The comments below are from workshops on evictions and the law with residents of Motala Heights (Pinetown) who were able to halt an in-progress eviction and and former residents of Juba Place (Reservoir Hills) who were left homeless after the complete destruction of their settlement. The attacks on Motala Heights and Juba Place happened in December 2006. The workshops in which the comments below were made were held in March 2007.
In both workshops it was quite clear that all the participants feel very strongly that they have been excluded from citizenship and the legal protection that it offers and that this feeling of exclusion and abandonment was experienced with great pain. It is widely assumed that the law in a democratic state embodies ideals of equality and justice and provides protections and rights to everyone without fear or favour. But it is clear that participants in both of these workshops understood the law very differently on the basis of their lived experience of oppression. For most participants the law was understood as a tool that the rich deploy against the poor. The quote below, made in the Motala Heights workshop, gives a good sense of the lived experience that has led people to feel excluded from the legal protection of citizenship:
When the evictions happened…The South African law and the constitution didn’t work for us. They were pointing guns at us, threatening us, meantime we were fighting for our rights [as guaranteed in the law]. One comrade came asking them “What about section 26” but they didn’t say anything…When our chairperson came to ask ‘By what right and by what law can you this?’ teargas just got thrown in his face.
People in Motala were clearly deeply shocked at the cruelty with which they had been treated. They concluded that law does not only favour the rich but that it also fails to offer protection for the poor. The Constitution provides for gradual social progress and the idea that progress is slow but steady is a key alibi for contemporary forms of oppression. But many people in Motala said very clearly that the ‘development’ to which they had been subjected was not only not for them but had in fact had devastating material consequences for them. The treatment to which they had been subjected was elaborated in detail as these five, separate, quotes from the report backs from the group discussions illustrate:
When the eviction happened, we were unhappy because people were left sleeping outside – they were homeless. Some people who were evicted had small children inside and they did not know what to do or where to go. Some slept outside in the rain. Some lost jobs as a result – because, for example, they had no clothes to wear to work. It hurts me because some were evicted while their clothes and possessions were inside and they lost everything and then their jobs too.
The problem we see is that of abuse – nobody cared for anybody. Nobody was thinking of anybody. The councillor said ‘Houses have been developed for some of the people. The rest of you must go back where you came from.’ Those of us who didn’t own shacks he was telling us to go from this place. After the evictions, some were just trying to make a shelter – not even a shack – and the municipality just came and threw that down too.
The main factor that really shocked us was they just came and evicted us when we had said that we want our houses here, that we don’t want to go. Some shacks are still here but the only one who helped us was the Abahlali lawyer [Mahendra Chetty from the Legal Resources Centre]. No-one else defended us.
We are the group from what we will call the 'tenant shacks'. We are renting the tin houses from private owners. We are not only Indians – there are Africans too who are renting there. We must talk about the pain the people are going through. This is not just about the feelings in our heart but also the properties – the dwellings and the things in their dwellings. In these tin houses, when it rains, it's like there is no roof there is so much leaking. Our children area being affected. In the rainy weather many are not going to school because they are sleeping on wet beds and they and their clothes are dirty and wet. There is pain also for the old people and the pensioners and those who are handicapped. Think about what these bad conditions mean for those who are bedridden – it is pitiful to see. And transport is a problem – it is hard to get from place to place. We are trying to improve our lives in different ways and this makes necessary to get from place to place but where we are living there are few taxis and you can wait for an hour and half before you get a lift. We poor people have no say with the landlords. If we ask for improvements, they say they'll increase the rents – which are too high already. As for the law, the implementation favours the rich. From the Municipality we see favouritism for the rich and the poor have no say at all. The rich have the money and the poor do not. If we, the poor people, want someone to come to deal with a problem (e.g., health inspectors, water problems, anything that is affecting us) there is no-one who comes to deal with it. But the rich snap their fingers and it's sorted. The poor are being pushed out. They say it’s because it is private lands we are on, we are just told and forced to go.
Even before the demolitions and evictions, the Municipality came here and shot people, and blew the chairman with teargas between the eyes. After the evictions, some were homeless with no-where to sleep. Others were sleeping in storerooms, toilets, and under cardboard boxes. We are in a bad situation since being chased out. The law did nothing for us. The police, they told us – go speak to Ricky Govender about what we can do.
