Talking past each other on housing
The shack dwellers’ movement and the city are not on the same wavelength over what should be done with informal settlements, an issue which leads to continual bickering
October 12, 2007 Edition 1
DARTING through the pouring rain and dodging the puddles on the streets of Durban this week, most residents of our fair city cursed the bad weather and cherished the warmth and shelter of their homes.
This included the 800 000 people who live in 540 shack settlements scattered around eThekwini, and whose emotional experience of home is probably as comforting as the other 2.2 million residents of the city who live in formal housing.
Practically the homes of shack dwellers and other residents could not be more different though.
Ask Miloon Kolhari, the United Nations special rapporteur who was in Durban earlier this year.
He visited shacks in Foreman Road in Clare Estate to assess first hand the squalor residents experienced. The morning after heavy rains he slipped through household refuse, sewage and broken bottles that lined the alleyways between shacks made of bits of wood and plastic.
Unlike top city officials and councillors from the ANC in eThekwini, Kolhari listened to representatives of Abahlali baseMjondolo (the shack dwellers’ movement) and heard how difficult it was for the 7 000 people in Foreman Road to share a dozen toilets every day.
Abahlali members say the city is ignoring them, though officials dispute this.
The political leaders of the democratically elected council bristle at Abahlali’s claims, saying they have a mandate to govern and do so in the interests of the people.
There are claims that Abahlali is made up of agitators with “sinister” motives, though this is not spelled out.
The fact of the matter is that the interaction between Abahlali and the city speaks for itself: every Abahlali demonstration in Durban ends in bloody conflict and arrests.
The parties are talking past one another, or don’t have a forum for a meaningful exchange.
Last week the UN-linked Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions expressed its concern at the “persistent antagonistic attitude and repressive actions of the authorities towards the legitimate grievances of shack dwellers” in Durban.
Abahlali’s attempts to engage with the council, the centre said, were met with “unjust and counter-productive responses” from city officials and the police.
Abahlali has rallied thousands of people around a cause. Its movement has committed leaders and well-connected intellectuals who have harnessed the power of civil society and academic networks to highlight their struggle, which often embarrasses the city and galls its leaders.
For one, the spotlight thrown by Abahlali on the housing debate has revealed the folly of claims that Durban’s housing woes will be over by 2014. The city has built 120 000 low-cost houses since 1994.
It boasts a rate of 14 000 new houses a year. It would have to double its rollout to meet the existing backlog, let alone cater for the new people streaming into the city in search of jobs and to be closer to schools and hospitals.
In response to a list of questions sent to the city by The Mercury, the council’s head of housing, Cogi Pather, said Abahlali members had been offered housing in Newlands, but “apparently refused”.
Pather said there were more than 500 projects in the housing plan, including upgrades of informal settlements and new developments.
Pather said 80% of these were within the city’s “urban edge” with close access to transport.
Many recipients of low-cost housing abandon these dwellings, saying they are too far from work.
“The city has earmarked a mere 5% of all (shacks) households for complete relocation. This is only due to the fact that the land that is settled is unsuitable for a viable development. These are settlements on flood plains or unstable land, for example. This implies that the large majority of settlements within the city will be earmarked for in situ upgrade. However, the large number of the families residing in these settlements cannot be accommodated in a conventional single-stand project and hence the city’s initiative to seek more viable and affordable options.”
Pather said the city was commissioning an architectural consultant to develop high-density housing models to construct within the housing subsidy grant.
Earlier this year Mayor Obed Mlaba defended the municipality’s prioritisation in the R17.4 billion budget saying: “When one simply gives away houses to the poor who have no means of sustaining themselves or building communities, you had better be sure that you have other income-generating programmes (like the new 2010 soccer stadium) in place to pick up the slack.”
Nigel Gumede, the ANC head of the city’s housing committee, is on record as saying the city’s focus is on eradicating shacks.
He said previously that the more the city built houses the more it encouraged people to move into shacks, in the hope of securing state built houses.
In the 2007/08 budget, the council pledged R543 million for low-cost housing projects and R210 million for housing infrastructure, R60 million to upgrade hostels and another R112 million to supply water and electricity to new low-cost housing schemes.
Abahlali president S’bu Zikode says this was well and good, but what about residents of shack settlements like his in Kennedy Road, in Clare Estate, that have existed for more than 15 years, and are often the first port of call for rural KZN residents when they arrive in town?
The council’s refusal to engage widely around its plans for housing, he said, meant people could not immediately improve their living conditions, nor participate in solutions, including keeping an accurate register of who lived in shack settlements.
He said shack dwellers were terrorised by runaway fires and endured poor sanitation and infrequent refuse removal, which worsened daily.
Zikode said residents deserved clear and consistent communication from council on its housing plans, especially in light of the fact that more than 200 shacks had been demolished illegally since January.
“Six percent of the vacant land in the city is owned by council. This could accommodate up to 80 000 homes.
“We also believe the city should expropriate privately held vacant land in the city if there is no plan for it. There is an urgent need for housing. We respect legal land ownership. Expropriation would be a last resort, but land that isn’t being used should be shared.
“We have been calling for a partnership on housing.
“No one party is an expert on housing . . . if there was a collaboration we could get down to business,” Zikode said.
The shack residents’ call comes in the wake of some appeals from businessmen and non-governmental organisations in Durban, articulated in The Mercury earlier this week by columnist Imraan Buccus from the Centre for Public Participation who wrote about community protests, including those by Abahlali.
“The problem is not complex or difficult to understand – it is simply a lack of genuine public participation in local government . . . the one consistent problem is a technocratic top-down approach to policy formulation and implementation,” Buccus wrote.