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Apartheid Atlantis:

A Planned City in a Racist Society

Chase Stafford
Stanford University Department of History
Honors Thesis
May 11, 2005
Table of Contents

I. Introduction .................................................................................................................... 8

II. A Government Creation: 1975-1985............................................................................ 20

III. The People in the Early Years: 1975-1985 .................................................................. 40

IV. The Plan in Crisis: 1985-1992...................................................................................... 59

V. A New Atlantis? 1992-2004......................................................................................... 86

VI. Conclusion.................................................................................................................. 103

VII. Appendix .................................................................................................................... 106

VIII. Bibliography............................................................................................................... 108


I am so grateful for all the help and support I have received over the course of this project!

Thanks to Professor Richard Roberts and Professor Joel Samoff, for your encouragement, vision,
direction and time.

Thanks to my family and friends, who have patiently supported me in this 15-month journey. I
am so blessed by you.

Thanks to the World Vision Atlantis staff, for facilitating this project and my stay in Atlantis.

Thanks to Cheryldene Hector for supervising this project, to Helen Van Buelen for translating
dozens of newspaper stories and to Georgina Kastoor, for guiding me through the community.

Thanks to the Maarman family—you are my family in South Africa.

Finally, thanks to the people of Atlantis. I dedicate this to you.


Western Cape of South Africa, 2005.

Location of Atlantis Relative to the Cape Town Metropolitan Area, 1982 and 2004.

Atlantis Residential, 2002.


1948 National Party wins majority of Parliament

1954 Tomlinson Commission recommends separate development
1954 Coloured Labour Preference Policy (CLPP) passed
1960 Sharpeville Massacre; ANC banned
1967 National Physical Development Plan (NPDP) proposes a West Coast growth area
1972 Mamre Coloured Rural Area declared
1973 Divisional Council of the Cape (Divco) appointed to develop growth point
1973 Divco sets up Atlantis Development Committee
1973 Durban strikes
1974 Planning consortium begins work
1975 Theron Commission
1975 First Atlantis houses completed
1976 Schools Open
1976 West Coast road (R27) completed
1976 Soweto riots
1978 Atlantis Development Committee expanded to include two Coloureds
1978 Atlantis Civic Association founded
1979 Atlantis Sport Board of Control established
1980 Atlantis Management Committee established
1980 Atlantis Residents Association founded
1981 Atlantis Diesel Engines begins operations
1981 Orion special-care facility founded
1982 Shoprite opens as first supermarket in Atlantis
1983 Tricameral Parliament elections; UDF formed
1984 Avondale Mosque founded
1985 Sharp increase in retrenchments
1985 Management Committee resigns
1986 Atlantis Residents Association leaders detained
1986 11 companies charged with fraud involved decentralization incentives
1986 SALDRU survey published
1989 Saxonsea Mosque founded
1989 COSATU strike at Atlantis Diesel Engines
1990 Nelson Mandela released; ANC unbanned
1990 Interim local council appointed
1991 New police station built
1992 Labour Party dissolves
1994 Rent arrears written off
1994 1st democratic election
1995 Local elections held
1999 Atlantis Diesel Engines closes
1999 2nd democratic elections

I. Introduction

Thirty miles from Cape Town, surrounded by sand dunes on the west coast of South

Africa, Atlantis exists. Its factory buildings, houses and apartment buildings stand out

incongruously in the rough natural environment. Virtually nothing existed on the site of the

town before 1975, but by 2010 it was expected to be home for 500,000 people. It was designed

to provide modern homes and factory jobs for its residents as part of a major national

development plan. The reason for Atlantis’ development was apartheid policy. Atlantis did not

develop organically according to normal systems of economic growth and population movement,

but resulted from massive government initiative and investment. Thousands of Coloured

(mixed-race) people would be relocated to live in a new planned city away from Cape Town.

Apartheid ideology was implemented in perhaps its most ambitious and extensive form with the

development of Atlantis. Its plan, development and failure put apartheid ideology to the test in

the crucial period between 1975 and 1994.

But the history of Atlantis is ultimately the story of its people, responding to their

government-built environment in diverse ways and growing in their historical agency even as

apartheid structures crumbled. This story challenges any simplistic assessment of the collapse of

apartheid. For the people of Atlantis, the end of apartheid has brought freedom and opportunity,

but also insecurity and ambivalence, as the plan for Atlantis has largely sunk with the old regime.

The people of Atlantis must forge an identity and vision for their future in the new social order of

democratic South Africa—without the benefit of massive government investment or economic

prosperity. Understanding history is fundamental to this process, and this thesis aims to

contextualize the problems of the present with the history of the development of Atlantis.

Background and Context

Atlantis was designed to be a “bruinmense droomstad (Coloured dream-city),” a modern

industrial city that would propel the development of the Coloured (mixed-race) people of South

Africa. South Africa from 1948 to 1994 was dominated nationally by a conservative white

minority government that maintained its hold on power and privilege with bold and repressive

racial policies. White settlers established the Cape Colony in 1652 and by the early 20th century

had extended and exerted control over the majority of the land, resources, and power in the

country. This domination came at the expense of millions of people. Indigenous Africans were

pushed off their land and subjected to white rule by armed force. Until 1834, the Cape Colony

imported slaves from elsewhere in Africa and Asia, establishing a racially stratified society

designed to benefit a white minority that never made up more than 20% of the total population.

The colony was initially an agricultural society, but the late 19th century discovery of diamonds

and gold in the interior of the country contributed to rapid industrialization and urbanization.

The Cape, home to the vast majority of Coloureds, became increasingly densely populated as the

manufacturing industry expanded. Thousands of Coloureds relocated from the agrarian

countryside to Cape Town, undergoing a major shift in lifestyle and occupation in the process.

Throughout most of the 20th century, government policy aimed to preserve and advance

white interests through segregation. In 1910 South Africa was declared independent from its

colonial powers, but European settlers retained essentially absolute political control. White

South Africa was divided between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking settlers. The rise of

Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th century aimed to preserve threatened Afrikaans identity and

status in the face of the challenges of industrialization and racial integration.1 In 1948, the

Afrikaners are white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans descended from Dutch, German and French settlers.

National Party was elected, representing predominantly Afrikaner interests. The party promised

to institutionalize and extend existing discriminatory racial legislation. More specifically, the

new government sponsored the ideal of separate development, or apartheid, an Afrikaans word

meaning apartness. According to apartheid ideology, racial groups were meant to develop

separately. Whites were considered the most developed of the races and thus deserved political,

economic and social control of the country. But other racial groups could hope to develop

independently, with the benevolent help of the white government.

A battery of racial legislation passed through Parliament, aiming to institutionalize


Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949: Prohibited marriages between white people and
people of other races.

Immorality Amendment Act, 1950: Prohibited adultery, attempted adultery or related immoral
acts (extra-marital sex) between white and black people.

Population Registration Act, 1950: Led to the creation of a national register in which every
person's race was recorded.

Group Areas Act, 1950: Forced physical separation between races by creating different
residential areas for different races. Led to forced removals of people living in "wrong" areas.

Separate Representation of Voters Act, 1951: Together with the 1956 amendment, this act led to
the removal of Coloureds from the common voters' roll.

Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, 1951: Gave the Minister of Native Affairs the power to
remove blacks from public or privately owned land and to establishment resettlement camps to
house these displaced people.

Bantu Authorities Act, 1951: Provided for the establishment of black homelands and regional
authorities with the aim of creating greater self-government in the homelands.

Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act, 1952: Commonly known as
the Pass Law, it forced black people to carry identification with them at all times. No black
person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit from the local authorities. On
arrival in an urban area a permit to seek work had to be obtained within 72 hours.

Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, 1953: Forced segregation in all public amenities, public
buildings, and public transport with the aim of eliminating contact between whites and other
races. "Europeans Only" and "Non-Europeans Only" signs were put up. The act stated that
facilities provided for different races need not be equal.

The aim of these laws was to entrench white power and squash black resistance. 2 Whites staked

their claim to the major metropolitan areas, pushing blacks out of the cities into reserves and

townships (segregated suburbs). Apartheid legislation further isolated and destabilized the status

of Coloureds, as the goal of integration was squashed and the tenuous identity of Coloureds was

institutionalized. Coloureds were treated as less than whites but better than Black Africans. But

the construction and contestation of Coloured identity goes back before 1948.

Historically referred to as “Coloured,” mixed-race people of South Africa are

descendants of Khoisan, Black Africans, white settlers, and Asians.3 The complexity and

diversity of their racial ancestry is matched by the division surrounding their identity. In recent

years there has been some objection to the political connotations of the term “Coloured” with

some preferring “So-called Coloured,” “coloured” or collapsing identity into a broader grouping

of “black” that includes all people of color in South Africa. This objection is based on the

premise that Coloured identity was constructed by white oppression as a negative, subjugated

identity.4 But the term “Coloured” traces its origin to mixed-race people who asserted their

identity as Coloured positively in the 19th century. Since that time, Coloured identity has been

claimed consistently if not universally by mixed-race people and has become a diverse but

distinct identity. This thesis has chosen to refer to mixed-race South Africans as Coloured for

Black Africans refers to Africans in southern Africa before 1652, including Nguni, Soto, Tsonga and Venda
groups. “Blacks,” when quoting from a source, generally refers to Black Africans. But in this paper “blacks” will
be used more generally to describe all people of color oppressed under the apartheid system.
Khoisan were hunter-gatherers and pastoralists who inhabited southern Africa for thousands of years before the
settlement of Europeans in 1652. Their population was almost completely decimated by the encroachment of
European settlement. Most Asians were Malays who came as indentured laborers or slaves before 1830 or Indians
from the subcontinent who came later.
Zimitri Erasmus and Degar Pieterse, “Conceptualising Coloured Identities in the Western Cape Province of South
Africa,” in National Identity and Democracy ed. Mai Palmberg (Cape Town: Mayibuye Centre, 1998).

two reasons: first, it would be ahistorical in many cases to impose contemporary terminology on

representations of the past. Certainly where primary sources are quoted, their own words should

remain intact. I have chosen consistency as much as possible. Secondly, as already alluded to,

Coloured identity has been and is now claimed by many as a positive identity. It accords with

the spirit of the argument of this thesis that identity is constructed not just by government but

also by subjects. The vast majority of interview subjects for this project refer to themselves as

Coloured, and in my judgment it would be an imposition on their own positive self-identification

to alter this.5

The history of Atlantis reflects the multiple meanings of Coloured. Atlantis served

several major purposes for government planners: first, it relocated Coloureds away from Cape

Town, which was tightly controlled as a “white city.” Second, the development of Atlantis

aimed to limit urban sprawl and overcrowding in Cape Town by establishing a new “growth

point” away from the city. Thirdly, it was meant to benefit Coloureds in order to co-opt their

resistance. Between 1966 and 1982 the forced removal of more than 60,000 Coloureds from

District Six put immense pressure on the Coloured population in Cape Town. District Six was a

diverse working-class neighborhood in the heart of the city, but from 1966, Coloured

Capetonians were forced to live in the Cape Flats to the east of the city. Here they lived in

Coloured townships in poor conditions, isolated from other racial groups and from the resources

of the city. A major housing shortage and increasing radical political resistance in the Cape Flats

made the development of an alternative Coloured city highly desirable for the apartheid

government. It was hoped that investment in the Coloured population would decrease the

tension. Most people involved in the Atlantis project genuinely sought to help Coloureds

For a fuller discussion of Coloured identity, also see Ian Goldin, Making Race (Cape Town: Gariep, 2000); Gavin
Lewis, Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African “Coloured” Politics (Cape Town: David Philip,

through better houses and jobs. However, this approach to development was always on the

narrow terms that prioritized white interests, specifically segregation.

Atlantis Community History Project

From July to September 2004 I lived in Atlantis and conducted research. I was invited by

World Vision International, an international development non-profit organization that has

worked in Atlantis since the 1980s. The year before I had volunteered with World Vision in

Atlantis while studying at the University of Cape Town, and I was able to return through grants

from Stanford University. While in Atlantis I lived with a family and was involved with several

World Vision projects, but my primary focus was research. Most of the documents from this

thesis come from the University of Cape Town library and the Atlantis public library. But the

most important part of my research was designed to access the rich oral knowledge residents of

Atlantis have of their city. Little previous historical research has been conducted in Atlantis and

few archival documents exist. This thesis is the first extensive historical research project of


I conducted 45 interviews while in Atlantis and tried to capture a range of perspectives.

Interviewees included politicians, social workers, pastors, pensioners, factory workers, factory

managers, trade union leaders, and unemployed Atlantis residents. My objective was to capture

a range of perspectives and conduct in-depth interviews that would allow Atlantis residents to

tell their stories and offer their perspectives on Atlantis history. Accordingly, my approach did

not seek a random sample or a standard survey. Instead, interviews were organized through a

network of contacts. I was greatly assisted by World Vision and by the interview subjects

themselves in setting up interviews with people who were interested in talking about their history

and represented a range of perspectives on the history of Atlantis. The interviewees are

generally more politically active than is typical in Atlantis, and factory workers, unemployed

workers and the very poor are regrettably under-represented. Most of the interviewees would see

themselves as leaders of the community, which gives them a unique perspective and perceived

authority to comment on their community.

This project has benefited from a diverse body of literature on oral history. Any

discussion of oral sources must begin with the work of Jan Vansina, who was the first to

systematize a methodology to obtain useful and reliable oral evidence.6 For Vansina, oral

sources, like written sources, can be interrogated with a systematic methodology and used as

historical evidence. For the objective of this thesis, oral history methodology was crucial to

sorting out a range of perspectives and to constructing a reliable historical narrative. Vansina’s

social-scientific approach to oral sources has been criticized for ignoring the validity and

subjectivity of oral narratives. Paul Thompson affirms the value of oral evidence, but argues that

instead of trying to maintain objectivity, the interviewer should fully engage in the process of

historical research and examine his or her own subjective role in the process.7 A collection of

essays, In Pursuit of History, expands this perspective and applies it specifically to field research

in Africa.8 The authors in this book argue that research should fully engage with the community

and internalize the local understanding of history, rather than attempting to maintain distance.

This argument was encouraging for me, as I lived in Atlantis and depended on relationship

networks to accomplish my research.

Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (London: James Currey, 1985).
Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral history, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Jan Vansina, and Caroline Adenaike eds., In Pursuit of History : Fieldwork in Africa (Portsmouth: Heinemann,

Another collection of essays, African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral

History, explores the tension of objectivity and subjectivity in oral history research in Africa.9

The authors explore subjectivity in narrative, genre, and “truth” and suggest that interviewers

engage with their subjects openly but critically. E.J. Alagoa’s essay, “The Dialogue between

Academic and Community History in Nigeria,” was particularly helpful as a scenario similar to

my own. Alagoa, a professional historian, was commissioned by a Nigerian community to

research its history, and in this article he explores the relationship between the interviewer and

the community. In this context the constraints and community interests are more explicit and

must be interrogated. The community Alagoa studied had particular expectations and

assumptions and they tried to direct the outcome of the research. But Alagoa concludes that this

type of interaction can be extremely useful for research, so long as mutual dialogue occurs.

Finally, Donald Moore and Richard Roberts articulate an important point in their article

“Listening for Silences.”10 Silences and gaps in oral narratives should be focused on and not

glossed over.

The starting point for this study was reinterpreting the history of Atlantis through the

voices of its own people. Atlantis, perhaps more than any other community in South Africa,

owes its existence to the initiative of government. Government vision, planning, investment and

control built Atlantis’ buildings, relocated its residents and factories, and attempted to manage

the development of the community. The history of government planning, investment and

governance is particularly significant for any understanding of the history of the people of

Atlantis. However, interviews with the people of Atlantis reveal a fuller and more complex

picture. While government certainly dominates the history of Atlantis, the story of its people is

Luise White, Stephan Miescher and David William Cohen eds., African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices
in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).
Donald Moore and Richard Roberts, “Listening for Silences,” in History in Africa 17 (1990): 319-325.

much more than that. The people of Atlantis have actively constructed their community. In

response to government initiatives, the residents of Atlantis worked, protested, resisted, coped,

questioned, and created their own community.

There are bitter stories in the history of Atlantis, but also stories of hope. One family

came to Atlantis in the back of a pickup truck, excited to move into their first home. The first

principal of Atlantis recounts showing films in the school hall, as the only form of public

entertainment in the early years. One woman describes the first time she ever welcomed a Black

African student in her home, and the beginning of her political consciousness. Another woman

remembers the purpose and power she felt in starting her own preschool for the community. A

politician tells of the devastation of losing the 1994 election in Atlantis to the National Party that

had so long oppressed them. These stories are unique and valuable in and of themselves. They

are the voices of the people of Atlantis and they tell a fuller, more complex story than the failure

of an apartheid dream city.

This is particularly important given the current situation of Atlantis in the post-apartheid

South African context. Atlantis is no longer governed illegitimately. Its own people now vote to

elect representatives to govern the country and the community. For Atlantis, an ignoble

stepchild of apartheid, this has raised significant questions about its existence and future. If

Atlantis was built according to racist policies meant to separate and subjugate Coloureds, then

why should it continue? If Atlantis is an apartheid community, should it disappear along with

apartheid? The overwhelming response of Atlantis residents is that Atlantis, though brought into

existence illegitimately, exists as more than a racist government project—it exists as a

community of people.

But this conclusion does not simplify any undertaking of Atlantis history. At stake in any

interpretation of Atlantis history is a statement of politics—both past and present. Woven

throughout the history of Atlantis, in narratives of the past, present and future, are contested

claims to represent Atlantis. The apartheid government consistently tried to represent Atlantis as

a successful city of the future, designed to exemplify the benefits of separate development for the

Coloured people. Some Atlantis residents sought to draw attention to the disastrous conditions

of Atlantis and to call in to question the whole government project. Others represented Atlantis

as a community to be proud of and to support. These interpretations dominate the narratives

constructed about Atlantis. Wading into this contested terrain is dangerous, particularly for an

outsider. Every decision I made in Atlantis, from where I lived, to who I worked with and whom

I interviewed was scrutinized politically. As far as I could make out, I was the first foreigner

ever to live in Atlantis for an extended time period, and certainly the first to ask a lot of difficult

questions, so my presence drew attention in the midst of this contested ground.

Rather than trying to claim objectivity or embracing one of these perspectives, this thesis

instead aims to contextualize these contending narratives. Atlantis history is contested, and

nothing straightforward emerges from interviews with residents. Instead there are questions,

loose ends and contradictions. For example, it is difficult to determine, and indeed highly

debated, whether Atlantis has changed positively or negatively in the past 20 years. Some point

to voting rights, a new shopping center and greater community solidarity, while others highlight

abandoned factories, continued unemployment and decreased government investment. A

systematic survey might yield an ostensibly objective assessment of change over time in Atlantis.

But the subjectivity and contradictions of Atlantis narratives reveal the complexity and

ambiguity of people’s experience of their history. Apartheid, Coloured identity, and the

democratic transition are more complex than one experience or perspective or overall

assessment. Atlantis’ history, particularly in its contested voices, points to this complexity as it

raises questions: What does it mean to benefit from and resist a system that in the short-run helps

but in the long-run undermines your freedom and opportunity? What does it mean to be a person

of mixed-race ancestry in a Coloured-only town? How does isolation affect community

experience? Is the “New South Africa” really new and better? The questions of the town’s

history—how and why and who developed Atlantis?—are supremely relevant today, as the

future is forged. Atlantis is a relic of apartheid, but its residents have lived into the democratic

present, accessing new opportunities but carrying old legacies as well

The first chapter of this thesis, “A Government Creation: 1975-1985,” sets outs to tell the

story of apartheid government’s decision to develop Atlantis as a new Coloured industrial city.

Here the context for industrial decentralization and government policy on Coloureds, which sets

up the development of Atlantis, is explained. The history of planning and development in the

first 10 years of Atlantis is reconstructed and the narrative of government intention and execution

is explored. Atlantis was an apartheid city established to accomplish the segregation of

Coloureds and the continued dominance of whites.

The second chapter, “The People in the Early Years: 1975-1985,” shifts the focus to the

experience of the people of Atlantis. Primarily based on interviews with Atlantis residents, this

chapter tells why and how people came to Atlantis, and what life in Atlantis was like in the early

years, from 1975 to 1985. The conclusion that emerges is that Atlantis in the early years was a

place of hope and opportunity, as people benefited from new factory jobs and new homes.