After the groups had reported back from their discussions Bheki Ngcobo, the local Abahlali chairperson, made an individual intervention stressing the sense of exclusion, expressing his anger at the Councillor who had threatened the community at gun point and who had, days before the workshop, had them excluded from the Ward Committee elections on the basis that they ‘were supposed to be in Nazareth’. Bheki also expressed his pain at how education has become a route to personal advancement rather than collective empowerment and issued a challenge to people schooled in the norms and epistemologies of domination to try and see things as they really are. The instance on drawing attention to the humanity of shack dwellers, usually rendered invisible as citizens and hyper visible as threats to the bourgeois world, has been central to the work of Abahlali. It takes on a radical edge against the elite consensus that stretches across state, capital and civil society and which can only tolerate the poor as passive, mute, exploitable and powerless pawns. Time and again challenges to this elite consensus have resulted in paranoia and startlingly virulent displays of discursive and physical violence.
Motala seems to be out of the Municipality - they don't care about us and the areas of jondolos are not known in the Municipality. The cause of this is Councillor Dimba who has said he doesn't know us because we all supposed to move to Nazareth. The Municipality seems to be saying they do not need us here. Well, they can bring a bulldozer and drive it from front to back, and from back to front – but we will stay, and that is all…. It is time for us all to talk because the people united will never be defeated. Let us no more talk in abusive ways of different racial groups with words like 'Charros' and ‘Zulus’ or whatever. We are one, and we will fight now, together…We must take the Councillors and the Municipality to the High Court. If you learn by going to the Universities, then you must learn not for yourself but for the people. The media – TV, newspapers, radio – must come here to us to see for themselves. Look at this book [Holding up a black bound notebook with white pages]. It looks black if you take it as it looks from here. But if you think to take it as it is, as it really is, then you have to turn it round to see the whiteness of the pages. This book it is not only black, it is also white. It is white inside.
The idea that the lived reality of the underside of ‘development’ in eThekwini was an explosive truth in the context where political and economic elites justify much of their power in the name of the poor had much resonance. For Louisa Motha:
I was happy when I saw on the TV show called Zola 7 the public exposure and embarrassment of some social workers working in the Joe Slovo settlement of Jo’burg. Some of them were even fired after the show. We must work to bring Zola here to make a show about life in the shacks. The politicians are afraid to be embarrassed so we must go to the media.
The promise of the Mandela era, a promise of an inclusive citizenship for all irrespective of race and class remains a moral anchor in the storm of primitive accumulation that is ripping Motala apart. There was wide resonance for the views of Mr James, whose wife had been able to stop an eviction from Govender with help from the Rental Housing Board in 2005 while he was in prison.
When the black government took over they brought us freedom and we talked about being a 'rainbow nation'. But we are upset now because it is not working. What we need is equality, and freedom, and that everyone has decent housing. We all need an equally good living – not be ridiculously rich, but a good living for everyone who is here. We shouldn’t be separated. We want the scales to be balanced. We want a free and fair life. Equal living for everyone.
Then the questions stated:
I have a question. I am sleeping under a tree here. How long must I remain there?
Parts of this area are being used as a dumping ground for dangerous rubbish. This is another way to show that the landlords have no feelings for the people. A fire at the rubbish lasted for 2 days recently. Poor people are suffering and getting sick but where can they go for medical help?
Let me ask the house a question: is it right and legal for one man to buy a whole lot of land when there are so many who are landless and homeless?
If we go to the Council and we get no help, where do we go? Because it's not just our struggles about land and housing, but there are all sorts of problems like health problems from the toxic fumes of some of these factories nearby, educations problems – all these things. We have been rejected all round. Where do we go from here?
Louisa Motha, more schooled in Abahlali’s politics of the strong poor than most people in Motala, had an answer:
We are always going to them. They are not coming here. We must go and bring them from the Council to here, and they can sit in these chairs and answer our questions.
The former residents of Juba Place came out of their group discussions with very clear positions on the law and a very strong consciousness of the place of the poor in the real life of the law:
The law is not working in favour of the poor. Instead it is serving the agenda of the rich. The poor have to toyi-toyi and do lots of organising and protesting before it starts to work for them. But the rich don't even have to do this – it's just automatically on their side. It's just the same for service delivery – when the poor in the shacks need basic things like water, they have to act in their numbers to demand these things, but one rich person just gets it when they ask.
It is very clear that the law is not working for the poor. In our experience, people have to sleep outside without shelter because of the law. When the law takes its course, the law does not consider the effects of laws on the people - and its effect is to make them homeless. When they are drafting laws they do not take this into account.
Clearly, the law is not working for the poor. It is oppressing us more and more. For example, we, the people from Juba Place, would not have been homeless for 5 months if the law was really working for us. If a rich family had been affected by these strong winds which are blowing currently the government would give them temporary accommodation. But we have been homeless for 5 months.
Even the councillors do not respond to the concerns of the poor people. Even when the story of the evictions was being covered in Isolezwe, no councillor came to see for himself and to see how he can help. If this had happened to a rich man they would have come to help. No one cares for the poor.
