Mercury: Durban Housing Crisis Needs a Rethink

Durban’s housing crisis needs a rethink

Imraan Buccus, The Mercury, 17 October 2013

THE BLUE flags are back on Durban beaches, Poetry Africa is also back and another glorious Durban summer beckons us to he wonderful public space at the beachfront. These should be good times in Durban.

But the crisis around housing in Cato Crest is doing massive international damage to the city’s reputation. There have been protests in global capitals, churches, international human rights organisations and some of the greatest intellectuals of our time have expressed their deep concern about Cato Crest. Bishop Rubin Phillip, so often the moral consciousness of this city, has expressed his outrage. Protests are planned across Europe on October 19.

The Cato Crest crisis did not come out of nowhere. The city’s housing programme has been controversial for years. Unlawful evictions, shocking conditions in shack settlements, the return of the hated colonial institution, the transit camp, and tiny, poorly constructed houses on the edges of the urban periphery have all been condemned. Then there was the whole debacle around the Slums Act, pushed by the previous leadership of the province but later found to be unconstitutional.

But following the scandal around the massive and questionable wealth of tenderpreneurs, as well as the revelations in the Manase report, there is evidence of corruption in housing.

It is a perfect storm of social toxicity and requires a radical rethink on the part of the government – local and national. There needs to be decisive action against corruption and a radical rethink of how the housing crisis is approached. In her important book Cities with Slums Marie Huchzermeyer, the head of the town planning department at Wits, shows that in recent years the state has tended to see the shack settlement as a threat to be eradicated rather than a space requiring democratic engagement and social support.

In Cato Crest there have been consistent allegations of massive corruption, party political bias and ethnic discrimination against people from the Eastern Cape.

According to advocate Ismael Semenya, of the General Council of the Bar, there has also been repeated illegality on the part of some in the municipality. A number of commentators have serious concerns about what has been termed “the blatant disregard for the courts and the rule of law”.

But the reason why the situation has created such waves internationally, and the reason why it is doing such serious harm to Durban’s reputation internationally, is the unconscionable violence with which the opposition to corruption and illegal evictions has been repressed on the ground.

Two activists, Thembinkosi Qumbelo and Nkululeko Gwala, have been assassinated. A 17-year old girl, Nqobile Nzuza, was shot dead, in the back of her head, by the police. Two other activists have also been shot with live ammunition, one by the police and one by the Land Invasions Unit.

There have been constant allegations of assaults by the police. There have also been constant allegations of death threats against activists. A week ago, award-winning activist Mnikelo Ndabankulu was publicly threatened with death on Gagasi FM.


Part of what is creating such outrage is that no one has been arrested for these killings, shootings and other forms of intimidation, yet at the same time a courageous young woman, Bandile Mdlalose, was arrested, held in Westville Prison and released on a shockingly high bail for organising a protest against the murder of Nqobile.

In the eyes of many of Durban’s poorest citizens, and in the eyes of the world, it looks like the dark days of repression are back. In this context, many shack dwellers in Durban are organised into the largest social movement to have emerged after apartheid, Abahlali baseMjondolo. When people are unorganised repression can often be effective in crushing their struggle. But when people are well organised it is often possible for repression to be resisted. The attempt to try to crush social movements with violence is one that has backfired massively on the powers that be.

There have been, and will continue to be, court actions. There have been road blockades around the city. There is also a rapidly escalating campaign of international solidarity. The city’s ability to govern its poor residents without their consent is in peril. At the same time the city’s international reputation is at real risk.

It is clear that further repression will lead to further popular resistance and massive international damage to the city’s reputation. What is needed now is a credible investigation, immediate action to arrest those responsible for the assassinations and shootings in Cato Crest, a return to the rule of law by the city and a serious attempt to resolve the escalating conflict between the city and its poorest residents with negotiation rather than violence.

The situation is grave and the time to act is now.

 Imraan Buccus – Mercury article


Imraan Buccus - Mercury article