The third chapter, “The Plan in Crisis: 1985-1992,” describes the key shift that occurred

in Atlantis as the economy plummeted and resistance increased. At this point the narratives of

government, media and residents changed as internal and external dynamics shifted. Atlantis is

described both as unique and continuous with the dynamics of wider South Africa, and the

perspectives of Atlantis residents reflect the conflict and changes in the community. As the

government of apartheid fell, the dream of a Coloured metropolis crumbled and the people of

Atlantis took control of their city.

The fourth chapter, “A New Atlantis?: 1992-2004,” explores the democratic transition in

Atlantis from 1992 to the present. The political elections and the resulting changes in society are

highly controversial, as Atlantis’ problems have persisted and worsened for many in recent

years. Political control has not translated into economic development for the community.

Atlantis represents the complexities and contradictory currents of apartheid social

engineering. On one hand, it could be argued that apartheid ideology succeeded in Atlantis, as it

accomplished the voluntary relocation of more than 60,000 Coloureds away from Cape Town.

The vast majority of Atlantis residents voted for the former apartheid political party in the 1994

elections, a sign of the effect of Atlantis development on the political orientation of its residents.

On the other hand, Atlantis represents the failure of apartheid. Although Atlantis was planned

from the beginning and enormous resources were pumped into the new city, it ultimately failed

to succeed economically, socially or politically. The people of Atlantis did not unequivocally

accept the divide and rule policies of the ruling regime. Their resistance, and the subsequent

collapse of the Atlantis project, parallels the wider context of resistance and collapse in South

Africa. As a planned city, Atlantis represented an opportunity for the government to implement

apartheid on a clean canvas. Coloureds’ responses to the plan varied, but they always affected

the outcome. Apartheid originated and was driven by government, but ultimately its course and

its meaning can only be understood through the responses of affected people.

II. A Government Creation: 1975-1985

“Hulle weet waarom hulle dit doen—hulle weet hoe om mense te skei.”
(They know why they do it; they know how to divide the people)1

Sign in Atlantis Industrial Area of Empty Factories

From an interview by P.J. Hope, “Hulle weet hoe om mense te skei”: The Social and Political Consequences of
Decentralization in Atlantis (University of Cape Town, South African Economic History Department dissertation,
The development of Atlantis was first and foremost a government initiative. At the

national policy level, The National Party’s decision to develop Atlantis must be understood in

the broader context of 20th century South African history. Atlantis was built to fulfill apartheid

objectives. The plan for Atlantis, and implementation of this plan, were based on the assumption

of separate development.

National Physical Development Plan

Long before the National Party rose to power in 1948, the South African government

pursued policies of racial segregation and decentralization. But with the formal articulation of

the Verwoerdian policy of separate development, these policies became more systematic and

intensified. Whites laid a claim to the major cities and economic centers of the country, while

blacks were to “develop” separately in their own autonomous, mostly rural homelands. In 1954

the Tomlinson Commission recommended that as part of separate development the government

should invest in industrial decentralization to promote growth in the Bantustans (Black African

Reserves). In 1967 the National Physical Development Plan (NPDP) laid a framework for

decentralized growth that targeted specific growth zones for development, including the West

Coast area where Atlantis was built ten years later.2

Several issues were at stake for the national government: first and foremost, these were

racial designs. The white elite faced mounting challenges to its hold on power. Black urban

populations increased exponentially, threatening to overwhelm the “white cities” of Cape Town,

Johannesburg and Durban. Separate development and decentralization aimed to counter these

challenges proactively: by encouraging development in rural “Bantu” areas, black urban

migration would be stalled and whites could more legitimately claim the cities as their own

GHT Hart and TJD Fair, National Physical Development Plan (NPDP): A Summary and Review (Cape Town:
African Studies Association, 1975).

homelands, while black cities and homelands developed with the benefit of white investment.

Thus segregation and repression could be presented positively as rural development and self-


The second important aspect of this development plan was the technocratic justification

given for it. In the 1960s and 70s the idea of “optimal city size” held much greater currency than

it does today. There was significant concern internationally about urban areas becoming too

large and resources becoming too densely concentrated in one or two cities. It was argued that

crowded cities were inefficient, polluted, congested and undesirable, and further growth would

be forced to sprawl into never-ending suburbs that wasted valuable agricultural land. The

National Physical Development Plan anticipated that the national population would double from

25 to 50 million in 30 years.3 Planners looked at Cape Town and saw a rapidly expanding

population in a geographic area severely restrained by its physical features. Many considered

decentralization forward-looking and necessary.

Though this planning perspective was more accepted at the time, it was not without its

critics in South Africa. University of Cape Town Professor David Dewar published a series of

papers that sharply criticized the plans for decentralization. For Dewar, the debate boiled down

to this: does the cost of social overhead capital increase or decrease with city size, and if it

increases does this cancel the gross income advantage?4 Dewar’s point was that cities grow for a

reason: their concentration of resources provides the infrastructure that is attractive for

businesses and leads to a higher standard of living for the poor. Decentralization policies force

GHT Hart and TJD Fair, National Physical Development Plan, 1.
David Dewar, Alison Todes and Vanessa Watson, Regional Development and Settlement Policy: Premises and
Prospects (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986), 130. All of Dewar’s work on this subject was published in the 1980s,
but according to an interview with the author on August 8, 2004, the issues discussed here were contested and
debated in political meetings as early as the mid-1970s when Atlantis was first developed.

capital to conform to the interests of the state.5 The high cost of creating jobs away from cities

makes decentralization extremely expensive and damaging to overall economic growth. Dewar

estimated that in its first five years of implementation the 1967 Development Plan resulted in the

loss of 9.2 jobs for every one created in alternative locations.6 Thus the economic basis for

decentralization was called into question.

But racial and technocratic advantages of decentralization and separate development

acted as complementary justifications for apartheid planning. Whatever merit the technocratic

aspects of decentralization might have had, the process could not be separated from the politics

of racial domination. When the NPDP was designed and implemented, it bore the clear

assumption of racial segregation. Thus sites for decentralized investment were based as much on

their segregation prospects as for their presumed economic advantages.7 Furthermore, political

pressures led to an overabundance of deconcentration points, which were forced to compete with

each other for thinly spread government resources.8 Policies aimed at diverting the population

growth of poor people away from the largest cities discriminate against the poor, because they

lead to poor people living in locations where they can’t benefit from opportunities and facilities

generated by the wealthy.9 But this separation was one of the principal aims of the policy and

the combination of technocratic and racial assumptions led to a devastating result for South

Africa’s poor.

Daryl Glaser, “A Periodisation of South Africa’s Industrial Dispersal Policies,” in Regional Restructuring under
Apartheid: Urban and Regional Policies in Contemporary South Africa, eds. Richard Tomlinson and Mark
Addleson (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987), 37.
Dewar et al., Regional Development and Settlement Policy, 132.
Gavin Maasdorp, “Industrial Decentralisation and the Economic Development of the Homelands,” in South Africa:
Public Policy Perspectives, ed. Robert Schrire. Cape Town: Juta, 1982, p. 238.
Maasdorp, 239.
Dewar et. al, Regional Development and Settlement Policy, 132.

Government Policy in the Western Cape

The government’s policy in the Western Cape bore the same general assumptions but

differed from other areas for a variety of reasons. While in every other region of the country

Black Africans formed the majority of the population, the population of the Cape was

predominantly white and Coloured. There was little historical basis for a Black African

“homeland” in the Cape, because only the Khoisan lived in the Cape before European colonists

arrived in the 17th century, and their distinct population group was almost completely wiped out

by the 20th century.10 However, in 1970 close to 2 million Coloured South Africans lived in the

Cape Province, the majority of the general population.11 The idea of a Coloured homeland was

extremely contentious. Coloured identity was disputed and government policy towards

Coloureds diverged from what was applied to Black Africans. The historic legacy of the Cape

Coloured franchise lasted beyond its dismantling in 1936 and apartheid government policy on

Coloured affairs was a mixture of liberal paternalism and politically shrewd tactics of divide-


A number of dynamic pressures affected the government’s policy on the Western Cape.

First, the economy of the Western Cape suffered a relative decline in the national share of GDP

from 1960-1980.13 There was concern that the strength of the national economy would continue

to shift away from the manufacturing-dependent Western Cape. A major R1500 million

industrial project linking the new port at Saldanha on the West Coast to the mines of Sishen in

The Khoisan inhabited the areas surrounding Cape Town, but by the 20th century their population had been greatly
reduced by the incursion of European settlement. Furthermore, from the perspective of the National Party
government, Khoisan claims to the land of the Cape were unrecognized.
S.T. van der Horst, ed., The Theron Commission Report: A Summary of the Findings and Recommendations of the
Commission of Enquiry into Matters Relating to the Coloured Population Group (Johannesburg: S.A. Institute of
Race Relations, 1976).
For a general background, see Gavin Lewis, Between the Wire and the Wall.
Ian Goldin, Coloured Preference Policies and the Making of Coloured Political Identity in the Western Cape
Region of South Africa, with particular reference to the period 1948 to 1984 (Oxford, DPHIL Thesis in Faculty of
Social Sciences, 1984), 334.

the Northern Cape interior aimed to boost and diversify the region’s economy.14 The

government hoped to develop a growth axis between Saldanha and Cape Town, with Atlantis as

a midpoint between. Secondly, a major influx of Black Africans, primarily from the eastern

Cape, disrupted the state’s separate development policies. Influx control dominated Western

Cape government concerns, and led to both positive and negative policy expressions.

Restrictions on eastern Cape migration intensified and government invested in Coloured labor to

further discourage Black Africans. Thirdly, the threat of an anti-apartheid alliance of Black

Africans and Coloureds increasingly preoccupied the state, as Coloured political leaders adopted

many Black Consciousness ideas in the 1970s and became increasingly harsh in their criticism of

apartheid. Furthermore, unrest in Coloured townships increased in the 1970s and became more

linked to the growing resistance found in black townships. By developing a new city meant to

benefit Coloureds, government hoped that political and racial tensions would ease: “Above all, it

is hoped that leaders of the Coloured community of the Western Cape will help bury political

and racial hatchets, see the vital need for this city and participate in its promotion.”15 Finally, the

government was concerned about population pressures in the Cape. Coloured population in the

Western Cape was expected to increase by more than a million, while whites would increase by

300,000.16 Most of this increase was occurring in the Cape Peninsula, where land was scarce

and there was already a shortage of 60,000 houses.17 The forced removals from District Six

relocated 60,000 Coloured Capetonians away from the central city to the outskirts on the Cape

Flats. But the Cape Flats was experiencing its own pressures: “With large tracts of land reserved

Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis en Omgewing, Gidsplan / Atlantis and Environs, Guide plan (Pretoria,
1981), 2.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City,” File No. 815/36.
Plan Associates, “Preliminary Report on Population and Employment Aspects at Dassenberg,”, File No. 554/24,
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Atlantis,” File No. 554/24G, 1/1/1980.

for mining of high quality silicon sand and for ground water conservation, the Cape Flats is

already moving towards over-population and traffic problems, inherent to the city of Cape Town

and its surroundings.”18 The only new Coloured development planned for the Cape Peninsula

was Mitchell’s Plain, which could only accommodate 40,000 houses.19

Each of these factors set the stage for Atlantis development, which, it was hoped, would solve

these perceived problems.

Perhaps the most significant apartheid policy targeting the Western Cape was an

economic one: the Coloured Labour Preference Policy, which was passed in 1954. Until it was

repealed in 1984, Coloureds were given official employment preference west of the Eiselen line

(a north-south line that resembles the current boundary between the Western and Eastern Cape

provinces). This policy also delegitimized any new settlement by Black Africans in this area and

aimed to limit the influx of blacks from the Eastern Cape while raising the status of Coloureds to

co-opt unrest. More than the actual implementation of the policy, Coloured Labour Preference is

important for what it reveals about government attitude on the identity, status and future of

Coloureds in the Western Cape. The government was willing to intervene in the economy to

such an extent as to risk relations with business and a disrupted economy for the purpose of its

political and racial ideology. Ultimately the Preference Policy was unable to achieve its

purposes, as Black African migration continued, but it nevertheless marked out government

racial policy in the Western Cape for 30 years. Coloureds were given the dubious distinction of

being second- but not third-class citizens, which affected their status and identity for years to


Divisional Council of the Cape, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City,” File No. 815/36.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Atlantis,” File No. 554/24G, 1/1/1980.

Three major camps defined the predominant political thought in regards to Coloured

people. Homelanders advocated for a homeland for Coloureds similar to the Bantustans, so that

they might develop separately and independently from whites. Integrationists advocated for the

equal rights of Coloureds as citizens in a nation shared with whites. In between these two camps

was the dominant government position of the parallelists, which argued that Coloureds were a

nation in the making, that should develop separately but within the same geographic territory

until complete autonomy was realized.20 The unique history of the Coloured people and the

dependence of the economy on Coloured labor made the idea of a “Coloured-stan” impractical

for the Nationalists. But these differing viewpoints were debated throughout the 1960s and

1970s within the National Party and the CPRC.

The state also tried to incorporate Coloureds politically through the Coloured Persons’

Representative Council (CPRC). Coloured South Africans had faced a steady decline of their

voting rights throughout the 20th century. The limited franchise of the CPRC enabled Coloureds

to vote for 40 Coloured representatives who would pass advisory recommendations relating to

the Coloured people to the Minister of Coloured Affairs. The government appointed 20 other

Coloured representatives, who generally reflected government positions and limited the

capability of the council to take radical positions. Furthermore, the Minister of Coloured Affairs

held ultimate authority and would only approve measures in the white government’s interests.

At the same time, the white parliament controlled the budget for Coloured Affairs and had the

power to pass laws affecting the Coloured people. The sum effect of these limitations was to

prevent the CPRC from undertaking any significant reform. But for the apartheid government,

the CPRC was important to the legitimacy of the apartheid system and was meant to co-opt more

David Yoram Saks, The Failure of the Coloured Persons’ Representative Council and its Constitutional
Repercussions, 1956-1985 (Rhodes University, Master of Arts Thesis, 1991), 137.

radical resistance. Radical Coloured leaders mobilized against the CPRC and general voter

apathy was high, which led the government to make voter registration mandatory on penalty of a

fine. Nevertheless, voter participation remained extremely low. The government objective with

the CPRC was mixed: in theory Coloureds would be given increasing political autonomy as they

“developed,” but white interests were always held paramount. At the 1974 opening session of

the Council, the Prime Minister stated that “the Coloured population would be given the fullest

opportunity for self-determination, but without sacrificing the white population’s right of self-

determination.”21 By the mid-1970s the CPRC was in crisis, with the majority of its

representatives disillusioned with the institution and calling for its dissolution. As a result the

CPRC collapsed and the government was put under increasing pressure to legitimize its policies

of parallel development for the Coloured people.

Meanwhile Coloureds in the Western Cape were struggling economically. Low wages,

unemployment and social disruption plagued the disadvantaged community. The Theron

Commission was established to investigate matters relating to the Coloured population group in

1975. The Commission was chaired by Erica Theron, a Professor of Economics at the

University of Stellenbosch, and was composed of conservative members, both Coloured and

white. Though the report drew heavy criticism from radical and liberal voices for its

conservative assumptions and recommendations, the report gives some indication of Coloured

status in the 1970s as well as the government perspective on Coloured status. The Theron

Commission defined a Coloured person according to the Population Registration Act as “a

person who is not a white person or a Bantu. Section 5 of the Act distinguishes the following

subgroups: Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Other Coloured, Chinese, Indians and Other

Theron Report, 100.

Asiatics.”22 For the more than 2 million South African thus categorized, the Commission

reported significant poverty, unemployment, townships lacking facilities and dependence on a

government in which they had little to no representation. Coloureds received only a fraction of

the education, pensions and wages that whites did. But the biggest issue the report highlights is

housing. More than 90% of urban Coloureds lived in dwelling units constructed by the state,

most of which were subsidized.23 More than 190,000 Coloureds in the Cape Peninsula lacked

sufficient housing in 1974.24 Coloured families represented 63% of forced removals, with

53,203 already resettled in 1975 and 22,369 still waiting resettlement.25 Housing, according to

the Theron Commission, was the issue of greatest friction and therefore of the greatest concern to

the government.

Out of this regional and historical context of decentralization, separate development and

Coloured history, the National Government’s Atlantis Project was begun. Atlantis was

envisioned as a city that could ease the Cape’s housing crunch, provide employment for

Coloureds, encourage separate development and decentralize South African industry. The

national government committed huge resources to the Atlantis project, promising to limit Cape

Town development for Coloureds to Atlantis and Mitchell’s Plain, the new development in the

Cape Flats. To the apartheid planners of the 1970s, Atlantis represented an opportunity to

accomplish multiple important goals positively, without the forced removals or other politically

costly endeavors that other apartheid schemes depended on. The city would be a segregated

development for Coloureds, meant to benefit Coloureds even as it buttressed apartheid. It was

Theron Report, 1.
Theron Report, 60.
Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”
Theron Report, 62.

new, modern, and slightly utopian, and it represented apartheid separate development ideology

in its most ambitious strain. In many ways Atlantis was the model apartheid city.

The Planned City

The first houses of Atlantis were completed in 1975, on what had previously been

unoccupied sand dunes. Forty-five kilometers north of Cape Town, little lay in between the new

development and the city center in the 1970s. Because of poor soil, the west coast north of Cape

Town was sparsely settled and cultivated. Several large farms occupied the surrounding area,

but these enjoyed only tenuous success, growing mainly grain crops.26 The actual project was

planned on the incorporated land from the farms of Hartebeest Kraal, Hansmelkskraal, Groote

Springfontein, Buffelsrivier, Cruywagenskraal, and Ganzekraal, apparently with little

resistance.27 The only town in the immediate surroundings was the former mission station of

Mamre. In 1701 Governor van der Stel established a military post there, which in 1808 became

a mission station of the Moravian Church.28 In the 1950s the Mamre Rural Coloured Group

Area was proclaimed, making the white-owned farms of the Atlantis area illegitimate.

According to the 1970 census, the Mamre Group Area had a population of 5,480 people living on

5,508 hectares of land.29 Based on the project plan, this population would increase almost one

hundred fold with the development of Atlantis.

The creation of a growth point “near Mamre” was announced in 1970. In 1972 the area

was declared for Coloured occupation and development. In 1973 the Divisional Council of the

Cape (Divco), the white-elected regional authority, was appointed to develop the growth point.

Divco immediately set up the Mamre Development Committee, which later became known as

Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan, 6.
Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan, 6.
Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan, 6.
Theron Report, 46.

the Atlantis Development Committee, and was tasked with overseeing planning, development

and governance of Atlantis.30 The Committee consisted of six Divco Councilors, plus

representatives of the following State and Provincial Departments:31

• Department of Environmental Planning and Energy

• Department of Community Development
• Department of Coloured Administration
• The South African Railways
• The Decentralization Board
• The Provincial Administration of the Cape Province
• The Coloured Development Corporation

In 1974 the committee appointed a consortium of planners and consultants to design the project.

Later that year the first residential suburb was initiated and the first contract for services in the

industrial area was awarded. Mr. Piet Burger was appointed Project Director in 1975, a position

he continued to hold for the next 15 years. Not until 1978 was the committee expanded to

include two Coloured members.

The name “Atlantis” brings to mind the mythical lost city of Atlantis, a great civilization

that sank into the sea in ancient times. It evokes a fantasy of lost greatness. Throughout the

history of the new town, its name has stood out and distinguished it. For some, it represented the

ambitious prospect of the town, an attempt to “find” and reclaim the lost city. For others, the

name Atlantis represented the failure and doom of apartheid. One resident put it this way:

People call Atlantis the lost city. In Afrikaans, ‘maak in vrigters’ [break in pieces]. You
come here, you leave here broken. You come with high expectations, and then being
here, there were drastic changes, and you left broken-hearted, the land of milk and honey.
We had no choice in the name, it as given to us. The lost city, the sinking of the ship or

Moosa Ebrahim et al., Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare? (Cape Town: Southern Africa Labour and Development
Research Unit, 1986).
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Reservation of Separate Amenities, Development of Area West of Mamre,” File
No. 554/24/G, 1 January 1980.
Rebecca Davids, interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 29 June 2004.

