Mail & Guardian: Shack dwellers take on Slums Act

Shack dwellers take on Slums Act
Mail & Guardian

Niren Tolsi

16 February 2008 11:59

Shack dwellers in KwaZulu-Natal have set out to show that the provincial government acted unconstitutionally in promulgating its controversial anti-slums legislation in August last year.

This was disclosed in papers filed in the Durban High Court by the Wits Law Clinic, acting on behalf of the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which represents about 25 000 people in Durban and Pieter-maritzburg.

In its founding affidavit Abahlali claims the provincial government did not have the legislative authority to enact the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act (Slums Act).

The movement contends that the Slums Act has “two main objectives: to eliminate slums and to prevent the re-emergence of slums”. The Act’s provisions seek to achieve this by compelling owners to upgrade land or buildings which are in a state of disrepair and prevent vacant land from being illegally occupied.

Abahlali claims that “in its substance, purpose and effect”, the Slums Act deals less with the issue of government’s housing delivery and more with “land use, land tenure and eviction”. These are not included in section 104 of the Constitution and its accompanying schedules — which outline the legislative authority of provinces.

The Act has been compared with apartheid-era legislation by its detractors who claim it allows the eviction of residents from informal settlements and their resettlement in transit camps until government-built houses are complete. It also gives more power to private landowners to ensure the security of vacant land.

Landowners have until August this year to take “reasonable” steps, including “the erection of a perimeter fence” and the posting of security personnel to “prevent the unlawful occupation of such vacant land or building”. Failure to comply will result in fines of R20 000 or imprisonment not exceeding five years.

“It is similar to the 1952 Prevention of Squatting Act — which was repealed by the PIE [Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land] Act — allowing for landowners to play a greater role in policing land,” said Marie Hurchzermeyer of Wits University’s school of architecture and planning.

The Slums Act also outlaws the renting of run-down structures and increases the power of local municipalities to evict people living on municipal land.

In a three-tiered approach to its legal quest Abahlali will, if its primary bid fails, seek to prove that the Act unconstitutionally confers the power to evict illegal occupants of landowners and municipalities.

It will also argue that it contradicts section 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees everyone the “right to adequate housing”. The law clinic said that the Slums Act will “retard” rather than promote the “progressive realisation” of the right to housing because it does not allow “sufficient regard for the social, economic and historical context of widespread deprivation” or make “short, med-ium and long-term provision for housing needs”.

It will also seek to prove that the Act conflicts with national housing legislation and operates outside the framework of the National Housing Code. The code calls for greater consultation between government and shack dwellers and gives priority to the needs of the poor concerning housing development. It discourages evictions, advocating the development of informal settlements where possible.

“The act is anti-poor and against [Housing Minister] Lindiwe Sisulu’s Breaking New Ground policy, which allows for the development of informal settlements. It gives more power to landowners and the municipality to keep on demolishing our shacks and kicking our people out of their homes,” said Abahlali spokesperson Mnikelo Nbadandaba.