Mhlengi Khumalo is gone (October 2005)

Mhlengi Khumalo is gone

Last Friday 16 shacks burnt down in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban. A one year old boy, Mhlengi Khumalo, was very badly burnt and died on Saturday night. This was the third conflagration this month. The fire started when a candle was knocked over. Until 2001 pre-paid electricity meters were being installed in shacks. To get electricity you needed to pay R350 and to be able to represent your case in a certain way. According to S’bu Zikode from the Kennedy Road Development Committee “It all depended on who applied. If you seemed ignorant because you can’t speak English you were just told to wait outside.” The eThekweni Metro has since informed Kennedy Road residents that there is a “new policy not to install electricity in informal settlements”. More than 70 people with receipts for payments for installation have neither a refund nor electricity. If the installation of electricity to the settlement had not been halted these fires, and Mhlengi’s death, could have been avoided.

The Kennedy Road settlement has been in open revolt since Saturday 19 March this year when 750 people blocked the N2 and held it against the riot police for 4 hours. There were 14 arrests. On the following Monday1 200 people marched on the Sydenham police station, where the 14 were being held, to demand that either they be released or else the entire community be arrested because “If they are criminal then we are all criminal”. The march was dispersed with beatings, dogs and tear gas. The immediate cause of the road blockade is clear. The Kennedy Road settlement had consistently been promised, over many years, that a small piece of land in nearby Elf Road would be made available for the development of housing. The promise had been repeated as recently as 16 February this year. The Development Committee had been participating in ongoing discussions about the development of this housing when, without any warning or explanation, bulldozers began levelling the land. A few people went to see what was happening and were shocked to be told that a brick factory was being built on the land by a private company believed by some to be connected to the local councillor. They explained their concerns to the people working on the site and work stopped. S’bu Zikode explains: “The next day the men from the brickyard came with the police, an army, to ask who had stopped the work. So, on Saturday morning the people wake us. They take us there to find out what is happening. A meeting was set up with the owner of the factory and the local councillor, but they didn’t come. There was no brickyard, no councillor, no minister, nobody. There was no fighting. Then the police came. Then the councillor phoned. He told the police ‘These people are criminals, arrest them.’ Then the people blocked the road.”

The road blockade was followed by a legal march of more than 3 000 people on 13 May demanding the resignation of the ward councilor, Yacoob Baig, and the delivery of the promised land and housing. The local ANC responded by sending in a heavy weight delegation who berated the community for their actions and demanded to know who was the third force behind the protest. Eventually Zikode acknowledged that there was in fact a third force – winter. Winter was coming and winter means shack fires. A second legal march was planned. Deputy city manager Derek Naidoo arrived to “avert the march”. He offered a deal. Council would build two toilet blocks in the settlement and the leadership would run these toilet blocks by charging “10 cents and 20 cents a time” (10 cents for a piss and 20 cents for a shit? no one was sure) and using this money to employ a cleaner and to cover the maintenance costs. Toilets are not a small issue in Kennedy Road. The 147 pitlatrines had last been cleaned out 5 years previously and the 6 000 residents were now using 6 badly maintained portable toilets. But this wasn’t good enough. Naidoo was challenged about the promised land and housing. He informed the community that their settlement had been “ring-fenced for slum clearance” and that “The city’s plan is to move you to the periphery”.

He came under sustained attack. Where will we work? Where will our children school? What clinics are there? How will we live? Naidoo was told that there was no infrastructure in rural areas. He agreed and said that people must understand that it is too expensive to build it there and that the development focus was the 25km circumference radiating out from the nodal point of the city centre. It was put to Naidoo that this was the same as apartheid – black people were being pushed out of the city. Naidoo said that if people didn’t like it “they should go to the constitutional court.” He kept saying that there was no land. Cosmos Bhengu pointed out that there was in fact plenty of land around. Examples were cited. Naidoo said that the land belongs to a private company – Moreland. Moreland, the largest land owner in the city, owns the sugar plantations to the North which were won by colonial conquest, held through the 1906 Zulu rebellion via a series of massacres, worked by indentured labour from India and are now being sold off to the rich with colonial themed gated suburbs, shops and office parks with sea views. S’bu Zikode declared the meeting closed and promised that “We’ll put thousands on the streets.” On 14 September well more than 5 000 people marched on the local councillor.