But there is little to no documentation about how and why the name “Atlantis” was chosen. The

new town was initially named Dassenberg New Town, for the prominent hill nearby the building

site, but in October 1975, Divco changed the name to Atlantis.33 The residents were not given

any opportunity to participate in the naming.

The plan for Atlantis ambitiously envisioned a city consisting of six interlinked towns

housing 500,000 Coloured residents to be completed in 35 years. Two major industrial areas

would provide employment for the majority of the residents, making the city economically

autonomous. At the same time, Atlantis was designed to be close enough to Cape Town to

benefit from economic linkages and a proposed rail line connecting the cities.34

Projected population of Atlantis 35

1973 1980 1987 1995 2003 2010
Population 0 60,000 155,000 270,000 398,000 500,000

The new West Coast road, completed in 1976, promised efficient road transportation from

Atlantis to Cape Town. Atlantis was envisioned as a modern, planned city that avoided the

problems of urban sprawl and congestion. Each of the six towns was meant to have its own

identity, while each town was designed to be composed of six smaller villages within the town,

similarly emphasizing local community and services within the larger city. The industrial areas

were adjacent to residences, so workers could walk to work, saving on transportation costs.

Furthermore, all the homes would be equipped with modern services like electricity and running

water, setting a standard of living beyond that enjoyed by most Coloured Capetonians at the

time. Brochures designed at the launch of Atlantis proclaimed it “the industrial city of the

“Change of Name of Local Area: Dassenberg to Atlantis,” Divisional Council of the Cape, File No. 815/23.
Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan.
Plan Associates, Atlantis Ontwerp Gidsplan, 1975.

future” and the “largest planned city in the southern hemisphere,” combining high living

standards with affordable living costs.36 Piet Burger lauded Atlantis as,

A town planner’s dream, because it is not constricted between mountains and the sea, like
Cape Town. It can be laid out according to the most modern ideas of town planning, with
ample parking space and lanes for buses. The city center will have large government
buildings, a university and technikon and a shopping facilities and a site has been
earmarked for a theater.37

As a “new town,” Atlantis was carefully planned and controlled by the state. A 1974 Atlantis

planning document made this assumption explicit: “It is obviously only at government level

where rational decisions can be taken and implemented as far as new urban development is

concerned.”38 Thus Atlantis was envisioned as a model apartheid city, where development and

settlement patterns could be tightly controlled and manipulated by government.

Certain environmental and political factors influenced the location and development of

Atlantis. The relative isolation, sandy soil and plentiful underground aquifers made Atlantis an

attractive site for apartheid-era planners, who wanted to develop undeveloped areas particularly

for non-whites. As the 1981 Atlantis Guide Plan articulated,

Another important factor that could influence the development pattern is the existing
demarcation of group areas. This demarcation also reflects the tendency by the two
population groups to establish themselves in the north and southwest of the guide plan
area, respectively. The White settlements are in the south and southwest and the
Coloured settlements in the north…It is clear that there is already a basic land-use pattern
which must, owing to its present extensive nature, be logically expanded and

These apartheid assumptions made Atlantis an ideal scenario. The fact that Atlantis’ sandy soil

had little farming potential made it ideal for an industrial site, while the open, flat land gave

planners freedom to design a model city. Finally, the isolation of Atlantis served a political

Industrial Decentralisation Board, Atlantis, 1975.
Audrey D’Angelo, “City center or another suburb? Major project for Atlantis,” Cape Times, 12 July 1986.
Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”
Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan, 18.

purpose of separating Coloureds from the city center of Cape Town. The sprawling Cape Flats

were dangerous to the government, while Atlantis was separate and could easily be cut off from

the rest of the Metropolitan area by simply closing two roads. Finally, Koeberg Nuclear Power

Station blocked off any major possibility for development to connect Atlantis to Cape Town,

because of strict population restrictions in the area of the power station that lay directly between

Atlantis and Cape Town.40 For apartheid planners this would help guard against urban sprawl.

But its more immediate and lasting effect was to isolate Atlantis from Cape Town.

Atlantis development started on the eastern extremity of the project, not with the central

town as would have been ideal. Lack of accessibility and land ownership made the area planned

for the central town unavailable for development in 1975.41 As a result Atlantis developed as a

residential and industrial town with few of the commercial developments that would be expected

in a major city. Wesfleur, as the eastern development was called, was to be the first of six towns

and was adjacent to the industrial park. Avondale was the first of the six villages within

Wesfleur to be developed. Housing consisted of a variety ranging from low-income apartments

to middle-income houses. All of the housing was heavily government-subsidized. Until parts of

Robinvale and Beacon Hill (Wesfleur neighborhoods) were developed in the mid 1980s, all

Atlantis housing was built and operated by the Divisional Council. In response to the housing

crunch in the Cape, the government built thousands of low-income dwellings in Atlantis. Based

on the housing demand and the government subsidy, thousands of Coloureds moved to Atlantis.

Government-built housing far outstripped employment during the early years. The vast

majority of employed Atlantis residents commuted to Cape Town for work via public

transportation. The success of the city depended on its ability to attract jobs, primarily through

Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan, 16.
Atlantis: A summary of information (Compiled on behalf of the Western Cape Regional Services Council: Ref.
1004, 1990), 2.

industrial relocations to the new Atlantis industrial area. Without jobs in Atlantis, residents

would have to commute to Cape Town for work. Atlantis had cheap land and good roads, but its

distance from Cape Town or any other metropolitan center made incentives necessary for

factories to relocate. Thus the Development Committee, through the Industrial Decentralization

Board, offered concessions to companies to open factories in Atlantis. For the first time,

advantages offered to industrialists in growth points near Bantustans were applied to the Western

Province.42 The incentive package included low-cost loans for land purchases and buildings,

reductions in company taxes, cash grants for relocation costs, railway discounts, housing loans

and guaranteed housing for staff.43 Initially, industrialists received 40% tax rebates on wages,

40% rail transportation rebates and 3% price preference in South Africa.44 By 1986, government

subsidies had increased to 40% rail rebates, 80% wage subsidies, 4% price preference and 40%

rent and interest subsidies for 10 years.45

More than 100 factories moved to Atlantis to take advantage of these incentives.

Particularly common were light industrial and manufacturing industries that could easily relocate

without substantial investment. In 1979, the government claimed that 3,000 jobs had been

provided in Atlantis, 2,000 of which were newly created positions, and 400 were middle-class

occupations like teachers, policemen and hospital attendants.46 However, the vast majority of

new positions were in low-paying jobs at the factories. Until 1979, Atlantis was considered a

rural area where companies could pay workers 15% less than they would have to in Cape

Town.47 Furthermore, workers continued to commute to Cape Town in great numbers, even as

Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”
“Atlantis—City Grows from Wasteland,” Cape Argus, 28 September 1979.
Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 3.
“Atlantis—City Grows from Wasteland,” Cape Argus, 28 September 1979.
“Atlantis Kan Groot Groeipunt Word,” Die Burger, 6 May 1979.

management, engineers and other skilled staff commuted from outside of Atlantis to fill positions

in Atlantis. In 1986, 45% of employed Atlantis household heads worked outside of Atlantis, and

almost half of these spent more than two hours per day commuting to and from work.48

Atlantis was designed to become a “modern industrial city of the future.”49 Investment in

the infrastructure was relatively impressive in the early years, as paved roads, running water,

electricity, new schools and new homes marked Atlantis as distinct from other Coloured

township areas. From 1975-1979, the Divisional Council spent R34 million on infrastructure

and living units, in addition to the millions spent on industrial development.50 However,

substantial commercial and entertainment opportunities did not come to Atlantis until well into

the 1980s. Most residents commuted regularly to Cape Town for all but the most basic

necessities. The primary limitation on infrastructure development was the lack of employment.

Though dozens of factories moved to Atlantis, employment fell short of expectations.

Government was hesitant to build houses in excess of what the industrial area could provide jobs

for, and investment in shopping centers, libraries and movie complexes made little sense for a

population below 20,000. A 1974 planning report prioritized industrial development:

In the early stages of development the initial small number of residents will justify only
certain retail trade and services functions, but as the population increases, the need for
specialized services will develop proportionately. Attention should therefore, in the first
place, be given to industrial development in Dassenberg.51

For this reason, Atlantis was “linked compulsively with the parent city, Cape Town.”52

In housing, jobs, health, transportation and recreation, early Atlantis residents were

almost completely dependent on a government which offered them virtually no representation.

Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 54.
Industrial Decentralisation Board, Atlantis, 1975.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Atlantis,” File No. 554/24G, 1/1/1980.
Plan Associates, “Preliminary Report on Population and Employment Aspects at Dassenberg.”
Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”

The Atlantis Development Committee (ADC) was essentially a sub-committee of the Divisional

Council of the Cape, made up of councilors from white voting districts and representatives of

various government departments. The ADC directed Atlantis development, administered funds

and governed Atlantis. Funding came from various departments of national government: the

Department of Community Development and Planning was in charge of stimulation of industry

and construction of appropriate infrastructure, the Department of Local Government, Housing

and Agriculture funded the development of housing and community facilities, and Divco was

tasked with implementing and coordinating development.53

Atlantis was highly dependent on the employment of the nearby factories. However,

Atlantis residents were almost exclusively low-level laborers, with upper-management mainly

commuting from Cape Town, Milnerton and nearby Melkbosstrand. Although government

supporters claimed that Atlantis offered unlimited opportunities for Coloured entrepreneurs, the

reality was that Atlantis was a poor, isolated, one-race city with little diversity in economic class

and little opportunity for real advancement. Political control of the industrial area was separated

from the residential area and held by the Atlantis Industria Local Council (which represented

factories), the Decentralisation Board (which administered incentives), and the Industrial

Development Corporation (which was a government-funded investment corporation). Atlantis

residents had no representation in any of these forums. In the first five years of Atlantis,

medium-size manufacturing companies were predominant, numbering over 100 by 1980.

Textile, clothing and furniture manufacturers were the majority.54 However, these factories were

labor-intensive, low-investment companies that were highly mobile and vulnerable to economic

recession. The greatest boon to the economy of Atlantis was the establishment of Atlantis Diesel

Western Cape Regional Services Council, Atlantis Structure Plan (Cape Town: Plan Associates, Liebenberg and
Stander, Olen and Foster, 1990), 2.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Reservation of Separate Amenities.”

Engines (ADE) in Atlantis. At a cost of approximately R200 million to the state, the Industrial

Development Corporation (a state-sponsored investment company) became the primary

stakeholder in the new company to be based in Atlantis. The prospects of the employment and

investment coming from this heavy-industrial company led Divco to confidently proclaim that

the launching of ADE would “definitely establish Atlantis as a successful growth point.”55 ADE

quickly became the largest employer in Atlantis, employing over 2,300 workers at its peak.

Atlantis became a “government-company town.”

The projections and plans for Atlantis expected rapid growth and development. By 1980,

10,937 homes would be occupied and Wesfleur, the first of six towns, would be complete. The

reality however, was only 3,777 dwellings in 1980. Wesfleur, as of 2004, was still not

completely developed.56 From the beginning, expectations of industrial development and

government funding were disappointed. As the national economy continually worsened in the

1980s, the development of Atlantis grew increasingly bleak. External political pressures

mounted, and internal resistance in Atlantis grew. The story of Atlantis therefore goes beyond

the plans and intentions of government, as life on the ground in Atlantis did not meet its

founders’ expectations, despite extensive planning and investment. But Atlantis nevertheless

represented a remarkable achievement of government. Previous to 1975, population in the

Atlantis area was sparse and rural. 10 years later, thousands lived in new homes with factory

jobs in a new city. Despite ominous problems, government officials and planners remained

optimistic. Piet Burger epitomized this perspective:

Divisional Council of the Cape, “Annual Report,” 1978/79.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 3.

Three years ago, 1000 homes stood vacant in Atlantis. Squatters and homeless people
were transferred by the Cape Municipality…some struggled and left, while others
remained as their salaries increased to match their living standards. The rise of the lower
class to middle-class status gives much satisfaction. Crime is on the decline, renovations
are underway, gardens are being planted, and 60% have TV.57

Atlantis was the white government’s responsibility, and for the most part government embraced

this role, controlling housing, employment and development for the thousands of Coloureds who

moved there. For Atlantis residents, this was a mixed blessing, and their personal stories tell of a

different Atlantis than that of the government-planned utopia.

“Atlantis Ná Sewe Jaar ‘n Economiese Reus” Die Burger, 9 December 1982.

III. The People in the Early Years: 1975-1985

If you didn’t have a home you came here. I saw the place, I saw the peacefulness and I came.
And there were a lot of factories, they were subsidized by the government and lots of people
came here for work. —Regina Oostendorp

The Central Market Area of Atlantis

Atlantis residents generally came to the new town voluntarily and with hopeful

expectations. New homes and jobs in the factories attracted thousands throughout the Western

Cape and beyond. The people of Atlantis came not just as the manipulated subjects of an

apartheid plan, but as actors and agents of their own history. They established themselves with

creativity and initiative and generally made the best of their lives in the early years.

Coming to Atlantis

Margaret Lombard came to Atlantis in the back of a pickup truck.1 The first time she saw

her house and the town she was to live in for the next 25 years was the day she moved into her

house. For almost a decade she had waited for a house, stuck on the waiting list for Cape Town

city council homes. Eventually she decided to apply for a house through the Divisional Council,

which would place her further away from Cape Town. She was promptly given a house, loaded

on the back of a truck and taken to Atlantis—already known in 1980 as a ghost town, despite

being only 5 years old. Atlantis was essentially the one place in Metropolitan Cape Town where

working-class Coloureds could get houses. Thus, despite its isolation and lack of facilities, many

moved there willingly. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit

(SALDRU) estimated that 55% of families came to Atlantis for reasons of housing. 19%

resettled in Atlantis because they already had a job in Atlantis, and 4% said they had no choice in

coming to Atlantis.2

The Kastoor family lived in the small farming community of Kalbaaskraal, just 15

kilometers to the east of Atlantis.3 Living informally in shacks without electricity or running

water on white-owned farmland, they worked as farm laborers or domestic workers. This

Margaret Lombard, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?.
Georgina Kastoor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 30, June 2004.

situation left them extremely vulnerable, and in 1980 the Divisional Council threatened to

bulldoze the homes unless the family moved to Atlantis. Thus the large extended family was

taken to Atlantis, including the 84 year old Mrs. Kastoor, who continued to live for another 24

years before passing away in late 2004 at the age of 108. The government was intent on

relocating illegal squatters to legal homes in Atlantis. Many Atlantis residents were removed

from Killarney Gardens, a suburb north of Cape Town, to make way for the industrial and white

residential development that took place there in the 1980s.

However, the settlers most often saw their relocations as an improvement in situation and

status. Residents of Atlantis could legally own and live in relatively spacious homes with

electricity, running water and paved streets, luxuries few Coloureds knew at the time. The vast

majority of Atlantis residents moved willingly with high expectations for their future in the new

city. The early days of Atlantis were full of promise, as Atlantis was the place with houses and

jobs for Coloureds. Most new Atlantis residents embraced the opportunity to move to the new

city of Coloured opportunity.

Many Atlantis residents came to the new town with a job. Through company transfers or

recruitment, Atlantis represented a place of expanding employment and opportunity. Farm

workers earning as low as R10 a month could move to Atlantis and earn R500.4 Some came to

take advantage of new professional opportunities, chiefly government positions like teaching and

nursing. The great majority, however, came for work in the factories, which provided the bulk of

Atlantis employment since its inception. Percy Louw came to Atlantis two days before he began

work at Atlantis Diesel Engines (ADE), when the company found him a house through the

Divisional Council.5 Other companies, most notably Eskom (the public electricity company),

Abe Croutz, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.
Percy Louw, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 5 July 2004.

built their own housing for their employees and deducted rent from worker wages. Atlantis was

predominantly a company town, led by state-sponsored companies like ADE and Eskom. With

unemployment and housing as the crucial issues confronting Cape Coloureds in the 1970s and

1980s, Atlantis was a very attractive destination. Backed by government subsidies, Atlantis

residents could work in factories that paid adequate wages and afford to live in their own homes.

Thus, though the development of Atlantis was not as rapid as the state hoped, the dominant

impression of people’s relocation to Atlantis is positive. There were few superior alternatives for


Conditions of Life

By the beginning of 1980, the population of Atlantis was 18,000.6 2,321 of these were

employed in Atlantis, the vast majority working in the industrial factories.7 A survey of 402

families living in rental accommodations in Atlantis found that 63% of household heads worked

as factory laborers (see tables).8 However, at this time more than half of these workers

commuted outside Atlantis for work.

Occupation Distribution in Atlantis9

Occupation # %
Professional, technical 9 2
Clerical 15 4
Sales 13 3
Transport and Communication 36 9
Factory workers, labourers 255 63
Service, sport and recreation 27 7
Unspecified 5 1
Unemployed 42 11
Total 402 100

Divisional Council, “Atlantis,” 4.
Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment/Wage Survey – Atlantis,” File No. 554/24/F, 3/17/1980.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Socio-economic Survey of Atlantis Rental Families,” File No. H 54/22, 1979.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Socio-economic Survey of Atlantis Rental Families.”

Location of Employment for Atlantis Workers10
Location # Employed % Employed
Atlantis 102 25
Koeberg Power Station 23 6
Metropolitan Cape Town 214 53
Other 21 5
Unemployed 42 11
Total 402 100

In terms of wages, workers employed outside of Atlantis earned 20% more than those employed

in Atlantis. The average monthly income of the household head was R147. On average 33% of

this income went toward rent. With high transport costs and living expenses in the isolated town,

the low wages and high rent made life difficult for most Atlantis residents. The conclusion of the

1979 rental survey was that more employment opportunities were needed in Atlantis.

Despite major government investment, infrastructure remained largely undeveloped in

the early years, so factories’ involvement in Atlantis often went beyond employment. As one

factory owner said,

Our labourers are our responsibility for 24 hours per day, instead of the usual 8-hour
shift. This was caused due to a lack of certain services in the Atlantis residential areas.
We have for example implemented a service delivery for groceries. Baby milk is ordered
in vast quantities and we have to make the necessary requirements for the medical needs
of our people. We negotiate directly with the Municipality whenever grievances of
housing arise. At the end everything works well as we have a close relationship with our
staff. This raises the staff morale and teamwork—with exceptional high production.11

With housing often linked to factory employment and many factories heavily invested in

guaranteeing a stable workforce, Atlantis experienced an unusual combination of government

and company involvement. However, as one worker noted, “Die government hy staan saam met

die base—jy werk vir hom—jy moet dans soos hy speel—jive of langarm” [“The government he

Divisional Council of the Cape, “Socio-economic Survey of Atlantis Rental Families.”
“Alles Onder Een Dak,” Die Burger, 27 November 1981.

stands together with the bosses—you work for him—you must dance as he plays—the jive of the

long-arm”].12 (See appendix for list of factories.)

Atlantis is frequently described by its residents as a “cosmopolitan town,” a surprising

observation given its isolation and racial segregation.13 Atlantis brought people from all over the

country who had no previous roots in the community. Families from the Boland, the West

Coast, Cape Town and even the Transvaal came to Atlantis, almost everyone starting life in the

new town within 15 years of each other. This unique newness dominated the culture of Atlantis

in the early years. The community did not have established generational ties. Few had grown up

even within the vicinity of Atlantis, and thus were often removed from extended family ties. The

only thing Atlantis residents had in common was their Coloured identity and their location in

Atlantis, isolated from their previous homes.14 Rebecca Davids bemoaned the lack of

community in Atlantis:

For the past 27 years, I’ve never sat down with a cup of tea (with a neighbor). We just
greet each other. It’s not my fault, because I’m a community person, and I love people.
But there is just a distance. You see a difference in the flats (sub-economic rentals),
where there is a great sense of community. They will cry, they will laugh with one
another, they will borrow from one another. Sometimes I do get jealous when I stand on
my stoep (porch) and here we are so distant. I think that’s a difference when it comes to
the ownership. And I don’t know why.15

Atlantis community structure was certainly different than other Coloured townships, and home

ownership, isolation and newness all contributed to degrees of alienation for residents. However,

in other ways, particularly as time went on, Atlantis developed community unity, most often

built around religious or social institutions. Rebecca Davids in the same interview describes her

church community:

Hope, “Hulle weet hoe om mense te skei,” 31.
This observation was made at least half a dozen times in interviews. For example, Quinton Pick, interview by the
author, Atlantis, South Africa, 2 July 2004.
Noel Williams, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 15 August 2004.
Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.