Even in terms of the low cost houses that were built. The process of giving these to the people who were meant to have them was corrupt and some people got cut out. But the police don’t investigate people who turn low cost housing developments for the poor into some sort of business for themselves.
Getting lawyers is very difficult for the poor. We don't even know where their offices are. And even if we get hold of them, there is no follow-up from their side after we have reported an issue to them.
When we think about whether the Constitution and the rights we are supposed to have now have made a good effect, we notice that actually there is only a slight difference. Compared to the laws of the apartheid time, some of those of the new government are slightly better – we can be proud of safe abortions – but on the whole we are going back. We should start afresh and get new laws by talking with the people at the grassroots and community-level. But in our experience there is no big difference with apartheid and the way the law works now.
People make a joke that, if someone comes to check about your TV license, if you haven't got a license it is better to kill that person, because the punishment might be less for killing than for owing money on your TV license. Abahlali were invited to come to a conference about crime by Diakonia Council of Churches and we thought our input would be to point out that, yes there are crimes like theft and housebreakings and so on, but the big crimes made by the rich and powerful are just ignored. In reality, the whole system of rights and law seems upside down.
In idealised representations of democracy and the rule of law the police are presented as the enforcers and protectors of rights. But a different view emerged in this workshop. Here the police are experienced as the armed wing of the elites at the top of a set of highly oppressive local social relations.
The police are supposed to be protecting people but they are oppressing us. For example, when we were living in the park after our homes were destroyed by the Municipality, we had someone there to look after our belongings. But the Municipality came to take these things of ours away forcibly (even some people's ID documents) and the police assisted them to do this crime against the people. Also, while we were there, the people in the big houses made up complaints of noise coming from us in order to pressure us to leave – and the police responded to these complaints and helped to push the poor people out.
The eThekwini Municipality rules all criticism of its housing policy as ‘lies’ that are unacceptable to the point of being ‘criminal’ because it is ‘delivering houses’. Participants in this workshop had very clear positions on this ‘delivery’:
Nazareth is not good. They are bad quality houses there. In some, there are no toilet seats – and complaints about these things are not dealt with. They are not plastered inside and they get flooded in the rain. Where they are located is bad too – there are no shops nearby at all and we must travel to Pinetown for anything we need. There are absolutely no job opportunities there, and no-one's working because the transport costs prevent anyone from either getting or keeping a job.
Compared to Juba Place what we have in Nazareth is not 'delivery' – it's oppression. In Juba Place all we had to think about was paraffin and candles – now in Nazareth we have to think about all sorts of things. It would have been better just to spend some money to electrify our places at Juba Place than to spend all this money to build new bad houses far away at Nazareth.
[When the eviction happened] Bhekani Ntuli [a housing department official] just announced: “Everyone's going to Nazareth. Those who do not have their own place now must go there and stay together with the people you are staying with now.” There was no official notice, just hearsay. Ntuli arrived on the Tuesday and we were evicted on Thursday. We even lost jobs and some equipment for our work through the evictions, not just our houses. Some people were forced to offer Ntuli R50 or a live chicken in order to get a house at Nazareth. Allocation of these houses was a bit arbitrary – it's as if they just looked at people's faces and decided who looked more deserving.
When asked “Why is it like this? And what can be done to make it better?” the unity of the position on the law fragmented into a range of positions with the last being shocking in its obvious and bitter truth:
These questions are too hard. Our concern is to get out of these 'hostels' [shacks] and into proper housing.
The reason why the law works for the rich and not the poor is discrimination. It is not discrimination that is based on race, or gender or any of these – it is because we are poor. And the law is not at all effective in the areas that affect our actual lives. For example, we are forced to live so that too many men and women are sharing a single room or shack. And so it becomes very hard to do things like washing ourselves when we are sharing like this because of issues of privacy – but the law does not protect this for poor people. No social workers came [after the eviction], there are no interim structures for us to live in.
Building structures and a movement of the poor and the shackdwellers can help to oppose and to challenge the things that are wrong. If we are strong we can force the government to discuss their proposals and policies and to see what we agree with and what we do not.
The people who draft such policies and laws do not speak to us about these things because they hate us. It is quite clear that they hate us. The ones who hate us are our own government and the capitalists that they are working very closely with. They hate us more and more.
With this obviously correct observation hanging in the air the workshop could not continue. It turned into a planning meeting with a view to regrouping the residents and organising action. The local Councillor Jayraj Bachu was selected as an accessible target. It was decided to form a committee and send a representative to Mahendra Chetty at the Legal Resources Centre to see how the case was coming and to elect representatives to attend the weekly Abahlali meetings and request solidarity for direct action against Bachu.
There was a final challenge:
How can we trust that you will write what we have said here today? That you will not make it softer on the government?
The full paper from which these comments are excerpted is online here.