Human Beings are Living There, May 2006

Mail & Guardian, 19 May 2006
Human Beings are Living There

Every great city in this world, from ancient Rome to New York, was, at some point, ringed with shacks. Today around one billion people live in shacks and the numbers are growingly rapidly. In South Africa it is often confidently asserted that shack settlements are an apartheid hangover which will soon pass. In fact the number of people living in shacks has almost doubled in the last 12 years. Despite this politicians like KZN Housing MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu insist that shack settlements will be eradicated in time for the 2010 World Cup. While houses are being built they are certainly not being built at anything remotely like the rate to enable Mabuyakhulu to eradicate the 250 000 settlements identified by his department in his lifetime. His plan is to pass new legislation enabling municipalities to set up their own Red Ants units to destroy shack settlements. He is planning a legislated version of Operation Murambatsvina.

In Durban the eThekwini Municipality has already destroyed settlements illegally leaving people homeless. The Municipality has acted with equal contempt for the law when the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo have attempted to express their concerns. City Manager Mike Sutcliffe banned his first shack dwellers’ march on 14 November last year. The Freedom of Expression Institute issued a statement condemning Sutcliffe’s ban as “a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act.” When shack dwellers tried to protest against Sutcliffe’s illegal ban they were shot at and savagely beaten by the police. Journalists were threatened with violence if they reported what they had seen and photographic evidence was stolen at gun point.

The Abahlali were eventually able to garner the connections to challenge their ongoing de facto banning. Sutcliffe had banned a march of 20 000 people into the city planned for 27th February 2006. Early that morning the police occupied the largest settlements in a military style operation using armoured vehicles and helicopters. All exits were blocked and key people were arrested, sometimes while still asleep, and later assaulted in the Sydenham police station. But this time Abahlali were able to go to the high court with the backing of the Foundation for Human Rights. They won a court order interdicting the city and the police from interfering with their right to protest. With the interdict in their hands they were able to leave the settlements and march into the city in triumph.

Shack dwellers have won major access to voice which now enables them to comment on the policies affecting them everywhere from community radio stations to the New York Times. At their core of their struggle is a demand to be able to live close to the city where there are opportunities for work and decent education. They are also demanding housing, basic services and genuinely participatory policy making. The Municipality’s response has largely followed a two prong strategy: send out the police to deal with the shack dwellers and tell middle class citizens that everything is all right because houses are being built and the UN organisation Habitat endorses the housing programme. But most of the houses that are being built are tiny, badly made dwellings in bleak apartheid style rural ghettos far from opportunities for work, decent education and health care. The fact that Habitat endorses this provides no comfort. Habitat has a dismal record of failure to engage with shack dwellers and its attempt at developing a model pilot project in Nairobi, where it has its plush headquarters, has been a complete failure. Habitat functions largely to offer legitimation to governments with similar failings. This is unsurprising. The UN is, after all, an organisation of governments.

The return to colonial style rhetoric about ‘clearing the slums’ means that shack settlements are seen as temporary aberrations. This enables the municipality to justify halting service provision to shack dwellers. This goes back to 2001 when the municipality announced that “In past (1990s) electrification was rolled out to all and sundry…electrification of the informal settlements has now been discontinued.” The consequence of this is that the ominous glow of shack fires lights up the winter sky. People live in terror of fire. Electrification could halt the deaths, burns and suffering caused by these fires. The provision of even a few more taps could prevent women from spending huge portions of their lives queuing for water.

With budget and policy priorities as they are the only way that KZN shack settlements will be gone in four years time is if the state wages a massive militarised assault on the poor. If they choose or are forced to step back from the madness of the war Mabuyakhulu is planning the shacks will still be there. And the women will still be discussing the latest fire in the water queue.