January 29, 2009 Edition 1
Kerry Chance, Marie Huchzermeyer and Mark Hunter
REJECTION of transit camps and contestations around "adequate housing" are central to urban livelihoods.
Tomorrow the Durban High Court will rule on whether residents of Siyanda shack settlement near KwaMashu will be forcefully moved into a "transit camp" to make way for a new road.
This is a matter of life-changing importance to the 50 households facing removal.
But the way the court defines "adequate alternative accommodation" is of much wider significance.
Siyanda residents argue that the tiny masonite-and-tin structures of the transit camp are not adequate alternative accommodation, as required by the law.
They demand a clear assurance of permanent housing, or to be allowed to rebuild their larger shacks - some comprising five rooms - on land near Siyanda.
For the government, the alternative accommodation is "formal" and thus, by definition, acceptable.
This conflict cuts to the heart of the nature of housing after apartheid. After a slow start, more than two million houses have now been built.
At the same time, the reconstruction and development programme houses are usually tiny two-roomed structures, are often constructed poorly and are usually built on the outskirts of towns.
Their living space is typically a meagre 30m2.
Yet the Richmond Farm transit camp to where the authorities want to move the Siyanda residents contains structures that are only around 20m2.
This compares unfavourably to the infamous "matchbox" houses built in South Africa's townships under apartheid.
These had four rooms and a living area of typically 51m2.
In democratic South Africa the term "RDP houses" came to symbolise housing's pivotal role in facilitating reconstruction and development.
But the project has been far less radical than originally conceived.
The worrying new trend of forcing shack dwellers into transit camps - with no clear indication of when or to where they will be moved - is an extreme extension of a technocratic "formal at all cost" approach to housing.
Even under apartheid many transit camps were built with firm plans for occupants' resettlement.
The destruction of Cato Manor in 1959 was preceded by a transit camp. And alternative accommodation - which many residents famously opposed primarily because of its location - was typically the four-roomed houses of KwaMashu.
Today, politicians celebrate Cato Manor's history of resistance. Yet contemporary shack residents resisting similar relocations are portrayed as slum dwellers thwarting development.
Siyanda residents have been threatened, fired upon with rubber bullets and sprayed with water cannons by police.
This is despite the awful record of transit camps across the country.
Again and again, from apartheid's notorious transit camps used for screening and repatriation, to the camps today across South Africa's major cities, these spaces have been used to control urban dwellers deemed unruly and dangerous to groups in power.
At Delft in Cape Town, the transit camp is encircled with barbed wire fencing.
It has a single entrance where an armoured police truck and trailer are stationed - life in this site is controlled.
Transit camps are often located far from the shacks in which residents might have lived for many years.
In Cape Town some residents of Langa lost their jobs when they were relocated to the distant transit camp of Tsunami.
Here, the erosion of social networks means that women are now in greater fear of their safety when they collect water from the few collective taps, or venture at night to the communal toilets.
Their children have to be bused 25km to school. Those who used electricity in the shacks have been forced to revert to hazardous candles and paraffin stoves.
More progressive practices elsewhere have been flagrantly ignored. In Brazil a dedicated social worker is assigned to assist transit camp residents.
Transit camps there, as in most countries, are not thought of as adequate accommodation but as a temporary solution only considered as a last resort, and always alongside a clearly timed plan for future housing.
A sustainable approach starts from the perspective of urban livelihoods, one articulated by groups like the shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.
While formally built housing is desired, the umjondolo is not simply bad because it is informal but because it might lack certain services such as toilets. The place of its location matters. A shack is not automatically improved by "formal" housing.
Some moves to in situ upgrading recognise this, whereas KwaZulu-Natal reverted to a more coercive strategy through its infamous Slum Elimination Act.
Indeed, for the past few years the KZN government has seemed determined to fulfil a fantasy of ridding the province of slums or shacks before the World Cup in 2010.
And in less than two years, deep irony could mark football tourists' stay in eThekwini.
Fans will be encouraged to visit the Cato Manor Museum to view the horrors of forced removals and transit camps under apartheid.
But to get there they might drive past bulldozed shacks and modern-day transit camps.
To avoid this, authorities must start from the lives of shack dwellers themselves. When residents say they prefer to live in a shack rather than a transit camp this must be taken seriously. It is not a vote in favour of shacks but a stronger vote against the alternative.
That's why the Siyanda case is important. It can help shift "development" from a technocratic numbers project to one about social transformation - to put the RDP back into housing.
# Kerry Chance, Marie Huchzermeyer and Mark Hunter are based at the Universities of Chicago, Witwatersrand and Toronto, respectively.