No room on mountain for angry villagers

Protests as wealthy foreigners gather at auction for South African landmark

Anyone with a spare million and a desire to name a mountain after themselves should look elsewhere, warn campaigners who are opposed to today's planned sale of a landmark of the South African coastline.

Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates are understood to be interested in buying the Sentinel, a spectacular 1,020-foot mountain that marks the entrance to Hout Bay fishing port. They have until noon today to place their offers in a closed bids process that was introduced after violent protests forced the cancellation of an auction two weeks ago.

"If a private buyer comes in and we are not consulted, they can expect war," said Donovan van der Heyden, 37, a community leader for the 8,000 impoverished residents of the Hangberg quarter at the foot of the peak.

On 15 July, 200 angry Hangberg residents marched on the sedate Chapman's Peak Hotel in Hout Bay, where the auction was supposed to take place. But as police met stone-throwing protesters with rubber bullets, no prospective buyer was willing to open the bidding process.

The largely "coloured" (mixed-race) community lives in cramped, unsanitary conditions alongside the land for sale. It is calling for a compulsory purchase by the South African National Parks. Mr Van der Heyden said: "We are told we cannot move further up the mountain but we see rich foreigners being given unbridled freedom to build luxury houses and lodges higher and higher up the mountains."

Situated 12 miles south of Cape Town, the fishing port of Hout Bay is beloved of tourists. During the European winter, thousands of expatriots – especially Britons – settle into second homes in the bay.

In the port, two fish factories have closed in the past two years, while restrictive fishing quotas have put several trawlers out of business. The Hangberg community, wedded to its fishing traditions, remains locked in poverty, and alcoholism and drugs dominate many lives. "Unemployment is rising," said Mr Van der Heyden, who is the manager of a local garden centre. "You find two or three families living in shacks along the wall of one bungalow. The rain washes off the mountain and we have rivers running through our homes," he added.

Auctioneer Shlomo Bitton said bids deposited today with his company, Julius Buchinsky, would be considered by the seller at a later date. "The 10-hectare piece of land has been in private hands since 1901. Nobody lives on the land and the buyer will have to apply for development permission.

"If it is granted, it will be limited to one house of 500 square metres, plus labourers' cottages. This is a unique opportunity for a buyer to name a mountain after themselves. Such opportunities are very rare."

The sellers, a private consortium called G&R Marine, bought the mountain in 2003 for 60,000 rand. They now hope to raise R12m (£900,000) from the sale. But South African National Parks are reported to have offered only R500,000.

Mr Bitton said that the best solution to the conflict would be for "someone to buy the mountain and do a 'white knight gesture' by handing it to the community". Others suggest the site, which has spectacular views, would be suitable for eco-tourism, including walks and whale watching.

But Mr Van der Heyden said that the community has now grown tired of gestures. "We are looking for empowerment through ownership, not just jobs on an eco-tourism scheme," he said.

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