Those become family, friends. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Some kind of a
community, that helped us. Community was things like we could also share; you haven’t
got sugar? or money to buy the sugar? you can go borrow. That was the bond we had.
And social things too, because there were no other facilities. We’d say, once a month we
would meet in a person’s home, and everyone would bring something.

Others residents describe how as time went on Atlantis became home. “My attitude changed

when my boy said ‘let’s go home’ (to Atlantis). This is the home of my children.”16 As Noel

Williams says, “Atlantis has became a stable community, and people know each other and are

closer to each other now.”17

Though designed as an urban area, in its early years Atlantis was more often compared to

a farm. Recollections of the period remember quiet nights, beautiful views and total isolation

from the city. Driving to Atlantis from Cape Town, you drove a great distance on the new

coastal road through completely uninhabited land before encountering the new industrial area

and entering Atlantis. All the streets, houses, factories and signs were new and modern.

Rebecca Davids moved to Atlantis in its first year, and remembers moving into an empty street

and admiring the beautiful open space all around her.18 She recalls terrifying nights when her

husband worked the night shift and she felt completely alone in darkness and silence except for

sound of the wind. Others remember the early years of Atlantis as “dreary and dusty,” as the

strong coastal winds would constantly pick up loose sand.19 For many who lived in Atlantis as

children, the surrounding dunes and bush were the ultimate playground, because there was no

concern about crime in those days.20 Sister Bowers has been the matron of the Wesfleur hospital

since 1977, and remembers the early years as “absolutely rural, and very crude, with no nothing

Dominee Strauss, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 2 July 2004.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.
Bessie Bailey, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 30 June 2004.
Vivian Jacobs, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 August 2004.

here.”21 Even as Atlantis developed, the great isolation of the town from Cape Town perpetuated

this urban-rural dynamic.

The homes were plain and functional, and all the yards and surrounding open space were

sand and coastal brush. Many streets and housing complexes were named with nautical terms

and schools had bright colored roofs. Wesfleur was designed with six neighborhoods

surrounding the central market area, and roads were generally circular around this center. The

area was treeless except for the old tree-lined Mamre road planted by 19th century missionaries

which cut a green swath through the town. Almost all the homes were similar single-story, 4-6

room dwellings, while the flats were two or three-story boxes. There were no traffic signals and

traffic was never a problem. Most factory employees would walk to work, a 10-20 minute walk

for most. The weather rarely dropped below freezing, but without central heating the homes

were cold in the winter. Again, the dominant feature of the landscape was sand, which blew


Avondale, the first neighborhood developed, was closest to the factories and had the

widest range of housing options, from low-income row houses to better quality middle-income

homes.22 Most of Avondale was developed by 1984, with 2,022 dwelling units built out of a

total 2,570 lots. Three primary schools and a high school served the area. Saxonsea developed

next, farther to the north, similarly providing low-income housing and larger plots for home

ownership. The neighborhood was slower to develop the commercial infrastructure and

transportation that Avondale had. Three primary schools and one secondary school served 1,934

households. Saxonsea was also the site of the most recent development in Atlantis, extension 13,

Sister Bowers, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.
The Planning Partnership, Atlantis: State of the Project (Cape Town, 1991).

built in the late 1990s. Protea Park was developed to the southeast, with mostly low-income

housing for 1,895 households. Three primary schools and one secondary school served the area.

Robinvale was divided by the trees of the old Mamre mission road, which separated a

poorer area of flats closer to the town center from better-quality homes to the east, including

some self-built homes. One primary school and one secondary school served the area, with

1,316 dwellings, 785 of which were privately owned by 1991. Robinvale was known as a

largely middle-class area. Beaconhill was planned as the upper-income area of Wesfleur in the

north-east, but remains largely undeveloped to this day. 124 private homes are developed, with a

potential for 1,640 more. Sherwood is also largely undeveloped, with 916 private homes

developed out of a potential of 2,250. Half of the lots were developed for low to middle-income

houses in the north of Wesfleur. Atlantis, while completely planned, remained largely

undeveloped even in 2004. Low-income houses and flats were the majority of the housing, as

Atlantis generally housed poor people with nowhere else to go.

Atlantis had few shops or other commercial ventures. Up until 1980, aside from the

houses and the factories, there was no bank, bakery, postal delivery or supermarket.

Entertainment options were so limited that Lionel Petersen would screen a film at the primary

school once a week.23 Postal services were only in Mamre, five kilometers away, and police

were so limited that neighborhood-watch groups undertook informal policing. Traveling to Cape

Town was a regular necessity for government services and shopping. A single bus traveled to

Cape Town every morning, charging R10, which was very expensive for most Atlantis residents.

Nevertheless, there were few other options, and what shops did exist in Atlantis were extremely


“Looking at Atlantis,” Cape Times, 14 January 1977.

While new houses, electricity and running water were welcome luxuries for most, they

did make life in Atlantis more expensive. Even with substantial government housing subsidies,

most residents saw substantial increases in their living expenses in Atlantis. Only 8% paid less

rent in Atlantis.24 86% paid higher rent in Atlantis, with an average increase of R23 per month.

Almost a quarter paid no rent before moving to Atlantis.25 Percy Louw remembers his rent

tripling when he moved to Atlantis,26 and Georgina Kastoor continues to regret the extra

expenses in rent, electricity and water that were not necessary when she lived in Kalbaaskraal.27

So long as residents held factory jobs, they were generally able to afford life in Atlantis, but as

the local economy slowed in the 1980s, the extra costs became burdensome.

Many of the new homes were poorly designed, with the roofs too near the ceilings,

causing poor ventilation. Walls were moist with condensation in the mornings, and mould

became a major problem.28 The management committee was tasked with rectifying the situation,

which first led to fresh paint jobs for all the houses, which did not long solve the problem. Percy

Louw lived in such a house, and complained until the Divisional Council put a chimney into the

house to prevent further mold damage.29

The Divisional Council started schools almost immediately. Lionel Petersen was

principal of the first Atlantis school, known as School #2 (later renamed Wesfleur Primary)

because School #1 was completed later than expected.30 Mr. Petersen was transferred to Atlantis

at the end of 1975, and the first classes began in January 1976 with 19 pupils. By the next year

54 teachers taught 1,500 pupils, many working double shifts. By then School #1 (later renamed

Divisional Council, “Socio-economic Survey of Atlantis Rental Families,” 3 December 1979.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?
Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.
Georgina Kastoor, 30 June 2004.
“Muwwe huise gratis herstel in Atlantis,” Die Burger, 18 July 1987.
Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.
Lionel Petersen, interview by the author, Gordon’s Bay, South Africa, 15 July 2004.

Avondale Primary) was open, with P.A. Kastoor moving from Mamre Primary to become the

new principal. For the first several years, only primary education was available in Atlantis, and

pupils traveled to Malmesbury for high school. Instruction was entirely in Afrikaans (the first

language of 91% of households)31, except for language instruction, which primarily focused on

English. As required by Coloured apartheid education policy of the time, emphasis was on

vocational education, with opportunities for tertiary education only for a select few. The

government’s aim was to make Atlantis education typical of wider apartheid education for


With few recreational activities available, sport became an essential social activity for the

Atlantis community. Initially this was organized by ADE, which sponsored the ADE Sports and

Social Club. Employees contributed monthly fees matched by the company, and matches were

played on ADE facilities. Approximately R12,000 was gathered annually from members, a large

sum for its time.32 The club folded in the mid-1990s when ADE collapsed. Alongside the ADE

club, the Atlantis Sport Board of Control, which started in 1979, governed and organized sports

in the community. Both school and club teams, composed mainly of young men, competed with

each other and against other West Coast clubs. Rugby and soccer were most popular, along with

some interest in cricket and volleyball. Sports played a crucial role in the community, as one of

the few structured forms of entertainment within Atlantis.

Atlantis was a predominantly Christian community, reflecting religious patterns of

Coloured South Africans more generally. Ninety-four percent identified as Christians and 3% as

Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?
Ruben Kahn, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 23 August 2004.

Muslims, compared to 83% Christian and 6% Muslim nationally.33 The predominant Christian

denominations were as following:

N.G. Sendingkerk (23%)

New Apostolic Church (15%)
Anglican Church (11%)
Old Apostolic Church (10%)
Roman Catholic (9%)
Pentecostal Church (6%)
Moravian Church (5%)

Though much smaller, the Muslim community was not insignificant. Muslim families owned a

disproportionate number of businesses and generally were a distinct but respected community.

The Avondale mosque was founded in 1984, the Saxonsea mosque in 1989, and later an Imam

was opened to offer religious instruction.34 Many Muslim children attended both secular school

and Muslim school each day.

Given the limited opportunities for Coloured women in Atlantis, the entrepreneurship of

social services is quite remarkable. Government services were generally insufficient to meet the

challenges faced by many Atlantis residents. Sister Rose came to Atlantis in 1976 as a health

worker employed by the Divisional Council. As she remembers it, her role went beyond that of

a nurse or a community health worker and included “doctor, mother, psychologist and wife.”35

Her story is not uncommon in Atlantis, as many people, particularly women, rose to meet the

challenges of the community and helped people constantly, sharing everything at all hours of the

day and night. A group of women, led by Regina Oostendorp, started the first crèche in Atlantis,

providing education and childcare for pre-school age children whose parents were at work. As

Mrs. Oostendorp remembers it,

Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?
Ahmad Dien, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 24 August 2004.
Sister Rose, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, October 2003.

There was nothing here. There were no pre-schools, there was no place for children, and
people had to go to town [Cape Town] for work at that time, and I wanted to start the first
crèche here, as the principal. That’s how I started in the community, I saw there was a
need for one, and it is still standing.36

Patching together government grants, crèche fees and fundraising revenues, they managed to

start several crèches throughout Atlantis as the needs of the community increased.

In 1981, many of the same women worked together to start Orion, a school, training

center, workshop and care-facility for disabled children and adults. Government funds were

recruited, and further fundraising included collecting door-to-door and holding dances. The

fundraisers managed to gather revenue of approximately R60,000 a year.37 Out of nothing Orion

became a large organization with full-time employees and three separate centers in Atlantis

serving Coloureds. A separate white facility nearby called Camphill was run with incomparable

funding and resources, while Orion increasingly struggled with finances. But Orion is evidence

of the resourcefulness of Atlantis within the limitations of their situation.

The commercial sector of Atlantis has remained extremely limited throughout its history.

Small convenience shops, butcheries, bakeries and one large supermarket are all that the local

economy has been able to sustain. Most Atlantis residents went to Cape Town to shop.

Nevertheless, many business owners thrived, as limited competition and markets led to booming

business at relatively high prices. Mari Desai remembers coming to Atlantis in 1984 to start Roll

King Bakery on the suggestion of a friend who was already established in Atlantis.38 For several

years, business boomed, until the economy slowed down with factory lay-offs in the mid-1980s.

Desai was classified as Indian according to the Population Registration Act, and thus it was

illegal for him to own property or to live in Atlantis, which was officially limited to Coloureds.

Regina Oostendorp, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 13 July 2004.
Mrs. Adams, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 14 July 2004.
Mari Desai, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 18 July 2004.

Most Indian and white business owners commuted from outside Atlantis, but Desai bypassed the

council by having his friend buy the property for him, enabling him to live in Atlantis as one of

the few non-Coloureds. “Everything was restricted,” he recalls. “They made a criminal out of


Most of the businesses and factories were owned by whites and Indians, who generally

had the economic resources needed to start businesses that Coloureds of the time generally

lacked. Though the government theoretically encouraged Coloured ownership, in reality

Coloureds made up the working class in their own town, while people who commuted to Atlantis

from outside took management and ownership positions. Black Africans, on the other hand,

were allowed to sell their labor in Atlantis, but were not allowed to stay in the town beyond

nightfall.39 In 1986 a factory owner applied to house three Black African workers on the

premises of the factory, but this application was denied because of the existing racial housing

policy.40 The reasons given are revealing:

(i) Many residents of Atlantis are at present unemployed and looking for work and should
therefore have been given preference in respect of these vacancies.
(ii) The housing of people within an Industrial area when so many houses are standing
vacant is unacceptable to the Committee

Vacant houses were left unfilled because the government restricted housing to Coloureds with

jobs. Thus the government prioritized Coloured welfare and the development of Atlantis. While

this directly benefited the Coloured residents of Atlantis, it perpetuated the racial caste system

that subjected Coloureds under white domination but tried to keep them separate from other

discriminated groups.

“No ‘basic facilities’ at Atlantis” Cape Times, 12 August 1981.
Divisional Council of the Cape, “Housing of Black Labour on Factory Premises,” File No. 815/18, 3/17/1986.

The Kleinsake Ontwikkelingskorporasie (KSOK), a public-private corporation, owned

and managed all of the shopping centers in the area, including the hotel and 45 factories.41 The

first supermarket came to Atlantis only in 1982, though some boycotted it because whites owned

it.42 Along with the Industrial Development Corporation, a similar public-private venture,

Atlantis corporate development was controlled by the government, which provided most of the

initial investment. In general the arrangement benefited the development of the Atlantis

economy, providing jobs and services for Atlantis residents, but it also channeled funds

according to its political purposes and retained control of the Atlantis economy, often to the

detriment of the community. The people of Atlantis had little input into the process of


One area the government did not control was the informal economy. Vendors sold small

items on the streets. Along the walking routes between the factories and houses, dozens of small

stalls sold cigarettes and food. For workers like Kevin Momberg, it was an opportunity to

supplement income.43 50-60 traders would line up near the Tedelex factory, arriving as early as

4 a.m. to reserve a good place. Their micro-economy supplemented the wage economy of the

factories and the commercial opportunities of the few stores in Atlantis. It was not until the

1990s that these informal traders were organized into an association, with Momberg elected as

first chairperson. The informality of this sector made it unique in Atlantis, where government

loomed large in almost every sphere of life.

“Atlantis ‘móét top-nywerheidsgebied word,’” Die Burger, 27 July 1987.
Noel Williams, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 15 August 2004.
Kevin Momberg, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.


Atlantis was marked by considerable political complacency in the early years. Separated

geographically from areas of greater political consciousness and unrest, few Atlantis residents

were aware of the full implications of apartheid. Their experience in Atlantis itself was

insulated: Atlantis residents were not confronted by the inequality of wealth and opportunity

between racial groups. Instead they saw the government investing enormous resources to

provide housing and jobs at levels unprecedented in Cape Town. For people with a house and a

job, who had never experienced more opportunity or privilege than they did in Atlantis, political

activism was an alien and foolhardy risk. Today many in Atlantis actually believe that life was

better under the old system, because the government helped a lot then.44 Here is where politics

of the present get entangled with memory of the past. More conservative members of the

community will remember the early days of Atlantis for the new jobs and homes given by the

government. Even more radical ANC activists will concede that Atlantis has regressed in many

ways over the years, even since 1994.45 Atlantis was designed to co-opt Coloured resistance.

With 90% of residents living in homes provided by the municipality and the great majority

working in new jobs in the Atlantis factories, the people of Atlantis were extremely vulnerable

and dependent on the government.46

Apartheid did not confront Coloureds on a daily basis within Atlantis. Even today,

residents associate apartheid with separate facilities that they would encounter when leaving

Atlantis. Coloureds could only go to the beach at Silwerstroomstrand or Kalk Bay.47 In Cape

Town, separate buses, bathrooms and restaurants confronted Coloureds, whereas in Atlantis,

Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004. There will be further discussion of this in subsequent chapters.
Danny Oliphant, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.
Julie Mentor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 14 July 2004.

everything was for Coloureds. As Rebecca Davids said, “We felt like apartheid had no effect on

us. It was correct. Our parents didn’t see it as an issue.”48 In part this was because radical

politics were seen as the exclusive realm of Black Africans. One of the strongest legacies of

apartheid for Coloureds was prejudice and fear of Black Africans. For many Coloureds, Black

Africans represented a serious threat to what little privilege Coloureds held under apartheid.

Rebecca Davids relates this story of her prejudice:

Slowly it comes to mind, when these people [Black Africans] were being picked up for
their pass. But we’re not understanding. So I’ve been in Atlantis, I was a housewife, I
worked, I went to church, I cared for my children. But my husband, he was very
involved with the blacks. He said to me he wanted to bring a black student home, to feed
him and contribute to buy his books. And I said no, I didn’t want to have a black in the
house. 49

Increased interaction built trust between the groups, but for most Atlantis residents, such

interaction was rare.

Others came to Atlantis more politically aware, but were frustrated by the difficulty the

experienced organizing the community to activism. Julie Mentor describes the early years as a

period of political waiting.50 There were clear limitations on what could and couldn’t be done in

Atlantis, and violent resistance was never a viable option.51 An important point of political

contention was the incentives given to factories. In 1981, the Atlantis Civic Association (ACA),

an organization composed of both radical and conservative community leaders, demanded that

they receive the same preferential treatment and generous rebates given to industrialists.52 ACA

President Jeff Leonard summed up their political outlook:

Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.
Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.
Julie Mentor, 14 July 2004.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
“Angry Atlantis demands a rebate” Cape Argus 29 May 1981.

I realise we are here to stay, and we are destined to be a homeland. We were shoved here
by the Government and it is their duty to foot the bill. Because of the critical housing
shortage, people were forced out to the coloured homelands of the Mitchell’s Plain and
Atlantis…Atlantis is a reality, we cannot wish it away!

However, the response of most Atlantis residents was to make the best of the given political


The Management Committee was the official channel for community politics.

Community residents voted to elect local officials to collaborate with the Atlantis Development

Committee, the committee appointed by the white-elected Divisional Council to manage the

development of Atlantis. Some community leaders from the ACA, recognizing the injustice of

apartheid, determined to work within the system to help the people of Atlantis. The

Management Committee, though extremely limited, was one avenue to do this. However, low

levels of community support, increasing pressure to stop collaboration and the limits of their

power often frustrated their determination. The white government held all the real power:

And the big guy on that side was Piet Burger, the Project Manager. He was working
directly under the government. You see, he got all the money, the project manager. And
it was unfair, because the Management Committee was there. But he said what was
going to happen here, what the price of land was going to be, who was going to get land
here and who’s gonna get development, and the Mancom just had to say, ‘Mr. Burger
what next, who’s coming next, what’s the price?’53

This frustration, and the deep injustice of Atlantis were always there, but rarely above the surface

in the early years. In the early development of Atlantis there was substantial optimism and hope,

as the town seemed to be moving forward and people had homes and jobs. As one resident said

in 1981, “Ek stel nie belang in apartheid nie—ek is gewoond daaraan. Solan ek geld kry is ek te

vrede.” (I don’t put much importance in apartheid—I am content with it. So long as I earn a

living, I am at peace).54

Abe Williams, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 13 August 2004.
Mr. A, interview by P.J. Hope, “Hulle weet hoe om mense te skei.”

1975-1985 was a period of establishment and growth for Atlantis. Thousands of

Coloureds and hundreds of factories relocated to the new city on the West Coast. Growth was

slower than hoped and living conditions were more difficult than ideal, but Atlantis was growing

and hope for the future was intact. But the mid-1980s saw a major crisis in Atlantis, as the

economy worsened and political pressure grew. The politics, living conditions and future of

Atlantis all shifted, as the people of Atlantis responded to the shifting conditions of the time.

IV. The Plan in Crisis: 1985-1992

“People call Atlantis the lost city. In Afrikaans, maak in vrigters. You come here, you leave here
broken. You come with high expectations, and then being here, there were drastic changes, and
you left broken-hearted, in the land of milk and honey.” –Rebecca Davids

Apartments in Atlantis (Honger = Hunger)

Though the early years of Atlantis were difficult, the apartheid plan for a thriving

autonomous Coloured city was very much in place before 1985. Massive development and

relocation were accomplished, and Atlantis residents remained generally hopeful. But the mid-

1980s saw a major shift in this orientation. Industrial incentives expired, factories moved out,

jobs were retrenched, poverty increased and radical resistance mobilized. This represented a

crisis to the new city that paralleled the national crisis in South Africa in the 1980s. Apartheid

was no longer invulnerable. The apartheid-spawned city of Atlantis was devastated.

