The Transit Camp is a Form of Social Control

Published in The Mercury as ‘The Dynamics of Informal Housing’ on 12 December 2015.

The Transit Camp is a Form of Social Control

Richard Pithouse

Development is often held up as the answer to some of our most pressing social problems. Corruption is often seen as a key threat to attaining the efficient ‘delivery’ of developmental gains. But development and corruption are often – although of course not always – phenomena best understood as strategies for securing political containment.

These realities are masked when technocratic forms of analysis reduce the social world to a spreadsheet with, say, numbers of ‘housing opportunities’ allocated. They are also masked when critical voices fail to understand that the state and party, at various levels, have their own interests that both intersect with and depart from other, larger, global and historical forces. For instance the state and the party will certainly often act in the interests of capital, or white interests, but they will also sometimes act against the interests of capital and white interests.

The ‘transit camp’ (i.e. government constructed, allocated and managed shacks) was a technique used under colonialism and apartheid to try and contain an often insurgent black autonomy in cities, and to seek to enforce the monopoly over the allocation of urban land by the state and the market. It has always been accompanied by violent repression with the result that a choice is set up – confront state violence and criminalisation or accept the reduction in autonomy and collective power that goes with a taking a place in a ‘transit camp’.

The ‘transit camp’ returned to South Africa around ten years after apartheid when government officials saw how it worked in India. In Durban the ‘transit camp’ is not, as the average media report would lead you to conclude – and plenty of academic and NGO writing too for that matter – a strategy to provide people with the quickest access to the best ‘housing opportunities’ available under difficult circumstances. This is not just because shacks are sometimes less inhumane forms of housing than ‘transit camps’. It is because the ‘transit camp’ is a form of political containment that is systemically enabled by the forms of patronage and clientalism within the ruling party that are often referred to as corruption.

If there is a shack settlement where there has been sustained organisation or mobilisation outside of, or against the ruling party the material basis for that dissent will include the territory that has been held. Armed evictions are possible but they can often enable the sort of unity that becomes possible when people confront a collective fate, and lead to forms of open resistance – often starting with road blockades and eventually ending up in court. It’s also possible to use other forms of repression. In Durban there are well documented accounts of this including violence at the hands of the state (police, land invasions unit, private security) and party structures that can range from individual assaults, to destroying peoples’ homes, attacks on protests, arrests on faked charges, torture at the hands of the police, organised slander and, on occasion, assassination.

But a purely repressive strategy can, like a collective eviction, also bring people together and enable an escalation in popular resistance to the local state. When people are well organised and have access to the media and lawyers it can also result in some costs for the broader credibility of the party and the state. However when repression is accompanied with an offer of a way out, and quick and real access to power and resources for some people, divisions often emerge and repression can, at least in part, be outsourced to forces within the community in question.

Around the world shack fires provide a key opportunity for states seeking to regain control of urban territory. If there is a big fire in a land occupation, and if people are not able to rebuild very quickly and the state can successfully step in to firstly prevent rebuilding and then build and allocate its own shacks the following things may occur:

  1. Everything is done through the local party structures even if they have minimal support or credibility, or both, on the ground (thereby breaking much of the power of any independent organisation on the land in question).
  2. Anyone opposed to the actions of the state and the local party structures will be presented as being ‘against development’ and as part of some malicious conspiracy. In many cases such allegations will be reported rather than investigated by the media. This will escalate the risk of repression.
  3. People unwilling to pay a bribe, or people without a party card or the approval of the local party structure will be denied access to the ‘transit camp’ (and therefore lose their hold on the land in question) making it extremely difficult to sustain independent organisation.
  4. The tenders for the construction and management of the ‘transit camp’, as well as security, will go, in large part, to people in or approved by party structures. People living on the land in question will be given positions on steering committees and as Community Liaison Officers and access to construction and security jobs. This offers a real, quick and significant (in some cases life changing) reward for obedience. This can, in turn, enable the escalation of forms of repression undertaken via party structures rather than the state.
  5. Only people in the ‘transit camp’ will be included in the count of those considered for eventual access to housing – which may be held out as a promise year after year without realisation (thereby further raising the costs of any form of independent or oppositional politics). Presenting the ‘transit camp’ as the only legitimate avenue towards accessing a house makes it very difficult for many people to refuse pressure to accept a place in a transit camp.
  6. Local party structures may control the management of the’ transit camp’ and may make it impossible for independent organisations, lawyers and others to hold meetings there (thereby confounding the difficulties of sustaining any form of autonomous or democratic organisation).

The kind of deals that are usually termed ‘corruption’ are often important mechanisms to sustain the authority of local party structures and the local state. When corruption is taken up by the state it is often as a result of conflict within the ruling party over access to resources and power. This conflict, increasingly bitter and increasingly violent in Durban (where it extends to assassination), can open up space for independent organisation as local party elites focus on their internecine rivalries. But it entrenches the normalisation of patronage and political violence and so, in the long run, strengthens the increasingly predatory form of the state and makes the possibilities of independent and democratic grassroots politics ever more fragile.

It is clear that South Africa cannot continue on its current path. Our economy is in crisis, there is systemic dysfunctionality in parts of the state, and many parastatals, millions of young people have no viable future and political violence is escalating. There are forces within and outside of the ruling party that are implicitly seeking an authoritarian resolution of the gathering crisis. There are also forces that, from the shack settlement to the university, and often isolated and precarious, are seeking a democratic resolution of the profound problems that we face. If we are to be able to achieve a democratic way out of the mess into which we are sinking we will have to think a lot more carefully about how things like ‘development’ and corruption’ function in reality.