Daily News: From matchbox to shoebox


April 14, 2010 Edition 1

From matchbox to shoebox

ANC has created divisions on the Lansdowne Housing Project, writes Oliver Meth

Even though it commands a large majority of electoral support; the African National Congress (ANC) has been using divisive, mischievous tactics within the tight-knit community of Wentworth. Whether it deals with industrial pollution, gang problems, drugs and alcohol, schooling, healthcare or the price of basic services, the municipality treats Wentworth like an unwanted orphan.

Controversy also rages over housing. In the wake of protests about the low quality of public housing and environmental degradation at the decrepit Rainbow Barracks complex on Tara Road in Merewent, just west of the Engen petroleum refinery, which was this weekend demolished and residents relocated to Lansdowne Road, where the City has construct 128 new units.

No agreement was reached on the nature of the units and their size. Several weeks ago, yet more furious protest by aggrieved beneficiaries arouse, making it clear that they were not satisfied with the construction and will not be moving from “match boxes to shoes boxes”.

eThekwini Municipality Council housing head, Nigel Gumede attacked residents who expressed complaints about Lansdowne Road, last July, telling The Daily News: “We will not give any community preferential treatment. I will say it again, those who don’t want the houses can go to hell, I don’t care about them. They will never again be a priority on the housing list.”

City Manager Michael Sutcliffe and Gumede have made repeated errors. Consultation about the move from Barracks to new structures at Lansdowne Road was inadequate and unlawfull.

Residents were given notice on Thursday (April 8th, 2010) to “pack up” and that relocation to the new units would take place the following day. Police with dogs, rubber bullets, private security, municipality fleet vans and a demolishing company awoke the 686 families, each with at least 5 to 12 people residing in the one-bedroom units with asbestos roofing, early Friday morning, ordering them to “load up on the vans” and were dumped in Lansdowne Road over the weekend.

What frustrates residents further is the inhumane treatment by council that they have received. “Not enough notice was given at least a months’ notice they (municipality) should have given us,” said Zelda Kenny. There are talks that the committee will take the matter up legally against the municipality.

Since the ANC took over from the apartheid regime, it has failed to deliver meaningful services in Wentworth. Council flats are in a shocking state of disrepair. The last time public housing was built in Wentworth was during the 1970s.

Even worse, now that pressure has risen to build new units so that residents can escape Engen’s dangerous emissions, the municipality’s construction work in Lansdowne is inferior to what the apartheid regime built.

Consider what is happening in townships across South Africa, including nearby sites in Umlazi, and it is easy to understand the widespread community protests. People are being moved from three-room cardboard shacks into one-room concrete slums.

Residents have lived at the Barracks for 36 years. They were promised better housing by the apartheid state, and later by former president Thabo Mbeki. Now the Jacob Zuma administration has dumped them in a swamp.

The last time the Barracks witnessed renovations was in 1991. Over the years the Barracks deteriorated into a squatter settlement.

The decision to relocate the Barracks residents was made in 2004 when the South Durban Spatial Development Framework was formulated. But the plan was developed without public participation and threatened yet further inappropriate industrialisation of our neighbourhoods, already a petro-chemical complex hotspot of toxins.

In November 2006, deputy mayor Logie Naidoo wrote in The Mercury that Wentworth would be transformed in the decades to come – yet Naidoo was merely advancing Engen’s expansion plan.

The KwaZulu-Natal housing department subsidied (R5.5m), with even more funds from the city housing development fund (R14.5m) and Engen (R15m). The community was suspicious that Engen would acquire more land for potential expansion beyond the current buffer zone of Tara Road.

Residents subsequently realised they were being relocated from flats that averaged 59 square meters, to 45 square meter units built in a swamp area, near a busy road, isolated from the rest of the community. Lansdowne is far from schools, hospital, shopping centres and other necessities. The buildings are on stilts and “the foundations already have cracks”.

The new units are inadequate in size, structurally weak and are built from poor materials, just as the government’s “RDP Houses” are much worse than apartheid “Matchboxes”. The plots and layout prevent Barracks residents from developing their homes in a way that contributes to livelihoods and ultimately to a sustainable community.

Democracy means that people have a right to voice their views. A government which genuinely represents the people should listen, no matter our community’s political affiliations. Gumede, Sutcliffe, ANC Wentworth branch and even ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe have publicly attacked Wentworth residents.

With protests rising across the country, and with high-profile municipal projects also underfunded in sites like Cape Town’s N2 Gateway settlement, the housing question remains unanswered.

In Frederick Engels’ famous article, “The Housing Question”, the collaborator of Karl Marx explained the problem he saw in Manchester in 1887, as follows: “In reality, the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion—that is to say, of
solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew.”

Engels continued, “No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else… The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place.”

Inadequate funding of low-income housing is typical of this government, which at the same time overspends on white elephant stadiums and rewards its cronies with multimillion rand tenders and subsidies for disasters like Remant Alton bus privatization, the proposed Warwick Junction mall, the International Conference Centre, and the Point development.

Because Sutcliffe considers himself a “Marxist geographer”, as he told the Mail & Guardian, he should know that what he is doing has a long legacy of infamy: exploiting the working class.