Economic Crisis

The problems began with an economic slowdown. From 1975-1984, employment

multiplied in Atlantis. According to official statistics 12,788 jobs were held in Atlantis in 1984,

the vast majority of these in factories that had relocated to Atlantis to take advantage of

government incentives. Almost 3,000 of these jobs were held by people commuting from

outside Atlantis, but most Atlantis residents were still able to find work in Atlantis. This level of

employment represented a remarkable increase for a 9-year period, but it could not support the

population projections the government planned for. By 1987, Atlantis was expected to have a

population of 155,000.1 However, only 6,823 dwellings were built by 1987, housing a

population of approximately 35,000.2

The limiting factor was employment. An estimated 12,074 Atlantis residents were

employed, but approximately 16% of these commuted at least 30 kilometers to work outside

Atlantis.3 The Divisional Council (Divco) was reluctant to provide houses for people who did

not have work in Atlantis. The whole concept of Atlantis was that it would develop

Plan Associates, Atlantis Ontwerp Gidsplan, 1975.
Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987.”
Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987.”

autonomously, not as a dormitory community for Cape Town workers. Even while trumpeting

great growth and opportunity in Atlantis, the government acknowledged that population growth

in Atlantis depended on employment growth and restricted housing to those with jobs in

Atlantis.4 Thus, the slow employment growth in Atlantis was the constant limit to the project’s

success. However, through 1984, at least according to government statistics, most Atlantis

residents were employed and able to support themselves.

Total Employment in Atlantis (including jobs for non-residents) 5

Year 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987
Industries in
10 20 29 35 40 47 57 77 98 119 122 116
352 969 1434 2472 3473 4217 5197 7715 9432 8676 8859 11180
Public Sector
920 1070 1328 1328 1009
2006 2286 1930 1886 1585
Total 10641 12788 11934 12073 13774

Projected Population of Atlantis 6

1973 1980 1987 1995 2003 2010
Population 0 60,000 155,000 270,000 398,000 500,000

Actual population (based on 5-person households)

1973 1980 7 1987 8 1994 9 2001 10
Homes 0 3,600 6,823 9,500 14,000
Population 0 18,000 35,000 50,000 70,000

By 1985, government statistics reveal a shift in the Atlantis economy. For the first time,

there was a decrease in overall employment, despite the addition of 258 public sector jobs. The

“Atlantis Ná Sewe Jaar ‘n Economiese Reus” Die Burger, 9 December 1982.
Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987,” File No. H1/35/C, 18/5/1987.
Plan Associates, Atlantis Ontwerp Gidsplan, 1975.
“Atlantis,” Divisional Council of the Cape, File No. 554/24/G, 1/1/1980, 4.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?.
William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study (Foundation for Contemporary Research, 1997).
Census 2001, Statistics South Africa,, (4 May 2005).
This population is a rough estimate. The census breaks Atlantis into two wards that each incorporate other towns,
making precise population estimates difficult.

Atlantis Development Committee continued to project future growth positively, explaining the

decline as the result of the closing of several factories, retrenchments in others, and a temporary

decrease in construction work.11 However, in 1986 the Development Committee admitted,

“While steady growth is taking place, the rate of growth is lagging well behind the projected

figures, and cannot at present rates expect to be anywhere near the targets for 1990.”12 This was

the most significant admission of failure the Atlantis Development Committee ever officially

made. The Atlantis economy gained jobs the next year, and government representatives

remained upbeat about Atlantis prospects, but 1985-86 was a turning point in Atlantis.

This turning point is highlighted by a review of independent statistics on Atlantis during

this time. The University of Cape Town’s Southern Africa Labour and Development Research

Unit (SALDRU) conducted a survey of household heads (HHH) that sampled 620 Atlantis

households in 1986, 10% of the total population.13 While the Atlantis Development Committee

maintained that only 483 people were unemployed in Atlantis, SALDRU found that 27% of

adults were unemployed—approximately 8,300 people. Official statistics were based on

unemployment registration, which SALRU maintained was hugely unreliable. A summary of

SALDRU’s employment findings tell a grim story:

• 91% of household heads (HHH) employed before coming to Atlantis

• 74% of HHH employed in Atlantis
• 78% of employed are unskilled or semi-skilled
• 30% of all employed residents work outside of Atlantis
• 45% of these spend more than 2 hours traveling to and from work daily
• 47% spend R50 or more a month on transportation for work
• 48% of the currently unemployed had been retrenched
• 42% of employed HHH say there have been recent retrenchments at their place of work
• 33% of adults have no form of income at all

Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987.”
Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987.”
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?.

In the mid-1980s, retrenchments were widespread, and the consistent development and

expansion of Atlantis employment was reversed.

The Atlantis economy was fundamentally based on its industrial sector. By one account,

85% of formal economy employment was in the factories.14 This industrial sector was based on

government incentives. The industrial decentralization incentives aimed to encourage factories

to relocate to Atlantis. The idea was that profitable and self-sustaining industries would be

established by the time incentives were removed, providing employment and attracting other

companies to Atlantis. Companies were offered 40% tax rebates on wages, 40% rail

transportation rebates and 3% price preference in South Africa, which effectively offset the costs

of relocation for many companies.15 More than 100 factories relocated to Atlantis in the first 10

years of the city to take advantage of the incentives. However, the majority of these companies

turned out to be small, low-investment industries that could leave Atlantis just as easily as they

had come. Transportation, land and relocation subsidies attracted primarily light manufacturing

industries that depended on low-wage labor and needed very little capital investment.16 Textile

factories abounded in Atlantis. These and other factories depended on government subsidies,

and they were vulnerable to economic decline in the international market.

Most companies received 7-year incentive packages when they first relocated to Atlantis.

Beginning in 1982, these incentive packages began to expire. For many companies, the end of

subsidies represented the end of any competitive advantage Atlantis offered as an industrial

location. Distant from markets, transportation hubs and housing for upper-level management

employees, Atlantis without incentives was not an attractive site.

William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study, 10.
Divisional Council, “The Dassenberg Story: Notes on the Birth of a New City.”
William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study, 4.

Several factors converged in the 1980s to strain the Atlantis economy. First, an

international recession affected Atlantis’ many export-oriented companies. International

competition, particularly in the manufacturing industry, threatened South African companies.

Secondly, the South African economy, and in particular that of the Western Cape, experienced a

major slump during this period. This was in part due to the disinvestment campaign, which

pressured international governments and businesses to impose sanctions and disinvest from

South African business.17 Finally, internal political pressure from trade unions and activist

groups put increasing pressure on South African government and business, disrupting the

economy and government attempts to stimulate the economy. Each of these factors contributed

to the Atlantis economic crisis and will be discussed in greater depth later in this chapter. But

this context contributed to the decision of many companies to pull out of Atlantis and relocate,

causing major upheaval for the new Coloured industrial city.

Workers remember “fly-by-night” companies that capitalized on government incentives

for a period, only to leave Atlantis overnight with little to no warning for their workers. Some

recall working for a company for years, only to show up for work one morning and find the

factory completely empty, having been vacated overnight.18 Such stories may be exaggerated,

but they capture the feelings of workers who suddenly lost the source of their livelihood. Many

felt betrayed by the companies that had brought them to Atlantis in the first place. In a depressed

economy, alternative employment was not easy to come by and many who were retrenched in the

1980s remained unemployed for years. Some saw Atlantis industry as a conspiracy that gave

companies bonuses to set up factories in Atlantis that did not have to produce a profitable

South Africa from 1950-1975 had flourished economically, in part due to international investment. Disinvestment
was a campaign led by the ANC and other resistance groups to use international economic forces to put pressure on
the South African economy and government.
Sylvia Brand, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 17 August 2004.

product, while government officials received kick-backs from the incentives. In 1986 eleven

companies were charged with fraud involving at least R1 million in incentives. Forgery, falsified

documents and government “skimming” were among the charges facing Atlantis industry.19 All

of this only contributed to suspicion and anger among many Atlantis residents in the mid-1980s.

While many businesses could be accused of unethical business practices and the

retrenchments had serious adverse consequences for Atlantis residents, other companies

remained committed to their Atlantis investments and defended their involvement in the

community. Mr. Gordon Perrins, a spokesperson for Atlantis Industria, acknowledged that some

companies were guilty of such charges, but maintained that good industrialists were “bending

over backwards” for their workers, offering training and inflated salaries. Instead, he blamed the

retrenchments on absenteeism, sanctions and unreasonable union demands motivated by

politics.20 Other companies affirmed their commitment to the people of Atlantis, claiming their

responsibility to the community “that would be devastated if we pulled out.”21 Even in this

position, Atlantis residents remained dependent on outside capital and investment. None of the

factories were owned by Atlantis residents.

The bottom line was an estimated 3,000 Atlantis jobs lost between 1987 and 1992.22 For

an isolated town dependent on its industry for 85% of its employment, 3,000 retrenchments

represented almost a quarter of all jobs—Atlantis was devastated. With employment, Atlantis

families were able to afford the rent and services offered in Atlantis. But for families living just

above the poverty line, unemployment often meant choosing between food, rent, electricity, and

See “Atlantis-firmas dalk op aanspoorklag vervolg,” Die Burger, 20 August 1986. Also, Roger Williams, “A-G
to decide on Atlantis ‘fraud’,” Cape Times, 23 March 1986.
Jacquelyn Swartz, “Atlantis businessman ‘incensed’ over remarks against factory owners” Cape Argus, 14 June
David Lee, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 August 2004.
Kerry Cullinan, “Atlantis: the Lost City?” Work in Progress 86 (1992): 8.

water. In 1986 the SALDRU survey reported that 54% of households were experiencing some

kind of financial difficulty.23

The most immediate crisis for the unemployed was paying rent. Die Burger reported in

1985 that 2,000 households (approximately 10,000 people) received eviction notices.24 It was in

the Council’s interest to minimize evictions to emphasize Atlantis’ success, so the actual number

of permanent evictions was much smaller. However, the threat of eviction hung over most

Atlantis residents as they failed to make rent payments. According to SALDRU, 35% of Atlantis

households were in rent arrears in 1986, 28% had received eviction notices and 5% had been

evicted.25 In 1985, 146 households in Avondale and Saxonsea were ejected from their homes.26

The following year, the number increased to 170.27 The Atlantis Residents Association (ARA)

was formed to respond to this eviction crisis. The ARA advocated that evictions must cease.

Organization leaders physically moved people’s belongings back into their homes to protest the

evictions.28 With a major reduction of employment, rent arrears continued to build up and the

financial pressure on the Divisional Council escalated. But Divco could not make unemployed

people pay rent, and after the initial evictions were resisted, most households were allowed to

remain in their homes.

In addition to rent pressures, Atlantis residents struggled to pay for other essentials like

food and water. Die Burger reported that 650 homes were threatened with water shut-offs in

1985.29 The next month, Die Burger described a general food shortage and overtaxed soup

Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 80.
“Atlantis ‘moet ’n rampdeel word’,” Die Burger, 13 November 1985.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 85.
Atlantis Development Committee, “Item 11: Housing Statistical Data,” 16 June 1986.
Atlantis Development Committee, “Item 10: Housing Statistical Data,” 12 February 1987.
Sylvia Brand, 17 August 2004.
“Atlantis ‘moet ’n rampdeel word’,” Die Burger, 13 November 1985.

kitchens.30 SALDRU reported that 70% of the poorer half of the population (earning less than

R400 per month) spent more than half their income on food.31 Most of the rest went to rent,

leaving little disposable income. Crime increased in this period, as unemployed household heads

resorted to theft or lashed out in violence against others.32 Regina Oostendorp described the

mid-1980s in this way:

After a while, the government subsidies were taken, and people started to move out, and
Atlantis became a sort of forgotten city with no work…and that’s when crime started.
There was a time when Atlantis was very prosperous, and there was a time that it looked
like a cloud was hanging over the place.33

This dark cloud overshadowed Atlantis and represented a major crisis in Atlantis, sparking

debate as to the future of the city.

Atlantis: Lost City or Boom Town?

Although almost all Atlantis residents remember the mid-1980s as a difficult time of

retrenchments and evictions, Cape Town newspapers did not always agree. Atlantis was

alternately called a lost city or a boom town, even in stories by the same newspaper within

months of each other. The article titles alone give a sense of this: “Six new plants a shot in the

arm for Atlantis;”34 “Atlantis must become a disaster area;”35 “Up-and-coming Atlantis faces a

housing shortage;”36 “Once hailed, Atlantis ‘is a lost city;’”37 “1,540 new jobs for Atlantis;”38

“Atlantis: the Lost City?”39 Die Burger, the leading Afrikaans newspaper in the Cape, reported

“Raad oor Atlantis na Ministers,” Die Burger, 12 May 1985.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?.
No police records were consulted to quantify this claim, but almost all interview subjects remembered this time
for its crime.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.
Derek Tommey, “Six new plants a shot in the arm for Atlantis,” Cape Argus, 12 July 1986.
“Atlantis ‘moet ’n rampdeel word,’” Die Burger, 13 November 1985.
“Up-and-coming Atlantis faces a housing shortage,” Cape Argus, 27 April 1988.
“Once hailed, Atlantis ‘is a lost city,’” Cape Times, 1987.
Peter Dennehy, “1,540 new jobs for Atlantis,” Cape Times,10 September 1986.
Kerry Cullinan, “Atlantis: the Lost City?” Work in Progress, 86 (1992): 8-9.

in 1986 that most factories enjoyed full employment and nine more factories would soon be

built.40 982 families were on the waiting list to move to Atlantis, and with employment growing

15% a year, they would soon be accommodated. The article even mentioned that the price of

land in Atlantis was about half that in the Cape Peninsula. Every effort was made to paint

Atlantis as a success and attract further investment. This article was typical of the period

between 1985-1988, when hugely contradictory and controversial reports emerged. New factory

openings were heralded by the press. Others reports chronicled the disastrous conditions of


All of these reports were controversial, but none more than the SALDRU report. The

sociological study reported high levels of poverty and unemployment and concluded with an

epitaph on the Atlantis project: “It would seem that the grand apartheid-inspired utopian dream

of 1974 has spawned a nightmarish reality in 1986.”41 The SALDRU survey was intended to

investigate the contradictory reports about Atlantis. The report questioned the entire basis for the

Atlantis project in a scathing critique of the government. Divco immediately rejected the

findings, saying “a completely different picture emerged.”42

In conjunction with the controversial reports of Atlantis conditions, the future of the plan

was also ambiguous in the mid-1980s. The Atlantis development plan called for six towns, with

the completion of the first town (Wesfleur) by 1980. In 1986 Wesfleur was still not fully

developed and the general pace of development was slowing. However, in an interview with the

Cape Times, Project Director Piet Burger insisted that despite its reputation as a ghost town,

Atlantis “would continue to grow and eventually become a city with a population of half a

“Nege nuwe fabrieke opgerig—Ál meer in diens in Atlantis,” Die Burger, 19 September 1986.
Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?, 108.
Roger Williams, “UCT’s Atlantis survey shows unemployment rife,” Cape Times, 5 December 1986.

million.”43 In fact, a decision was imminent on the next step of development, whether

construction for the main city center of Town II would begin, or whether a seaside suburb should

be developed. Burger continued to dream optimistically:

The growth of Cape Town makes the development of Atlantis as a major city
inevitable…The city center will have large government buildings, a university and
technikon, and shopping facilities and a site has been earmarked for a theatre.44

No major development projects happened in Atlantis after 1984, but the government plan for the

six towns was never retracted. Even in 2004, the original Atlantis Guideplan was still the official

planning document.45 Instead of an official retraction or change in policy, funding for the project

slowed and eventually dried up.46 As late as 1988, the Cape Argus reported that R9.6 million

had been made available for the second phase of Atlantis development, but the project was never

begun.47 According to Geoff Underwood, one of the planners involved with the project, the

Town II plan was always “pie in the sky” with little basis in the reality of Atlantis.48 But this

was never made clear to the people of Atlantis.

The overall effect was that few in this period understood or could anticipate the direction

of government policy. It was unclear whether government would invest millions into the

struggling Atlantis economy, as it had before, or whether Atlantis would be left to flounder as a

“lost city.” With factories folding and eviction threats mounting, the internal signs pointed to

Atlantis’ failure. But for a poor, disenfranchised, isolated community, the over-arching

macroeconomic and policy decisions were unclear. The government was not providing clear and

Audrey D’Angelo, “City center or another suburb? Major project for Atlantis,” Cape Times, 12 July 1986.
Audrey D’Angelo, “City center or another suburb? Major project for Atlantis,” Cape Times, 12 July 1986.
Office of the Prime Minister, Atlantis and Environs Guide Plan.
Jeff Underwood, interview by the author, Cape Town, South Africa, 26 August 2004.
“Up-and-coming Atlantis faces a housing shortage,” Cape Argus, 27 April 1988.
Jeff Underwood, 26 August 2004.

objective information. Increasingly, spurred by mounting community concerns and a political

vacuum, resistance politics mobilized in Atlantis.

Resistance Politics

South Africa saw a major upsurge in resistance to apartheid in the 1980s, provoking

crisis. In the aftermath of the 1973 Durban strikes and the 1976 Soweto Riots, and drawing on

the Black Consciousness thought of Steve Biko, black politics radicalized. In broad terms, South

African resistance politics went from the politics of petition and protest in the 1940s to the

politics of non-violent resistance in the 1950s, to the politics of underground organization and

sabotage in the 1960s, to the politics of defiant mass mobilization in the late 1970s and 1980s.49

The 1980s saw the rise of street and student politics, as a younger generation, fed up as much

with the compliance of the older generation as with apartheid, fearlessly defied the

government.50 The 1980s also saw the rise of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a

conglomeration of organizations brought together to protest the 1983 tricameral parliament

elections. The UDF mobilized thousands to protest and demonstrate the illegitimacy of the

apartheid government. In particular, the goal was to make the townships ungovernable, and to

replace apartheid governing structures with functioning community organizations. Violence

escalated, students stopped attending classes and activists protested issues ranging from rent

prices and disenfranchisement.

At the same time, international pressure on South Africa increased and political and

economic leverage was used to oppose apartheid. Many countries and companies employed

sanctions, boycotts and political isolation, and increasing recognition and legitimacy were given

Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (New York: Longman, 1983).
Tom Lodge and Bill Nasson, All, Here and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s (Claremont: Ford
Foundation/David Philip Publishers, 1991).

to the resistance movement. After a prolonged economic boom through the 1960s and most of

the 1970s that gave white South Africans a better standard of living than white Americans, the

economy began to unravel in the 1980s under internal and international pressure for change.

South Africa seemed headed for civil war.

For many in Atlantis, resistance politics had been the domain of black Africans.

Apartheid’s strategy of division had been effective in thwarting the cohesion of black and

Coloured resistance. The deep prejudice and fear dividing Coloureds from other oppressed

groups began to shift in the 1980s, under the influence of Black Consciousness thought and the

increasing involvement of Coloured student leaders in radical politics. For some there was

growing solidarity with the suffering and courage of Black African leaders. Black

Consciousness defined “black” as all people oppressed by whites who choose not to comply with

the white system.51 In 1976 the Soweto riots spawned similar uprisings in Cape Town, including

the Coloured townships of Bonteheuwel and Manenberg. This radicalization spread to other

Coloured areas, including Atlantis, and the younger generation took leadership. The University

of the Western Cape was a hub of radical resistance in the 1980s, and many students from

Atlantis returned home with experience in radical mass mobilization.

Atlantis was governed in the early years by Divco, a council on which Atlantis residents

had no representation. The result was a political vacuum of little dialogue between government

and the people that left many problems unaddressed. In 1978 the Atlantis Civic Association

(ACA) was formed by community leaders to represent the community to the Divisional Council,

particularly with regard to public services like water and telephones. The goal, according to

Noel Williams, a member of the ACA committee, was to empower the people of Atlantis to

Steve Biko, “What is Black?” in I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, edited by Aelred Stubbs (Chicago:
Chicago UP, 2002).

organize and get involved in the political process.52 The ACA was completely community

organized. In 1980 Divco decided to formalize its relationship with the ACA and to exert greater

control over the local political process by instituting the Atlantis Management Committee

(Mancom). The Mancom would replace the ACA, incorporating much of its leadership and

working in conjunction with the Atlantis Development Committee (ADC), the sub-committee of

Divco responsible for Atlantis.