This has been a revolt of the betrayed. The ANC has consistently legitimated its power, including its power to demobilise popular militancy and to speak for its traditions,in the name of the poor. This is not always done via abstractions. Concrete promises have been made to specific communities. On 9 November 1993 the ANC issued a press statement condemning the “housing crisis in South Africa” as “a matter which falls squarely at the door of the National Party regime and its surrogates”. It went on to describe conditions in the ‘informal settlements’ as “indecent” and announced that …The ANC calls on all people living in informal settlements to make their voices heard! “Your problems My Problems. Your solution is My Solution.” says President Mandela.” Kennedy Road was specifically mentioned. On 4 June 1999 the ANC greeted news of their victory in the provincial election with a euphoric press statement. They promised, that, as their first priority, “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” In both elections Kennedy Road voted solidly ANC.

People come to shack settlements because opportunities to find work or develop livelihoods, and to access decent education, health care, cultural and sporting facilities and so on are often extremely limited in rural areas and small towns. Although there is tremendous suffering in shack settlements they are also a space of hope that enable many people to find ways out of acute marginality.

The Durban Municipality estimates that over 800 000 of the city’s 3 million inhabitants live in ‘informal settlements’. The City’s policy is that all attempts at creating new settlements are considered as illegal land invasions. People erecting new shacks risk criminal charges and the city aims to demolish all new shacks. But it is not only new settlements that are subject to armed attack by the state. The City also seeks to prevent people living in established settlements from developing their shacks into more formal structures. The City threatens to, and quite often does demolish shacks that are developed. Officials argue that this is necessary because while some settlements will be upgraded more than 70 will be subject to ‘slum clearance’ and ‘relocation’. Although the City does not admit it is clear that they have also reneged on promises to provide basic services like electricity and water in settlements, and have removed existing services, especially toilets, from some settlements in a clear attempt to force people to accept ‘relocation.’ The City says that is has already relocated 7 000 families and aims to build 400 houses a month to be able to continue with relocation. This policy is generally celebrated as progressive and exemplary in elite publics but this celebratory response misses two key continuities with apartheid.

The first is that there is a clear attempt to regulate the flow of poor African people into the city. In practice there is not an absolute barrier because new shacks are erected and because people who find work or develop livelihoods from a first base in a shack often move out of their shacks and rent them to new arrivals. But the policy intention is clearly to restrict the influx of poor people moving in to the city.

Secondly, while houses are being built in the areas to which people are relocated they are mostly being built, in the manner of colonial and apartheid era townships, away from the city. In his reflections on the colonial city Frantz Fanon observed that “The colonial world is a world divided into compartments” and that “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed.” For Fanon the two zones are materially and symbolically separate. So the native quarter is not only physically separate from the European quarter but the two zones are imagined to contain different types of people – one clean, safe and rational and the other dirty, dangerous and irrational. For Fanon the colonial era will be over when there are no longer two zones inhabited by ‘different species of men’ in one city. The material and symbolic Manicheanism must be undone.

The colonial and then apartheid city had been conceived as a modern space and as a white space in which Africans had to be carefully contained or removed and barred. But in the 1980s the apartheid state, occupying Namibia, at war with the Cubans and the MPLA in Angola and putting down bitter township rebellions across the county lost the capacity to completely regulate the movement of Africans. Where possible white suburbs were protected but people were able to flood into the cities, seize land in defiance of the state and found communities autonomous of the state. But now the state again has the resources, including, crucially, the symbolic resources, to do what it wants. And clearly it wants to return to the colonial vision of the modern city. Of course the contemporary city is no longer conceived as the white city. But it is conceived as the bourgeois city. When City Manager Mike Sutcliffe gave a lecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal last year he showed photographs of shacks in the elite formerly Indian suburb of Reservoir Hills and said that transformation had to be pushed hard because formerly Indian suburbs still had informal settlements while white suburbs did not. He didn’t mean that he would be encouraging land occupations in formerly white suburbs. His implication was that justice entailed extending the prerogatives of white privilege to the Indian elite. The City is attempting to, in large part, reverse the popular challenge to the Manichean logic that lay behind the material segregation of the colonial city. A policy that aimed to integrate the city would require the appropriation of privately owned land and in particular the sugar cane plantations now being developed into gated communities for the rich by Moreland. This would not only require a direct conflict with capital. It would also require a direct challenge to the anxieties and prejudices projected on to shack dwellers by the white and black middle classes – prejudices that often repeat, precisely, the stereotypes directed at all black people by white racism under apartheid.

The struggle continues. On 4 October 2005 over a thousand people, more or less the entire population of the small Quarry Road settlement marched on their councillor, Jayraj Bachu, demanding his resignation, the return of their toilets and the provision of land and housing within the city. Two days later a meeting of 12 settlements was held in Kennedy Road. There were 32 elected representatives there, 17 men and 15 women. They agreed that they will not vote in the coming elections and that they will stand together and fight together. Each settlement now has a weekly meeting and representatives from each of the 12 settlements meet every Saturday. A new movement has emerged in these slums. But Mhlengi Khumalo is gone.