the executive committee of the South African Institution of Civil Engineers. The futuristic-looking water tower situated on the grounds of Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital, was also one of the entries for the 1981 Fulton Award made annually then by the Concrete Society of Southern Africa for excellence in the use of concrete.

Back then the civil division of Murray & Stewart (Pty) Ltd, which we know today as Murray & Roberts, had to clear 75ha of bush and move a million cubic metres of earth before they could start with the 34km of roads and the 37km of water mains, together with culverts, stormwater drains and sewers.

Expenditure on the development exceeded R200 million by the end of 1979, with civil engineering expenditure accounting for about R75 million.

It is estimated that the building of Mitchell’s Plain totalled R500 million.

Before the official opening of Mitchell’s Plain in April 1976, the then prime minister, BJ (Balthazar Johannes) Vorster, visited the new development, and soon after, the first residents moved in.

The monthly income for close to 60 percent of the families in Mitchell’s Plain was between R60 and R100 and less than three percent of people earned between R180 and R225.

By 1978, the sales company, Mitchell’s Plain Housing Sales, was formed. By then 300 families a month were moving in. The selling prices of houses was between R8 570 and R14 855 and the average monthly repayment on houses was R72. On page 18 of this edition you can read more about how the property market has developed since then.

The major portion was developed by the Cape Town City Council and a smaller portion (the Woodlands area) by the Divisional Council, which in all likelihood contributed to the popular belief that Mitchell’s Plain Primary School in Westridge, also known as Number 1, opened on October 5 1976, was the first school to be built. Highlands Primary School in Woodlands, opened on September 13 1976, and was actually the first Mitchell’s Plain school, but because it was not built on City Council land but Divisional Council land, it was not considered to be part of Mitchell’s Plain proper.

In 1980, on July 17, the railway line opened. Development of Rocklands, Lentegeur and Portland continued, while Strandfontein, Westridge and Woodlands were completed. The beginning of rented housing to the east of the railway line began in 1982.

Today, while facing many challenges, Mitchell’s Plain’s infrastructure boasts close to 70 primary and high schools, schools for pupils with special needs, early learning development centres, three railway stations, including a bustling transport interchange in a revamped central business district which includes the Town Centre, opened in 1980 with formal and informal businesses plying their trade, the Liberty Promenade and Westgate shopping malls, with several smaller shopping precincts dotted across its suburbs, three police stations – in the CBD, Lentegeur and Strandfontein – sub-council chambers, civic centres, community halls, six public libraries, clinics, a centre for the frail and aged; a private retirement complex, a psychiatric hospital, which houses on its grounds a hospice as well as a rehabilitation centre, three public swimming pools, resorts at Mnandi, Blue Waters and Strandfontein Pavillion beaches, all of which enjoy Blue Flag status, Wolfgat Nature Reserve, which refers to the brown hyena or strandwolf which existed here until the 19th century. An ancient fossilised den of this species was discovered here in the 1960s and the stretch of coast was named after this discovery. The area also has many churches and mosques and many satellite government departments.

But more than the houses, infrastructure and considerable feats of engineering, Mitchell’s Plain’s major achievement is in the people it produced and moulded.