The Mancom was composed of elected Atlantis residents who “made recommendations”

to the ADC but held no voting powers or administrative responsibilities. The Mancom held two

non-voting seats on the ADC and its officials received R240/month in salary, but the government

nevertheless had difficulty in finding candidates to fill the vacancies.53 Cyril van Amsterdam,

Abe Croutz and Percy de Louw were among those elected to the Mancom as former ACA

members, but others, including Noel Williams, resigned their positions and refused to take part

in the new political dispensation.54 In a meeting in the Avondale Hall, members of the ACA

asked the community for a mandate on whether or not they should participate in the Mancom.

The overwhelming response was negative. The ACA was considered a more effective

representative of the community.

The Mancom was considered undemocratic because it represented the government’s

initiative and not the community’s. The members of the Management Committee used their

position to influence the development of their community, but faced extreme limitations on their

power and the antipathy of radical community members who opposed any collaboration with the

government. Only 6.8% of eligible voters participated in the 1983 poll that elected local leaders.

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Hope, P.J. “Hulle weet hoe om mense te skei”: The Social and Political Consequences of Decentralization in
Atlantis. University of Cape Town, South African Economic History Department dissertation, 1985, 24.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.

Radical leaders believed that voting in an unjust system legitimated that system. Others were

simply apathetic about voting for a governing body that had little effect on their lives. However,

even with its limitations, the Mancom allowed the government to claim some political

representation for Atlantis residents. Piet Burger, the Atlantis Project Manager, claimed in 1983

that “We don’t plan for the people, but with the people.”55 Mancom chairman Abe Croutz called

Burger “Pinocchio,” but negotiated to get a seat in the Divco with voting powers in 1982.56

Croutz claimed the negotiations were “a step forward. We now can negotiate further for voting

justice.” However, according to Chris Heunis, the Minister of Internal Affairs, “an independent

local management for Atlantis is still economically impossible.”57 Perhaps more relevant than

the economic limitations were the political implications of an independent elected local

government given the increasingly radical political climate of the 1980s. Government would not

relinquish control of Atlantis to representatives opposed to apartheid.

In 1985, dissatisfied with the new management committee and responding to the rent

crisis, Noel Williams and other community leaders from the ACA formed the Atlantis Residents

Association (ARA). The ARA was the leading organization for radical politics in Atlantis. An

executive committee of eight members set direction and vision and street committees organized

the community more locally.58 Meetings would attract groups of between 50 and 1,500. The

ARA tackled a range of issues, including social welfare, political representation and evictions.

In 1985 and 1986, when hundreds of residents were being evicted, the ARA helped move

people’s belonging back into their homes in protest. The ARA sponsored an unemployment

union, a gardening project to provide food for needy families, an anti-booze campaign and mass

James Harkess, “Growth at Atlantis,” Alpha, 1983: p. 8-9.
Abe Croutz, 1 September 2004.
“Atlantis kry sitting in Kaapse raad,” Die Burger, 8 April 1982.
Sylvia Brand, 17 August 2004.

anti-apartheid demonstrations. An ARA-sponsored advice office dispensed legal counsel,

information about government services and radical interpretations of the issues facing the people

of Atlantis. When the white-owned grocery store Shoprite came to Atlantis in 1981, the ARA

organized boycotts and set up carpools to buy food elsewhere. Funding was raised from within

the community, particularly within the leadership committee. Whenever English-language

newspaper reporters came to Atlantis in the 1980s, the ARA was quoted. The ultimate aim of all

these strategies and programs was the overthrow of the government.59 The ARA, like civic

organizations throughout the country during this time, was preparing for the day when black

people would truly govern themselves. The strategy was to make Atlantis ungovernable while

establishing alternative political structures that would better represent and serve the community

than the government itself. As a result, the natural target and enemy of the ARA was the Atlantis

Management Committee.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Abe Williams (no relation to Noel Williams),

though not a resident of Atlantis, came to represent Atlantis and the West Coast in 1983 through

the tricameral parliament. Williams was a member of the Labour Party, a Coloured Party

organized to represent Coloureds for the Coloured Representative Council (CRC). The Labour

Party was the majority party elected to the CRC, and it used its position to be highly critical of

the National Party and apartheid. However, it did choose to participate in the system the

apartheid government had set up, believing that the structures of power could be used to change

the system. As Williams said, “I always believed that we must have an integrated society, but I

also believed that I must help my people to survive in a day-to-day basis.”60 A major issue for

the Labour Party in Atlantis was its lack of representation in political decisions. Atlantis

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.

government was divided between the white-elected Industrial Council and the Coloured

Management Committee, both of which were overseen by the white-elected Divisional Council.

Again, Williams summarized the Labour Party position:

We later advocated, the Labour Party advocated, municipal status for Atlantis. We didn’t
believe in this white area and Coloured area, Coloured Management Committee and
white minister and appointed board. And the big guy on that side was Piet Burger, the
Project Manager. He was working directly under the government. You see, he got all the
money, the project manager. And it was unfair, because the Management Committee was
there. But he said what was going to happen here, what the price of land was going to be,
who was going to get land here and who’s gonna get development, and the Mancom just
had to say Mr. Burger what next, who’s coming next, what’s the price?61

But the alternative, from the Labour Party perspective, was worse. Though the Management

Committee was extremely limited in its power, it could use what it had to benefit the people of

Atlantis. And in response to charges that the Mancom was not representative, Williams had a

ready response:

I say fine, they (the Management Committee) weren’t representing everybody, but people
voted for them. They were democratic. But the Residents Association said they should
resign. Now who did the Residents Association want to put there? Were they going to
have elections and not put up candidates? So you see, it goes both ways. If you don’t
want them, then who’s going to represent them? If the other people stand for elections,
are the other people not going to be the same puppets?62

Williams believed in making the most of a limited situation. But for the ARA, no intermediary

compromise short of full democratic rights was acceptable.

For the ARA, the collaboration position legitimized and propped up the apartheid

government. By collaborating with the government, resistance could be co-opted. Again, Abe

Williams addressed this: “Some people would call me a collaborator, and that’s fine. Call me

what you want. I’ve done my bit, and I’m happy in my mind, that I made a contribution.”63 The

Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.

ARA held an uncompromising position of non-collaboration, which brought it into direct conflict

with Abe Williams, the Labour Party and its representatives on the Management Committee.

Political Crisis

At the height of the evictions in 1985, the ARA was called to a meeting with Divco to

negotiate. The ARA was mobilizing people against the government via its anti-eviction protests,

and Divco recognized that the ARA represented community interests in ways that the Mancom

fell short of. But the ARA used the opportunity to challenge the authority of the Mancom,

refusing to meet with Divco with the Mancom present. The Divco chairman, Mr. L.J. Rothman,

“explained to Mr. (Noel) Williams that the recognized official channel of communications is the

legally elected management committee…I and my fellow councilors appealed to Mr. Williams

not to allow political issues to cloud the real purpose of the meeting.”64 But for the ARA, the

real purpose of the meeting was political. When the Mancom refused to leave, the ARA ended

the meeting.

An attempt to reconvene the meeting was made a week later. Divco met in its offices in

Cape Town, forcing ARA members to commute almost an hour. For this second meeting, the

ARA organized a bus carrying 80 residents to come to put additional pressure on Divco. Getting

word of the impending clash, police turned the bus back to Atlantis before it reached Cape Town.

In response, passengers on the bus “nearly broke the inside of the bus in pieces and two seats

were thrown from the window.”65 The bus was stopped again and two people were arrested.

Len Pothier, a Divco councilman and member of the Progressive Freedom Party, said the ARA

enjoyed widespread support in Atlantis precisely because, unlike the Management Committee, it

was not seen as part of the government system. “If we are to follow democratic procedures, we

“Mancom row halts Atlantis meeting,” Cape Times, 15 November 1985.
“Atlantis: Divco backs mancom,” Cape Times, 21 November 1985.

must listen to what the community says, not to a body in which people have no confidence.”66

This was exactly the position of the ARA, which believed that they, not the Mancom, were the

democratic representatives of the community. This was despite the fact that the ARA had never

stood for election in the community, while the Mancom had. But Mancom members were

elected in polls with extremely low participation—one election only garnered a 1% voting

turnout.67 The ARA refused to participate in an election that would lead to collaboration with

the apartheid regime. Instead, it made a different claim to democratic representation: community

mandate. Through political meetings that rallied radical action against the government, the ARA

organized and led the Atlantis community.

As time went on, pressure increased on Divco to respect this community mandate. Mr.

M.J. Aggenback, a Divco councilman, said after the bus fiasco, “It’s rather obvious that Atlantis

has a movement that has the capacity to have the state ‘standing on its head’ and the ARA is

such a movement.”68 But the Divco continued to validate the existing policy of support for the

Mancom as the representative of Atlantis. The ARA shifted strategies and focused its pressure

directly on the Mancom, calling for its members’ resignations. One thousand, two hundred

Atlantis residents called for the management committee to resign and demanded that Divco come

to Atlantis for negotiations.69 Noel Williams invited Mancom chairman Freddie Brandreth to the

meeting, but Brandreth declined unless he was guaranteed protection. Williams told him “if he

was confident he had not hurt and belittled the people of Atlantis no harm would come to him.”

The ARA meeting also demanded R2 million in debt be written off the rent and services

accounts of Atlantis residents. The situation in Atlantis was at its worst at this time, as more than

“Atlantis: Divco backs mancom,” Cape Times, 21 November 1985.
“Atlantis: Divco backs mancom,” Cape Times, 21 November 1985.
“Dooie punt om Atlantis duur voort,” Die Burger, 22 November 1985.
“Resign call to Atlantis mancom,” Cape Times, 3 December 1985.

300 people a day came to the ARA soup kitchen and end of the year retrenchments and evictions

converged. Divco set up a special government council to meet to discuss the problems in

Atlantis, signaling a recognition that a crisis was on hand that merited the attention of a broader

spread of government.70

Under extreme pressure from the Atlantis Residents Association and from portions of

Divco, Mancom folded. By Noel Williams’ account, after a four and half hour meeting, Mr.

Alexander, a member of Mancom, stood up and suggested that the management committee no

longer had a role. He said that the ARA should represent Atlantis residents.71 Mancom

essentially collapsed at that point, and the ARA successfully claimed legitimacy as sole

representative of the community.

The ARA was not able to bask in its new authority however, as the government cracked

down on its leaders and meetings. Even though the government no longer propped up the

vestige of the Mancom’s authority, it did not accept the ARA either. In 1986, Noel Williams and

most of the rest of the top ARA leadership were detained. Williams was not released until

1989.72 The Commissioner of Police for the Boland banned a meeting of unemployed workers

organized by the ARA.73 The police consistently broke up meetings, employed spies and

intimidated people.74 By 1987, the ARA was sufficiently broken as to necessitate the founding

of a new organization, the Atlantis Think Tank, led by Jeff Leonard, which essentially

functioned as the ARA under a new name.75 The police and army were an active presence in

“Raad oor Atlantis na Ministers,” Die Burger, 5 December 1985.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
“Atlantis meeting banned,” Cape Argus, 12 December 1985. The Boland was the magisterial district of the rural
areas surrounding Cape Town.
Sylvia Brand, 17 August 2004.
“Once hailed, Atlantis ‘is a lost city,’” Cape Times, 1987.

Atlantis, and “battles” occurred, but no one was ever killed in Atlantis resistance politics.76

Unarmed protesters would confront police, but violence never escalated above rubber bullets and

tear gas.

As elsewhere in greater Cape Town, students were central to protests. Quinton Pick, as

head boy of Atlantis Secondary School in 1985 and the African National Congress Youth League

(ANCYL) Chair for Atlantis, became the leader of the school protests.77 He was invited to a

political meeting led by the ARA that set the direction for political protest at the schools. Pick

led his fellow students in demonstrations and school strikes, and two months before graduation

he was arrested and detained. In jail he was put in a cell with 14 other political detainees,

including Noel Williams, and for two months he received his “political education” from these

leaders and their debates. He was released only three days before the matric exams but still

managed to pass. Pick went on to the University of the Western Cape where he was initially

denied admission because of his political involvement but was later accepted when his influential

father (a school principal) had the admission board’s decision reversed.

Others were not so lucky. The slogan of the student movement was “freedom before

education.” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” became the theme song, with its chorus of

“We Don’t Need No Education.”78 Bernice Kastoor believes this is why so many in Atlantis of

her generation are still struggling: “We gave our lives to the struggle.”79 Spies gave leaders’

names to the police, so many wouldn’t sleep at home for fear of being arrested. One protest at

Proteus Secondary School was broken up by police, who fired rubber bullets on the crowd and

gave two minutes for them to disperse. An estimated 30-40% of the school-going population of

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Quinton Pick, 27 July 2004.
Amelia Blauw, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, August 2004.
Bernice Kastoor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.

Atlantis was deeply involved in the protests, and some protests drew as much as 80% of the

student body.80 The detention and graduation of student leaders like Quinton Pick slowed the

demonstrations, but disruption in the schools continued through the 1980s.

Politically active students had an important impact on their parents. The younger

generation were often more aware of apartheid’s injustice, more connected to the broader

freedom struggle and more committed to sacrifice for the cause of freedom. In the Kastoor

family, Trevor remembers seeing a demonstration on the television and asking his mother why

the police were shooting at people.81 His mother Georgina was unable to explain. Trevor later

got involved in politics himself and Georgina first learned about the ANC and Nelson Mandela

through Trevor.82 Georgina had been a conservative woman, but she subsequently attended her

first ARA meeting and became involved with the ANC. Rebecca Davids' political consciousness

also shifted during this time. Before the 1980s, her assumption had always been that the

separation and inequality of blacks and whites

Should be like that. That only changed with the black students and the unrest; I began to
educate myself, (about) the suffering of our black communities. And you begin to look at
your own situation. The whites, the Coloureds, and the blacks, and you see it is unfair,
but we were used to it. The younger generation made us aware of the differences.83

The breakdown of political isolation was crucial to the growth of political awareness in Atlantis,

particularly for older people.

The Atlantis resistance movement was connected to a wider community of regional and

national resistance organizations. These connections were essential to sharing information, ideas

and resources. Atlantis’ physical isolation on the West Coast contributed to political isolation

that hindered the development of political consciousness among the residents. For people who

Quinton Pick, 27 July 2004.
Trevor Kastoor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.
Georgina Kastoor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.
Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.

had moved to Atlantis and received a house and a job and lived with only Coloureds,

conservatism and ignorance were natural. But connection to the wider struggle counteracted this

to some extent. The ARA was part of the Cape Area Housing Committee, a network of civics

committed to democratic change. The South African Council of Churches, the West Coast

Council of Churches, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the African

National Congress Youth League, and the University of the Western Cape all offered important

support, inspiration and information to Atlantis residents. Political leaders in Atlantis depended

on these groups to stay connected and relevant. Representatives from the Cape Area Housing

Committee came to Atlantis and hosted meetings that bolstered awareness and activism in the


Perhaps the most important sphere of resistance was in the factories, which provided

income to the majority of Atlantis residents. The factories were essential to the success of the

Atlantis project, and thus were the most vulnerable spot for both government and Atlantis

residents. The 1980s saw increased trade union activism in Atlantis. Most of the leaders of

ARA were factory employees and thus there was significant overlap. COSATU, the national

Confederation of South African Trade Unions, became involved in Atlantis in part through its

leadership. Noel Williams was President of COSATU in the Western Cape in 1983, and Sylvia

Brand was the Vice-Chairperson. The 1980s saw a general relaxation of the government

stranglehold on labor organizing, so many in Atlantis joined these COSATU-affiliated unions.

Sylvia Brand worked at Hygenia, a factory employing approximately 800 workers. When the

factory burned down in an accident, the company wanted to retrench, but the union represented

Sylvia Brand, 17 August 2004.

the workers’ common interests and fought it.85 Whenever factories threatened retrenchments or

closing down, the unions mobilized protests.

COSATU organized on two levels: first they fought for a living wage for their workers, a

standard union objective. But they also organized politically, fighting for the end of apartheid

and for democratic change by straining the economy with strikes, calling for international

sanctions and mobilizing its workers for political resistance.86 Most factory workers didn’t

know about the incentives given to companies to come to Atlantis before the 1980s, so this

became a major focus of union demands, as they demanded a parallel boost to their income and


In 1989, COSATU organized a strike at Atlantis Diesel Engines (ADE), the government-

funded behemoth of the Atlantis economy. The union sought concessions from ADE for higher

wages and greater worker control of the factory.87 After 16 days, despite the widespread use of

scabs, an agreement was reached in negotiations with the factory management and the strike was

called off. It was one of the most successful strikes ever in Atlantis, as the union effectively

organized and won concessions while using the opportunity to increase awareness and empower

its workers.

Percy Louw was a shop steward at Atlantis Diesel Engines in the 1980s but was not

affiliated with COSATU. When COSATU went on strike, Louw and his union members

continued work and managed to keep the factories open.88 Production increased per capita,

leading Louw to believe that the strikes were excuses for the lazy not to work. Louw’s union

would strike, but “only when it was really necessary,” and not for political reasons:

Sylvia Brand, 17 August 2004.
Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.

ADE was paying high and above the minimal rates set down by the government. So
there wasn’t a real reason to strike. I suppose the real reason was that most of the
supervisory staff were white, not Coloured, so this was part of it. Being British, or the
people from German, they had empathy and would listen, because they were not a South
African company. They would gladly give in to those requests, but of course it was more
a political kind of stunt. But eventually it worked throughout the country.

In the political context of the 1980s, foreign companies came under pressure to disinvest from

South Africa. Some companies left Atlantis as a result, but most factories in Atlantis were South

African companies. ADE was government sponsored, but many of the executive staff and

engineers were German and British. The support of a German trade union for the COSATU

union was a crucial linkage that put additional pressure on German investors to support

COSATU policies, including divestment.89

The union movement in Atlantis, though linked through COSATU nationally, was often

independent in its approach. Atlantis’ isolation, its residents’ dependence on factory

employment and the history of government investment in the community contributed to a certain

level of political passivity. For many people, the safest attitude was “We don’t get involved,

we’d rather wait and see.”90 In this way, the apartheid policy of privileging Coloureds in

Atlantis seemed to have been successful. When COSATU called for national strikes, the Atlantis

unions didn’t always follow. Atlantis had to pick its battles and not overextend its members.

Political resistance that was too radical or costly would fall flat.

This description of the Atlantis political climate can be extended beyond the trade union

movement. Atlantis had its radical leaders and certainly engaged in its share of resistance

politics. The ARA and COSATU particularly led Atlantis in radical action. But the

demonstrations, strikes and political perspectives of these groups were by no means

representative of the community as a whole. Noel Williams, Danny Oliphant and other radical

Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.

leaders describe Atlantis as a generally fearful community that was very difficult to organize

politically. Noel Williams was an active member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the

ANC, but he hardly considered using violence action in Atlantis: “You could not do the things

here that you could elsewhere. It would only hurt our community if you bombed the electricity

plant.”91 Rebecca Davids described Atlantis in this way:

We had the civic, and the UDF, but I don’t think many people even knew what the UDF
was. And others thought it was stupid to be involved. Atlantis was an NP community,
and not ANC, and it’s only with the change, the elections, that things have changed.92

Though thousands of Atlantis residents devoted themselves to radical politics, this was the not

everyone’s choice. There was not a strong tradition of radical politics among the Coloured


Prudence played a part in the choice of many Atlantis residents to avoid political engagement, as

did prejudice against Black Africans, respect for the white government and deep-seated political

conservatism. The response of Atlantis residents cannot be generalized. The reality was that

most both resisted and collaborated with the system to some extent at different times.

But role Atlantis residents played in the resistance movement should not be

underestimated. Atlantis was rapidly changing in the 1980s, and the factors that drove this

change were not all external. In the context of closing factories, evictions and hardship, many

Atlantis residents chose to draw together as a community and work to combat the problems they

faced together. For some this meant sharing food through soup kitchens, sharing water with

neighbors whose supply was cut off and housing friends and family whose breadwinners were

laid off. For others it meant using the political channels available to help Atlantis and to protest

apartheid. But for some it meant protesting the system itself and doing everything to make the

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Rebecca Davids, 29 June 2004.
For a general discussion of Coloured politics, see Gavin Lewis, Between the Wire and the Wall.

