Slums law based on flawed interpretation of UN goals

by Marie Huchzermeyer in Business Day, 19 May 2008

NEWS that the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act will be replicated in other provinces comes as no surprise. Since 2001, national and provincial housing departments have been mandated with achieving this target, which stems from a fundamentally flawed South African interpretation of the United Nations’ (UN’s) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000.

Not dissimilar from the AIDS dissidents’ denial of the connection between HIV and AIDS and refusal to roll out antiretrovirals, the determination to eradicate informal settlements is underpinned by a denial of urbanisation, the economy and human rights in SA. When compared with the UN’s MDGs, and its numerous publications on how to achieve them, SA’s approach to informal settlements stands out as lunatic and sadly sinister in what it means for the lives of vulnerable people.

While professing to support the progressive realisation of the constitutional right to housing, the act uses the language and practice of “control” and “eviction”. It simplistically seeks to achieve eradication of informal settlements by replacing them with formal housing and stamping out any new erection of shacks.

In response to submissions opposing the proposed legislation when it was still in bill form, the KwaZulu-Natal legislature’s advisers explained that it sought to upgrade suitable informal settlements, “if any”, and only because housing delivery would not quite meet the demand. The underlying assumption is indeed that all informal settlements should be removed and replaced by formal Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing. This is despite admissions, even by the government, that RDP housing has removed people from their livelihoods, imposed transport burdens and made poverty worse. The 2004 “breaking n ew g round” policy of the national housing department sought to redress this by introducing an “u pgrading of i nformal s ettlements p rogramme”.

The a ct further denies there is a growth in housing demand. By mandating the policing and fencing off of all vacant land and instituting the eviction of any new invasion, it seeks to prevent the re-emergence of slums — a critical component of the strategy to achieve total eradication of informal settlements by 2014.

“Re-emergence” here refers to the reconstruction of shacks that have been removed. This in itself is repressive, but it also treats all new formation of informal settlements in response to a constantly growing, unmet housing demand, as “re-emergence”.

Essentially, it seeks to shut down the city to a growing population of the urban poor.

This is not only reminiscent of apartheid policy. It reintroduces measures from the 1951 Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, which was repealed in 1998. Like the 1951 act, the KwaZulu-Natal act mandates land owners, on whose property poor people have settled, with instituting eviction procedures.

In parliamentary speeches and media announcements, and more recently in legal responses to submissions and court challenges, the target to eradicate informal settlements by 2014 is always justified with reference to the UN’s MDGs.

One of the UN’s MDG targets is to significantly improve the lives of 100-million slum dwellers — 10% of the slum population — by 2020. The slogan “Cities Without Slums” accompanies this target. The slogan and target stem from the Cities Without Slums Action Plan of the multilateral organisation, Cities Alliance. Improving the lives of 10% of slum dwellers by 2020 was conceptualised as a first step to eventually achieve cities without slums.

Nowhere does the UN even vaguely suggest it has a target for achieving cities without slums. In the extensive publications of UN-Habitat (such as the Global Report on Human Settlements 2003: The Challenge of Slums, from which I quote here), which promote the slum improvement target, reference is made to “the long journey towards cities without slums”.

UN-Habitat is clear on how to improve the lives of slum dwellers to meet the MDG target. It promotes, as best practice, “participatory slum upgrading programmes that include urban poverty reduction objectives”.

As if speaking directly to the South African situation, UN-Habitat states that “eradication and relocation destroys, unnecessarily, a large stock of housing affordable to the urban poor and the new housing provided has frequently turned out to be unaffordable with the result that the relocated households move back into slum accommodation…. Relocation or involuntary resettlement of slum dwellers should, as far as possible, be avoided.”

UN-Habitat lists unsuccessful approaches to dealing with informal settlements. Among them is eviction, which was common practice in the 1970s- 80s. “Squatter evictions have created more misery than they have prevented.”

Regarding the longer-term goal of achieving cities without slums, UN-Habitat acknowledges that measures are required to “prevent the emergence of more slums”.

It therefore requests that slum upgrading programmes be combined with “clear and consistent policies for urban planning and management, as well as for low-income housing development, which should include supply of sufficient and affordable land for the gradual development of economically appropriate low-income housing by the poor themselves, thus preventing the emergence of more slums”.

Nowhere does UN-Habitat promote the criminalisation of land invasions, policing or fencing off of vacant land, relocations and evictions as measures for the prevention of emergence or re-emergence of slums.

The KwaZulu-Natal legislature’s advisers blame opponents of the slums act for wishing to perpetuate slums. In response to a request to rename and focus the bill on the realisation of the right to housing and removing obstacles to upgrading, they argued that the act, in name and content, would correctly reflect the province’s mandate.

This is a worrying admission. The terms “elimination” and “eradication” conjure up repressive measures of the past. UN-Habitat, in its index, suggests for the term “eradication”: “see clearance; eviction”.

The legislature clearly shows that its intention is to control and repress, to keep the poor out of the city. This, despite a demographic and economic context that continues to determine a rapid increase in the population of the urban poor, far outstripping formal housing supply.

Unlike SA’s tragic AIDS denial, which the new ANC leadership rejects outright, ANC president Jacob Zuma is squarely behind “legislation to address the proliferation of informal settlements” (quoting from his January 8 statement, ironically structured around the principles of the Freedom Charter).

The AIDS denial was opposed over many years by a strong social movement with a rights-based approach. Since the 2000 Grootboom constitutional ruling, a similar mobilisation has developed around informal settlements. A significant jurisprudence has also emerged on the right to housing. These combined into a confident challenge of the KwaZulu-Natal slums act.

If the government is determined to push ahead with its eradication agenda it will encounter strong resistance in the streets and in the courts. Eventually, politicians might swing to reap the rewards of the progressive, democratic and human rights-based approach to informal settlements that a growing shack dwellers’ movement is calling for.

In the meantime, the poor live in daily fear of losing their precarious foothold in South African cities.

# Huchzermeyer is an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University.