The Times: The poor won’t go quietly

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The poor won’t go quietly

Nov 24, 2009 10:48 PM | By Richard Pithouse
The Big Read: After Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato was slapped in Blikkiesdorp, the police have warned politicians not to enter the area without police backup.

Blikkiesdorp is a government-built shack settlement on the barren sands of Delft, outside Cape Town. With rows of tin shacks, razor wire fencing, invasive lighting and armoured vehicles at the gated entrance, it looks like a concentration camp.

To his credit, the local police chief describes Blikkiesdorp as a “housing time-bomb”. But, incredibly, Dan Plato says that he is “happy” with Blikkiesdorp, despite the fact that the residents are “ungrateful”. He intends to build more camps like it.

State officials refer to these camps as “temporary relocation areas” in Cape Town, “transit camps” in Durban and “decant areas” in Johannesburg.

All the major political parties see them as a useful way of expelling the urban poor from the cities and ending any political autonomy that they may have developed through self-organised occupations without having to pay the traditional price of providing decent housing.

But, they are universally hated and widely disparaged as “amatins” and “government shacks”. Across the country people have burnt them down, marched, thrown up burning barricades and gone to court in their attempts to avoid being dumped in these places. But, despite the ubiquity of resistance, thousands of people have been forced into these camps unlawfully at gunpoint or lawfully by judges who tend to hold to the bizarre assumption that they are automatically better than shack settlements.

Although the amatins look very much like a futuristic nightmare out of District 9, they have a long history in our country. The apartheid state used them to assert white control of cities by corralling blacks into contained and easily policed peripheral spaces – and by ensuring that its officials, rather than any popular process, would allocate access to these toeholds in the cities.

The apartheid state often justified its urban planning in the international language of modernisation and slum clearance rather than explicit racism.

The function of that technocratic language was to mask the base fears and desires that drive oppression in the guise of scientific neutrality and necessity.

That mask was torn from the face of oppression by a properly political language that named and denounced segregation and forced removal for what they were.

Some of the people who have been sentenced to Blikkiesdorp for being poor used to live in central Cape Town neighbourhoods such as Salt River and Woodstock. The parallels with previous rounds of dispossession and exclusion from central Cape Town are obvious.

But Lindiwe Sisulu got the idea for these camps from India and not from apartheid.

This fact offers an important insight into the mind of the political elites that are driving a violent programme of class segregation that literally puts the poor, be they shack dwellers, street traders or sex workers, in their place.

In India the rich have turned on the poor, driving them out of the cities and dispossessing them of rural land in a kind of internal colonialism that has produced “a world class India” with its billionaires, IPL and glamorous film stars at the direct expense of the poor. It has resulted in a massive popular rebellion against elites, which is sometimes armed.

But it has also produced a turn to ethnic and religious communal violence, led by various factions of the Hindu right.

The state is treating the rebellion against the elites as a civil war, but is, via local politicians, often actively complicit in fomenting the communal politics that direct the desperation of the poor against other poor people.

The great anti-colonial philosopher, Frantz Fanon, argued that the colonial world is a world of compartments. For Fanon, the creation of different kinds of spaces for different kinds of people was a key tactic by which colonialism divided a single humanity into different “species”. He concluded that a key measure of decolonisation would be the degree to which space was democratised.

Post-apartheid South Africa has not sought to democratise space. On the contrary, “development” has been all about de-racialising and further modernising elite space while simultaneously expelling the poor from access to that space and firming up class segregation.

It is a simple fact that the material reality of Blikkiesdorp, as well as plenty of the peripheral RDP housing developments, is more inhuman than that of the townships built under apartheid.

And life in these new ghettos is not only compromised by a second-rate material reality. There is also a second-rate political reality. It’s not at all unusual for local party structures to regulate allocation of houses and for the police to treat the poor in these new ghettos with systematic, enthusiastic and entirely criminal sadism.

The enormous popular opposition’s attempts to cloak oppression in allegedly technical processes like “development” and “delivery” has not been taken with anything like sufficient seriousness in elite society. This has led to a situation where political elites believe their own propaganda and can only see resistance as criminality or conspiracy.

Neither Julius Malema’s buffoonery that seeks to cloak the interests of a predatory elite in the language of nationalism, nor the technocratic delusion of development as post-political and delivery as a mere question of managed efficiency, offer us any route out of the new forms of segregation that produce Melrose Arch and private security for some and Blikkiesdorp and police harassment for others.

We need, again, to think politically about our cities and to give things their proper names.

But there are some encouraging signs that Plato’s slap in the face has done more to jolt the middle classes from their dogmatic slumbers than the whole slew of human rights reports indicting the amatins and failed court cases aimed at keeping people out of these camps.

In an editorial titled “Blinker’s Dorp” The Cape Times has denounced Blikkiesdorp as “a grim place where no one should have to live, a desolate settlement of one-room huts, where families share outside toilets and water taps, with little privacy, no trees and nowhere for children to play”.

This is the sort of heretical language for which organised shack dwellers have been denounced as the “Third Force”, accused of opposing development and consequently subjected to all kinds of violent state repression.

It is quite encouraging to see it making its way into the authorised general common sense of society.