Atlantis project illegitimate under white rule. By the combination of these means, within the

greater context of economic recession, political pressure and instability in the 1980s, Atlantis

came to a point of crisis. The plan and development of Atlantis were reconsidered, along with

the entire apartheid system. By 1990, with the unbanning of the ANC and the beginning of

democratic negotiations, most people began to look forward beyond the present state of

apartheid. Atlantis was no exception to this. Even as Atlantis had drastically changed in the

1980s, the next decade held the opportunity for self-government and self-determination.

V. A New Atlantis? 1992-2004

“This community has gone backwards.”–Noel Williams

Atlantis’ New Shopping Center

Though democracy came to Atlantis and all of South African in 1994, in some ways the

conditions of life worsened after 1994. Even after the political crisis of the 1980s was resolved,

Atlantis remained poor. Furthermore, there was great uncertainty about the future of the city in

the post-apartheid context, and little promise of the kind of government investment that had

established and prospered Atlantis in the early years. The people of Atlantis were left to govern

themselves amidst a declining level of subsidy for the local economy.

The Interim

As negotiations between the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party

(NP) progressed and democratic compromise became more and more likely, both parties

maneuvered to earn the support and mobilize potential Coloured voters in the Western Cape. In

1991, the government undertook a project to build a new police station. R10 million was

promised to build a decent police building to help combat the growing crime in Atlantis.1 In

1993, Marike de Klerk, the wife of President F.W. de Klerk, visited Atlantis for an NP goodwill

tea, where government announced a comprehensive aid program for the town.2 In 1994, right

before the election, government officials announced that rent arrears and debts for services

would be written off.3 Each of these NP gestures was controversial and criticized by the ANC

for its political manipulation. In the case of the arrears write-offs, local leaders had explicitly

requested that the write-offs not be announced until after the election. In sum, Atlantis was

entering a new era of competitive politics.

After its 1990 unbanning, the ANC reached an agreement with the NP to hold elections in

1994, and to appoint interim local councils to govern the townships in the meantime. Thus, from

“Appalling police station to be rebuilt” Cape Argus, 20 April, 1991.
Michael Morris, “Government’s aid scheme for needy Atlantis,” Cape Argus, 16 March 1993.
Michael Morris, “Major Atlantis relief plan may spark election row,” Cape Argus, 20 April 1994.

1990 to 1995, when local elections were held, Atlantis was governed by the interim council,

composed of 12-15 councilors. Noel Williams was the first mayor of Atlantis. This interim

council represented a significant increase in local political power, as it replaced the functions of

the Management Committee and the Atlantis Development Committee.

The interim council worked in close conjunction with the Atlantis Development Forum

(ADF), a partnership of local organizations, businesses and trade unions, to coordinate

community development. This was the first time such a conglomeration of interests worked

together in Atlantis, and by most accounts they accomplished a lot.4 ADF was key to the

founding of the Hartebeeskraal Multi-Purpose Center and launching the community radio station,

Radio Atlantis.5 It also worked to attract investment to Atlantis. Generous government

incentives were no longer offered, so marketing Atlantis as an industrial location was a difficult

task with limited success. Despite these new forums and political structures, change was

difficult in Atlantis. For people who had never governed before, there was much to learn and the

learning curve was steep. Old political enemies had to work together and the practicalities of

governance had to be learned.

The Labour Party dissolved in 1992 when it became clear that the tricameral parliament

was ended and the future for a Coloured party was limited.6 Most of the members went to the

National Party. According to Abe Williams, “the ANC didn’t put out a friendly hand to us…and

we were told very clearly that we were not welcome in the ANC. That we wouldn’t be

accommodated in the ANC.”7 Many Coloureds were suspicious of the ANC, which though non-

racial, was dominated by Black Africans. At the same time, the ANC was not eager to invite

Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Julie Mentor, 14 July 2004..
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.

into the party politicians who had collaborated with the former regime. Furthermore, the ANC

was confident of its own program and constituent base and was not eager to invest itself in a city

that represented the illegitimate apartheid past.

Abe Williams was appointed to the Presidential Cabinet in 1992 as the Minister of Sport,

the first Coloured man ever to hold this position. Atlantis was discussed at the cabinet level and

made a presidential priority, which meant that national government funding would continue for

Atlantis. Looked at cynically, this was part of the wider National Party effort to buy Coloured

votes.8 As Williams remembered,

I fought for Atlantis and a new strategy for Atlantis, and we were responsible for the
write-off of some of the debts in Atlantis. And De Klerk appointed a committee to look
into a new strategy for Atlantis. So I, maybe it was a small thing, but my position in the
cabinet was also used for the best for Atlantis. I was doing sport and welfare in the house
of reps. so I worked in the welfare office, and made it so they could get welfare right
there at their door, instead of coming to town.9

Capturing the Coloured vote was key to the National Party strategy for the 1994 election. As

less than 20% of the total South African population in 1994, white South Africans could not

expect any significant political success without forming alliances with non-white South Africans.

Coloured South Africans, with their cultural and linguistic commonalities with Afrikaners and a

history of division from Black Africans, were expected to forge links with the former ruling


Atlantis was not only a Coloured town, but it was a community that had benefited

enormously from special government attention and investment, led by the National Party. With

the NP showing signs of reform and renewed investment in Atlantis, it was a better known and

trusted quality for many Atlantis residents, while the ANC was unknown and intimidating to

many. Even within Atlantis, the ANC was associated with radical politics that most residents did

Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.

not identify with. It was not clear what the ANC would do with Atlantis if elected. As an

apartheid Coloured town, it certainly did not match the ANC’s vision of the future. But the NP

could be counted on to continue to invest in Atlantis.

1994 Election

On April 26, 1994, South Africa held its first-ever democratic elections. No one knew

how Atlantis would vote as the 1994 election approached. The whole country was in suspense,

as violence escalated and the outcome of the political experiment was uncertain. The NP-ANC

battle was particularly relevant in the Western Cape, as Coloureds made up 56% of the voting

population.10 Furthermore, 56% of the Western Cape spoke Afrikaans as their home language, a

factor the NP capitalized on.11

In Atlantis both the ANC and the NP mobilized their supporters to vote, with rallies,

campaigning and promises. First-time voters came to the polls, including the 102-year-old Mrs.

Kastoor, whose life spanned the entire 20th century.12 For some it was a day of incredible victory

and celebration, as it represented the culmination of generations of struggle and resistance. But

for ANC supporters, the 1994 election in the Western Cape was a devastating disappointment.

Nationally the ANC won 62.6% of the vote, to the NP’s 20.4% But in the Western Cape

Province, the ANC lost the election, taking only 33.6% of votes to the NP’s 56.2%. 68.7% of

Coloured voters from the Western Cape had voted for the NP.13

Zimitri Erasmus and Degar Pieterse, “Conceptualising Coloured Identities in the Western Cape Province of South
South Africa Census 2001., (5 May 2005).
Mrs. Kastoor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, October 2003.
Erasmus and Pieterse, , “Conceptualising Coloured Identities in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.”

April 26-29, 1994 General Election Results - Republic of South Africa Totals: National Assembly14

Party Votes % Seats

African National Congress (ANC) 12,237,655 62.6 252

National Party (NP) 3,983,690 20.4 82
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 2,058,294 10.5 43
Freedom Front (FF-VF) 424,555 2.2 9
Democratic Party (DP) 338,426 1.7 7
Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) 243,478 1.2 5
African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) 88,104 0.5 2

April 26-29, 1994 General Election Results - Western Cape: National Assembly15

Party Votes %

National Party (NP) 1,195,633 56.2

African National Congress (ANC) 714,271 33.6
Democratic Party (DP) 88,804 4.2
Freedom Front (FF-VF) 41,924 2.0
Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) 21,353 1.0

Atlantis did not buck this trend. The ANC won 16% in Atlantis, with the NP taking the vast

majority.16 Local government control was given to the NP, which nominated councilors for the

Blauuwberg Municipality, the new local authority for the west coast from Milnerton through

Atlantis. The NP held 29 seats, while the ANC had two and the Democratic Party held one.17

For ANC leaders like Danny Oliphant, Noel Williams and Mari Desai, this was devastating.

“All of the white councilors in Blaauwberg were NP. Our people still voted for a white party

too.”18 Mari Desai and Noel Williams assumed the ANC seats.

Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005).
Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Percy Louw, 4 July 2004.
Mari Desai, 18 August 2004.

The new government was confronted with a host of issues and problems from the legacy

of apartheid. Atlantis in 1994 was plagued by poverty, unemployment and isolation. It was

unknown if the national ANC-led government would support its further development,

considering its status as a special project of the apartheid government. An independent research

study estimated the population of Atlantis in 1994 was between 55-65,000 people, living in

9,500 housing units.19 The recession continued through the early 1990s, and formal sector

employment declined from 18,137 to 13,277 from 1991 to 1993. Another report said that

between 1987 and 1992, 3,000 jobs and 20 factories were lost.20 By 1997 Atlantis had over 30%

unemployment and 20-30% of those employed had to commute to Cape Town for work. 10-20%

of those employed in Atlantis commuted from the outside, typically taking the better jobs. The

ANC’s assessment was even grimmer, reporting a 46% unemployment rate in 1993.21 Atlantis

Diesel Engines (ADE) employed 2,300, more than a sixth of total formal employment.22 But

even ADE had undergone major retrenchments. An estimated 2,800 Atlantis residents worked in

the informal sector, most them unable to find jobs in the formal sector.

The struggling economy contributed to a host of other problems. Recent matriculants

were unable to find jobs, and some became involved in drugs, gangs and crime.23 Alcohol abuse,

particularly among the poor, contributed to social dysfunction. Shebeens (unlicensed alcohol

vendors operating out of people’s homes) proliferated in the residential areas, with as many as

three on a single street block.24 Unemployed youths turned to informal and illicit activities,

undermining the stability of the community. In 1989, Atlantis had the highest per capita

William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study.
Kerry Cullinan, “Atlantis: the Lost City?” 8.
Michael Morris, “Government’s aid scheme for needy Atlantis,” Cape Argus, 16 March 1993.
William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study.
Kim Richardson, “The Youth of Atlantis: Can Found Youth Be Lost? Problems, Needs and Psychodynamics, An
Exploratory Analysis” (Masters Thesis for University of Cape Town, 1994).
Barbara Russ, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 July 2004.

homicide rate in the world.25 Crime did not significantly decrease in the next decade. Many

children failed to finish school and were even more difficult to employ. Crime was high: there

were 405 recorded assaults with intent to bodily harm in Atlantis, compared to 245 in the much

larger Cape Town municipality. Many suggested that Atlantis’ unemployment caused crime,

poverty, lack of self-esteem and loss of hope for the future.26 Regina Oostendorp made this


If there’s employment…we have a very high pass rate of matriculation, but the children
don’t get jobs and then what happens? They roam the streets and get into drugs, we have
the crime and the burglaries and the shebeens, and they don’t get work. So [if] from
school they get jobs and they won’t have time to roam around. But our children don’t get
jobs…Everywhere people say there’s no jobs, but I feel there are more jobs outside
Atlantis and we’re so far away from Cape Town and transport costs are so high that first
you have to have a lot of money even to look for a job.27

The problems of Atlantis did not disappear with the 1994 democratic elections. In some cases

they worsened as unemployment continued to plague the community.

Atlantis and Witsand

The worst poverty was found in the new community on the outskirts of Atlantis called

Witsand. In contrast to the planned houses and streets of Atlantis, Witsand began as a squatter

community of migrants from the Eastern Cape. They came to Cape Town looking for work and

settled in Witsand, constructing shacks on the sand dunes to the east of Atlantis. The land they

squatted on was privately owned but uncultivated, and in the 1990s the government had eased

restrictions and ceased evictions of informal settlements. The population had multiplied from a

“Atlantis D no more a lost city,” Mail and Guardian, 8 December 1995. This statistic strains credibility, but it
comes from a reputable source and at the least gives some indication of the level of crime in Atlantis.
Atlantis Area Development Programme Participatory Learning and Action Process 2000, World Vision Atlantis
Area Development Programme.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.

dozen families in the early 1990s to several thousand in 1994 to more than 6,000 by 2002.28

Witsand residents lived without running water or electricity in homes ranging from one room

shacks with cardboard doors to large fully-furnished houses. The vast majority (an estimated

70%) were unemployed, and the average income for employed workers was only R150 per week,

less than the Atlantis average.29 Those who did work generally worked in the factories, in the

nearby farms or in Cape Town.

Most Witsand residents came from the Eastern Cape and were Xhosa-speaking. Most of

the remainder were Zulu or Sotho, and few spoke Afrikaans. Children went to Atlantis schools,

and few were able to receive instruction in their mother tongue. Two schools offered instruction

in Xhosa for grades 1-3, but it was on the far side of town in Avondale. The rest of the schools

were Afrikaans only. Schools were at least a mile’s walk away, and once school buses stopped

running, attendance for Witsand children fell.30

A major divide existed between Witsand and Atlantis. Many Atlantis residents resented

the jobs that Witsand residents took away from unemployed Atlantis residents:

They’ve still got this 50% [employment quota], and I’m not racist, this 50% of black
people to get jobs. If our people don’t get jobs in the factories, they are turned away
because they must take up the blacks and they are coming from everywhere and taking
the jobs so they must look at this.31

At the same time, many Witsand residents resented the preferential hiring of Coloureds in

many establishments: “All the tillers at Shoprite are Coloured. There is a difference (in how

Black Africans are treated). People cut in front of us, and we are used to it. Blacks must work

hard to get a position. There is no justice.”32 In 1996, there were very few Black Africans in the

factories. Ayanda Nqueketo remembers being hired as the first and only Black African at his

City of Cape Town, Blaauwberg Administration, “Local Economic Development Strategy: Atlantis,” 2002.
Atlantis Area Development Programme Participatory Learning and Action Process 2000.
Nombedesao Qunta, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 3 September 2004.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.

factory because he spoke Afrikaans.33 It was four years before anyone else from Witsand was


For a racially homogenous community like Atlantis, the addition of a large, distinct

population group challenged racial stereotypes and cross-cultural interactions. Language

differences made communication difficult, as few Coloureds spoke Xhosa and few Black

Africans spoke Afrikaans. Isolated spatially from the main community, Witsand was frequently

marginalized socially and politically from Atlantis, despite its obvious proximity. Apartheid was

enforced before 1994, but it continued to some extent afterwards: “We didn’t choose to isolate

ourselves. The reason we aren’t together is poverty.”34 Witsand overwhelmingly voted ANC,

but some felt there was no cooperation even between Atlantis and Witsand ANC leadership. All

of the top ANC leadership lived in the main town—“We need a councilor who stays here.”35

The development of Witsand represented a major departure from the planned, one-race design of

the apartheid planners. The community was not built or dependent on the government, and this

dynamic challenged most of the initial assumptions about Atlantis as a community.

On the other hand, Atlantis was still very much a government project. Everyone agreed

that it should not have been built: “Atlantis should never have been there. Atlantis should have

been part of the bigger Cape Town.”36 But Atlantis was not going away. On the contrary,

Atlantis was stabilizing and its population was growing. In the early years of Atlantis, most

residents were tenants of government-owned housing. But over the years, more and more

residents bought their homes.

Nombedesao Qunta, 3 September 2004.
Ayanda Nqueketo, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 3 September 2004.
Nombedesao Qunta, 3 September 2004.
Nombedesao Qunta, 3 September 2004.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.

Home-ownership and Rentals37
Units rented Units being paid off Units privately owned
1992 1,920 4,835 1,668
1997 1,680 3,900 3,467

Increased opportunities to own became available and Atlantis, despite its problems, became the

established home of thousands. Despite its ignoble beginnings, most in Atlantis do not wish to

move elsewhere.

Witsand also became a permanent housing area, as the ANC government determined to

invest in and develop informal housing areas. Though unemployment was a major problem in

Witsand, the problem was even greater in the Eastern Cape, where most Witsand residents came

from: “People can’t move on, they have jobs here.”38 The area was particularly important for the

ANC, which hoped to win the Atlantis election wards and believed it could count on the support

of the predominantly Black African Witsand community. The government purchased the land

Witsand was built on from the private owners and committed to building houses and providing

services.39 The “informal housing” would be formal and lasting, demanding the long-term

integration of Witsand with Atlantis. But leaders from both Atlantis and Witsand resisted

immediate integration and the waiting lists for housing were kept separate. Councilor Desai

estimated that Atlantis and Witsand needed an additional 2,000 to 2,500 housing units, but few

Coloureds applied for housing in Witsand and few Black Africans applied for Atlantis housing.

Restructuring and the 1999 and 2004 Elections

Municipal government was restructured twice after 1994. At the time the residential area

fell under the House of Representatives, the industrial area under the House of Assembly, the

surrounding area was administered by the Regional Services Council and Atlantis fell under the

William Frater, Atlantis Local Economic Development Study.
Ayanda Nqueketo, 3 September 2004.
Mari Desai, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 18 August 2004.

Malmesbury legislative district.40 This separation of political spheres was a relic of apartheid,

which Atlantis leaders felt had to be changed for them to self-govern effectively. Atlantis was

first made part of the Blaauwberg municipality, linking it with Milnerton and Table View,

wealthier suburbs of Cape Town. Later, the many municipalities in metropolitan Cape Town

were united under a single authority, further linking Atlantis to the rest of the region. As Abe

Williams saw it, this was an important step in the development of Atlantis:

The only thing that helped Atlantis was when it became part of the new development of
greater Cape Town and part of the Milnerton municipality, because we could force
Milnerton to look after the social [needs], and use the spin-offs from Milnerton, because
they only had white people and they had money. And that was another way of assisting
Atlantis, because they had the money, and we had the votes.41

The Blaauwberg Municipality was dominated by the NP. But from 1994 to 2004, the NP rapidly

lost its support base. In the 1999 election, the reconstituted New National Party (NNP) won only

6.9% nationally and only 34.4% in the Western Cape, ceding control to the ANC, which won

42.6% of the vote.42 In 2004, the NNP won only 7% nationally and 9.4% in the Western Cape.

June 2, 1999 General Election Results - Republic of South Africa Totals: National Assembly43
Party Votes % Seats

African National Congress (ANC) 10,601,330 66.4 266

Democratic Party (DP) 1,527,337 9.6 38
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 1,371,477 8.6 34
New National Party (NNP) 1,098,215 6.9 28

Marc Hasenfuss, “Atlantis afloat,” Cape Argus, 11/28/92.
Abe Williams, 18 August 2004.
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005).
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.

June 2, 1999 General Election Results - Western Cape: National Assembly44
Party Votes %

African National Congress (ANC) 682,748 42.6

New National Party (NNP) 550,775 34.4

June 2, 1999 General Election Results - Western Cape: Provincial Legislature45

Party Votes % Seats

African National Congress (ANC) 668,106 42.1 18

New National Party (NNP) 609,612 38.4 17
Democratic Party (DP) 189,183 11.9 5

April 14, 2004 General Election Results - Republic of South Africa Totals: National Assembly46
Party Votes % Seats

African National Congress (ANC) 10,878,251 69.7 279

Democratic Alliance/Demokratiese Alliansie (DA) 1,931,201 12.4 50
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 1,088,664 7.0 28
United Democratic Movement (UDM) 355,717 2.3 9
Independent Democrats (ID) 269,765 1.7 7
Nuwe Nasionale Party/New National Party (NNP) 257,824 1.7 7

April 14, 2004 General Election Results - Western Cape: National Assembly47
Party Votes %

African National Congress (ANC) 740,077 46.1

Democratic Alliance/Demokratiese Alliansie (DA) 432,107 26.9
Nuwe Nasionale Party/New National Party (NNP) 151,476 9.4

Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.

April 14, 2004 General Election Results - Western Cape: Provincial Legislature48
Party Votes % Seats

African National Congress (ANC) 709,052 45.3 19

Democratic Alliance/Demokratiese Alliansie (DA) 424,832 27.1 12
Nuwe Nasionale Party/New National Party (NNP) 170,469 10.9 5
Independent Democrats (ID) 122,867 7.8 3

The NP/NNP essentially lost its constituency in the Western Cape to the Democratic Party (DP) /

Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Independent Democrats (ID). This opened the way for

increased ANC dominance. The ANC had regrouped after the 1994 election with a strategy to

attract more Coloured votes and to eliminate the NP opposition.49 The NP entered into a series

of pacts and alliances with the ANC and with the Democratic Alliance in an attempt to multiply

its influence. Instead the strategy backfired, as its constituents were alienated by the shifting

alliances. Floor-crossing by NP representatives further undermined the party. After the 2004

elections, the NP essentially collapsed, as its own leader, Marthinus Schalkwyk, joined the ANC.

Locally in Atlantis, the ANC won 43% in Atlantis in 1999, and then won the majority in

2004. Danny Oliphant, the elected ANC MP from Atlantis, attributed the gain to the erosion of

the NP and the impressive participation of ANC supporters.50 Others complained of ANC

intimidation tactics, as busloads of ANC supporters were brought to the polls. 51 Percy de Louw

was working with the Independent Electoral Commission for the 2004 election:

I counted all the ANC votes in our voting station. And I’m glad of it, because I counted
all the votes in our station. If you win you win, and I checked it out and now I’m glad.
Anyone can say no, and I can say now, “No, I was NP and I checked it and it was”…so
no one could disagree.52
Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, “Election Resources on the Internet: General Elections in the Republic of South Africa.” (17 March 2005). More than a dozen other parties received votes, but none more
than .5%.
“ANC struggles to find an identity in Western Cape,” Mail and Guardian, 13 September 1996, (5 May 2005).
Danny Oliphant, 27 July, 2004.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.
Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.

As the political landscape shifted, the ANC and NP increasingly were forced to work together.

Initially, many ANC leaders felt that all their proposals for Atlantis were swept aside because

they were ANC proposals. But as time went on and political power in Atlantis was more evenly

divided between NP and ANC, both sides began to speak of the need to cooperate.53 The ANC

and the NP increasingly worked together to sponsor a number of projects in Atlantis. The

development of a new housing extension, a multi-purpose center and a new shopping complex

represented important government investments in the community. Both sides could point to their

contribution to the projects.

Economic Development

However, despite these developments, unemployment continued to be the dominant

problem in Atlantis. In 1999 Atlantis Diesel Engines (ADE) closed its operations, delivering a

devastating blow to the Atlantis community as it lost its largest employer. ADE was hurt by the

reduction in protective tariffs and government investment in the 1990s.54 In addition to

employing close to 2,000 Atlantis residents, ADE had attracted other companies to work in

Atlantis, such as Atlantis Forge. ADE’s closure almost shut Atlantis Forge down as well, as

ADE had been a major stakeholder in Forge. According to David Lee, a top managing engineer

at Forge, what kept the company there was it commitment to Atlantis. “The community was

already depressed, and it would be devastated if we pulled out.”55 Since then the company has

managed to bounce back and expand, more than tripling its staff and working in partnership with

local community groups to benefit its workers. 80% of Atlantis Forge’s workers live in Atlantis,

Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.
David Lee, 20 August 2004.
David Lee, 20 August 2004.

and Forge has committed to training programs, to the Employment Equity Act, which stipulates

targets for hiring disadvantaged groups, and to education for HIV/AIDS awareness.

But in general employment generation was limited in Atlantis. Minus major government

incentives that sparked initial industrial development and given the detractions of Atlantis’

location and limited economic profile, economic growth was slow. Nevertheless, government

tried to stimulate growth. According to John October, an advisor to the Small Business

Development Council, “the problem was promoting industrial development in an area where

decentralization benefits had been drastically scaled down by the government. It is essential that

Atlantis be re-orientated back to industrial development.”56 Others advocated the development

of the small Atlantis commercial sector. Most Atlantis residents continued to shop outside of

Atlantis in Cape Town or the new shopping center in Table View, where prices and selection

were better. The economic development strategy of the Blaauwberg municipality called for

limited industrial incentives, active recruitment of industrial companies, development of the

Silwerstroomstrand coastal area, and increased collaboration of industry and the community.57

At one point, a major development project that would link the sale of Silwerstroomstrand for

private upscale residential development to the establishment of 100 new factories within five

years was imminent, but the agreement ultimately failed. Aside from a few new factories,

success at industrial development remained limited.

The Atlantis Economic Development Trust (AEDT), a government-sponsored company

with private investors, was founded to generate economic development. Danny Oliphant and

Quinton Pick lead the company, which invests money into companies in the community and

sows its dividends back into the community. AEDT is a major investor in Atlantis Forge, the

Marc Hasenfuss, “Atlantis afloat,” Cape Argus, 28 November 1992.
Girshwin Fouldien, interview by the author, Milnerton, South Africa, 9 July 2004.

new shopping complex and the recently opened Atlantis Education and Training Institute, a

vocational school to increase the skills base of the Atlantis population. Cameron Dugmore, the

Western Province Minister of Education, heralded the opening of the Institute and the history of


I am familiar with the history of this town, and know that the Apartheid government
dumped our people here, hoping you would die silently in poverty and degradation.
Instead you refused, and with the same vigour that you fought the apartheid system, you
are now one of the leading communities in the fight against poverty, and the struggle to
reclaim the dignity of our people. The establishment of AEDT and subsequently this
training institute, is not just about providing training opportunities for the sake of
training, it is also about reclaiming your right to determine your own destiny.58

Others saw AEDT development more cynically, as a scam that gave luxury cars to the elite while

doing nothing for the poor.59 However flawed, AEDT did represent a significant effort by

Atlantis community leaders to take charge of Atlantis’ development.

Though there were some positive signs of change and organization, conditions in Atlantis

remained tenuous and poor. The end of the apartheid regime did not translate into the quick

alleviation of Atlantis’ problems. In some ways it highlighted and emphasized them. However,

the opportunity for the people of Atlantis to take charge of their development was not

insignificant nor taken for granted. Atlantis moved into the 21st century as a community which

had managed to develop beyond the model planned by apartheid.

“Official Opening of the Atlantis Education and Training Institute,” speech by Cameron Dugmore, 24 February
2005. (6 May 2005).
Sybil McKenna, interview by the author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.

VI. Conclusion

People came to Atlantis anticipating a better life in the new city with jobs and houses.

With the collapse of the apartheid regime and the dream of the utopian metropolis, many have

revised their perspectives on Atlantis. Everyone in Atlantis seems to agree that Atlantis should

not have been built as it was: “The reason for Atlantis has not been a noble one; it should never

have existed where it did, but because of apartheid and social engineering, it did.”1 As people

became more conscious of apartheid injustice and the implications of their relocation to Atlantis,

the difficulties of life in Atlantis made more sense to them. At the same time, while apartheid is

condemned, most acknowledge that Atlantis in many ways has regressed since the end of

apartheid. To some extent this is a function of political ideology and amnesia about the

difficulties of the past, but almost everyone will acknowledge that people had better jobs and

fewer problems in the early days of Atlantis under apartheid. Although unemployment increased

in the later years of Atlantis, the advent of democratic rule has not solved the problems of the

city. While more representative and collaborative with the residents of Atlantis, the new

government is not as invested in the development of the city as the apartheid government was.

I find that our people, and I’m speaking of Coloureds now, are being left behind with
everything, because it’s sort of like we are being punished for something, but I don’t
know what. But we don’t seem to get work…Government is making their promises and
they must recognize that we are alienated and we also need what they give to other areas
in South Africa.2

For a town as historically dependent on government investment as Atlantis, the democratic

transition has been controversial and difficult. Even among more progressive members of the

community, even members of the ANC government, there is often a sense that Atlantis has

gotten worse over time: “This community has gone backwards—no new supermarket, no new

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.
schools, no new infrastructure or factories…”3 Certainly when measured in terms of material

development, Atlantis as a case study questions the thesis that life in South Africa has improved

under democracy. By most measurements of standard of living, Atlantis has gotten worse over

time. The strongest exception to this is the community of Witsand. For Witsand, democracy has

brought political representation and investment, though the needs are still great. It is not clear

that Atlantis will ever develop into a prosperous, integrated community. But Atlantis residents

do not only see their community in these terms.

Atlantis residents point to other measurements of development and growth. For Mr.

Louw, Atlantis has developed for a purpose:

I always say, it was a move of the Nationalist government then, but if God didn’t have his
hand in it, it wouldn’t have materialized. In the meantime something else has developed.
This town has become a noted town, and what’s so wonderful about it is that it is now a
halfway mark between Cape Town and Saldanha Bay. And if we could make this
flourish even more, then I think it would be a viable situation for the people of the West

Most have faced the reality that Atlantis, for better or worse, does exist, and it is best to make the

best of it. Over time, Atlantis has become home. Regina Oostendorp says she would not trade

Atlantis for anywhere else in South Africa: “Atlantis has changed. It’s not entirely what you

want it to be. But I still wouldn’t change Atlantis for Cape Town…Most of us when we go out

to other places want to come back to our place.”5 Others would gladly leave Atlantis if they had

the resources, but in the meantime have found friends and family in Atlantis.6 Rebecca Davids’

assessment is revealing: “We have made a name for ourselves throughout the country, for what

we are. There was what was given to us, but also what we made of it.” Atlantis history is not

unambiguously oppressive or triumphant. Even as it moves forward, it is not clear how Atlantis

Noel Williams, 15 August 2004.
Percy Louw, 5 July 2004.
Regina Oostendorp, 13 July 2004.
Trevor Kastoor, 24 August 2004.

is developing and how it is getting worse. For a community that owes its existence to a racist

government experiment, government investment will always be integral to the community. But

increasingly, people are beginning to measure their development (and the success of the

democratic transition) according to their own community undertakings.

Atlantis was the unique test case of apartheid policy for Coloureds in the Western Cape.

Originating in government plans and bolstered by massive investment, it nevertheless failed to

respond to the needs of its people. In this it is emblematic of apartheid more generally.

Apartheid was essentially a plan and an ideology that intended to divide and rule its subjects.

But ultimately the plan was translated into reality through the responses of people. Resistance,

compliance, participation and initiative directed the course of apartheid. Responding to

apartheid was particularly complicated for Coloureds, given the dual government policy of

protection and subjection. But the people of Atlantis and of South Africa translated the plan of

apartheid into the reality of lived experience. The people shaped its course and interpreted its

meaning, not simply or uniformly as might have been anticipated, but through the complexity of

individual lives and experiences.

Understanding the history of Atlantis is similarly a product of people’s perspectives and

initiatives. Oral history is a creative process. It values the perspectives of the present on the

interpretation of the past. These voices direct and shape the interpretation of history. As a

community history project organized by a non-resident of the community, contending forces

were amplified. There is no hiding from the fact that this thesis wades into a complex history

with contending voices. However, it is in and through these voices that the history of Atlantis is

forged. The more conflict and the greater the plurality of responses, the more true and powerful

the history.

VII. Appendix
Factories in Atlantis, 1986
Name of Industrialist Product
Ready Mixed Concrete Bulk Concrete
Bonwit Pty Limited Women’s Clothing
Brits Textiles Pty Limited Quilts and Pillows
Kaymac Industries Pty Limited Textiles
Burbell Plastics Pty Limited Plastic Refuse Bags
Newage Sleeping Bags
John Strebel & Co Hats
M M Rheinardt & Co Dye House
Pearl Zips Zips
Val Hou (Atlantis) Pty Limited Women’s Lingerie
Tedelex Pty Limited Television Sets
Continental Stoneware Pty Limited Crockery
The 3M Co Pty Limited Tapes
R G & H Langeveldt Pty Limited Furniture
John Kessel & Co Pty Limited Furniture
Beautility Cabinet Works Pty Limited Furniture
Sack Lifman Pty Limited Furniture
Taurus Technical Braids and Cables Special Cables
Kenbow Pty Limited Furniture
Vrede Textiles Pty Limited Textiles
Mobilia Furniture Furniture
Van Leer Packaging Pty Limited Egg Holders
Marchon Paragon Pty Limited Industrial Chemicals
Building Investments Pty Limited Isolation Materials
Trenton Products Pty Limited Women’s Clothing
Atlantis Service Station Petrol Service Station / Garage
Swartland Wyne Pty Limited Wines
Aerofoam Pty Limited Isolation panels
Serranda Sales Pty Limited Roller Shutter Doors
Gobo Engineering Pty Limited Toys
Boseng Engineering Pty Limited PVC Piping
Truroll Products Pty Limited Metal and Plastic Components
Finasco Pty Limited Administration
Twirldry Pty Limited Washing Lines
United S.A. Brush Manufacturers Wooden Toys
Garex Engineering Metal Antennas
Novaray Pty Limited Women’s Clothing
Packaging Development Co Plastic Boxes
Capelou Yarns Yarns

Atlantis Development Committee, “Employment Statistics: Atlantis March 1987.”
Summary of SALDRU statistics on Atlantis, 19862

• 55% came to Atlantis for housing

• 19% settled in Atlantis primarily because they already had a job there
• 4% had no choice in coming to Atlantis
• 32% of original Atlantis settlers left Atlantis by 1986
• 54% of the population is under the age of 21
• 45% of adults are between 21 and 30 years of age
• 82% decline in pupils numbers between Sub. A and Standard 10
• 20% of HHH are women
• 42% of nuclear families have other people living with them
• 91% of households primarily Afrikaans-speaking
• 98% live in 2 or 3 bedroom houses
• 94% Christian, 3% Muslim
• 44% would like to live in Atlantis the rest of their lives
• Average household size is 5. (as opposed to the Divco estimate of 4.9)
• Average household size previous to moving to Atlantis was 7.3
• 30% had no electricity, inside water supply or inside toilets immediately before moving to
• 24% paid no direct rent immediately before moving to Atlantis
• 51% paid less than R21 per month
• 86% pay higher rent in Atlantis with an average increase of R23 per month
• 60% gained no increase in income on moving to Atlantis
• Before moving to Atlantis, 13% paid more than 25% of income on rent
• After moving to Atlantis, 52% paid more than 25% of income on rent
• 91% of HHH employed before coming to Atlantis
• 74% of HHH employed in Atlantis
• 78% of employed are unskilled or semi-skilled
• 30% of all employed residents work outside of Atlantis
• 45% spend more than 2 hours traveling to and from work
• 47% spend R50 or more a month on transportation for work
• 77% of Atlantis-based workers are employed in manufacturing
• 27% of employed HHH did not know if a trade union was operating in their workplace
• 46% of employed HHH are unionised
• 27% of adults are unemployed
• 48% of the currently unemployed had been retrenched
• 33% of adults have no form of income at all
• In 1979, an average of 24% of income goes toward rent
• 52% paid more than 25% of income toward rent
• 12% paid more than 50% of income toward rent
• 35% were in rent/repayment arrears in 1986
• 54% experienced some kind of financial difficulty in 1986
• 70% of poorer half of population (earning less than R400 per month) spend more than 50% of
income on food
• 8% of households have no income at all

Ebrahim, Atlantis, A Utopian Nightmare?

VIII. Works Cited

Books, Theses and Articles

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Dewar, David, A. Todes and V. Watson. Industrial Decentralisation Policy as a Mechanism for
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Dewar, David, Alison Todes and Vanessa Watson. Regional Development and Settlement
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South Africa Census 2001., (5 May 2005).

Western Cape Regional Services Council. Atlantis: A summary of information (Ref. 1004,
1990), 2.

Western Cape Regional Services Council. Atlantis Structure Plan (Cape Town: Plan Associates,
Liebenberg and Stander, Olen and Foster, 1990), 2.


Adams, Mrs. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 14 July 2004.

Bailey, Bessie. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 30 June 2004.

Blauw, Amelia, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, August 2004.

Bowers, Sister. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.

Croutz, Abe. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.

Davids, Rebecca. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 29 June 2004.

Desai, Mari. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 18 August 2004.

Dien, Ahmad. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 24 August 2004.

Fouldien, Girshwin. Interview by author, Milnerton, South Africa, 9 July 2004.

Jacobs, Vivian. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 August 2004.

Kahn, Ruben. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 23 August 2004.

Kastoor, Bernice, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.

Kastoor, Georgina, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.

Kastoor, Georgina. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 30, June 2004.

Kastoor, Mrs., interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, October 2003.

Kastoor, Trevor, interview by the author, Atlantis, South, Africa, 24 August 2004.

Lee, David. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 August 2004.

Lombard, Margaret. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.

Louw, Percy. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 5 July 2004.

McKenna, Sybil. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.

Mentor, Julie. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 14 July 2004.

Momberg, Kevin. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 August 2004.

Nqueketo, Ayanda. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 3 September 2004.

Oliphant, Danny. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 27 July 2004.

Oostendorp, Regina. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 13 July 2004.

Petersen, Lionel. Interview by author, Gordon’s Bay, South Africa, 15 July 2004.

Qunta, Nombedesao. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 3 September 2004.

Rose, Sister. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, October 2003.

Russ, Barbara. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 20 July 2004.

Strauss, Dominee. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 2 July 2004.

Underwood, Jeff. Interview by author, Cape Town, South Africa, 26 August 2004.

Williams, Abe. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 13 August 2004.

Williams, Noel. Interview by author, Atlantis, South Africa, 15 August 2004.

Newspaper Articles

“Alles Onder Een Dak.” Die Burger, 27 November 1981.

“ANC struggles to find an identity in Western Cape.” Mail and Guardian, 13 September 1996, (5 May 2005).

“Angry Atlantis demands a rebate.” Cape Argus, 29 May 1981.

“Atlantis—City Grows from Wasteland.” Cape Argus, 28 September 1979.

“Atlantis D no more a lost city.” Mail and Guardian, 8 December 1995.

“Atlantis: Divco backs mancom.” Cape Times, 21 November 1985.

“Atlantis-firmas dalk op aanspoorklag vervolg.” Die Burger, 20 August 1986.

“Atlantis Kan Groot Groeipunt Word.” Die Burger, 6 May 1979.

“Atlantis kry sitting in Kaapse raad.” Die Burger, 8 April 1982.

“Atlantis meeting banned.” Cape Argus, 12 December 1985.

“Atlantis ‘moet ’n rampdeel word.’” Die Burger, 13 November 1985.

“Atlantis ‘móét top-nywerheidsgebied word.’” Die Burger, 27 July 1987.

“Atlantis Ná Sewe Jaar ‘n Economiese Reus.” Die Burger, 9 December 1982.

“Appalling police station to be rebuilt.” Cape Argus, 20 April, 1991.

D’Angelo, Audrey. “City center or another suburb? Major project for Atlantis.” Cape Times, 12
July 1986.

Dennehy, Peter. “1,540 new jobs for Atlantis.” Cape Times, 10 September 1986.

“Dooie punt om Atlantis duur voort.” Die Burger, 22 November 1985.

Hasenfuss, Marc. “Atlantis afloat,” Cape Argus, 28 November 1992.

“Looking at Atlantis.” Cape Times, 14 January 1977.

“Mancom row halts Atlantis meeting.” Cape Times, 15 November 1985.

Morris, Michael. “Government’s aid scheme for needy Atlantis.” Cape Argus, 16 March 1993.

Morris, Michael. “Major Atlantis relief plan may spark election row.” Cape Argus, 20 April

“Muwwe huise gratis herstel in Atlantis.” Die Burger, 18 July 1987.

“Nege nuwe fabrieke opgerig—Ál meer in diens in Atlantis.” Die Burger, 19 September 1986

“No ‘basic facilities’ at Atlantis.” Cape Times, 12 August 1981.

“Once hailed, Atlantis ‘is a lost city.’” Cape Times, 1987.

“Raad oor Atlantis na Ministers.” Die Burger, 5 December 1985.

“Resign call to Atlantis mancom.” Cape Times, 3 December 1985.

Swartz, Jacquelyn. “Atlantis businessman ‘incensed’ over remarks against factory owners.”
Cape Argus, 14 June 1991.

Tommey, Derek. “Six new plants a shot in the arm for Atlantis.” Cape Argus, 12 July 1986.

“Up-and-coming Atlantis faces a housing shortage.” Cape Argus, 27 April 1988.

Williams, Roger. “A-G to decide on Atlantis ‘fraud.’” Cape Times, 23 March 1986.

Williams, Roger. “UCT’s Atlantis survey shows unemployment rife.” Cape Times, 5 December