‘Slum Eradication’ is not the answer to the housing crisis in Durban

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‘Slum Eradication’ is not the answer to the housing crisis in Durban


In a recent interview in The Mercury the new City Manager in Durban, S’bu Sithole, declared that ‘slums’ would be ‘eradicated’ in the city by 2030. Sithole seems sincere and well intentioned and some of his comments on housing, such as those pertaining to private profiteering off public housing, and the low quality of public housing are most welcome. But the return to the language of ‘eradicating slums’ is cause for concern. We’ve been down this road before and it was a disaster.

In 2001 Thabo Mbeki announced that ‘slums’ would be ‘eradicated’ in South Africa by 2014 and in that same year the eThekweni Municipality launched its ‘slum clearance programme’. By 2006 officials and politicians in Durban, and in the province, were confidently declaring that there would be no shacks in KwaZulu-Natal by 2010. The date by which shacks were going to be ‘eradicated’ was then shifted to 2011, and then aligned with the national target date of 2014.

But the idea that shacks can be eradicated by a certain date because a politician or official has decided this is a fantasy and one that is predicated on a denial of the seriousness of our urban crisis. The reality is that we have an economy that makes it impossible for millions of people to access housing via the market and that the number of people who can’t access housing via the market is growing at a rate that far outstrips the state’s ability to provide houses. The situation is compounded by the fact that many of the houses built by the state are, as well as being tiny and very badly constructed, so far away from opportunities to access work, schooling and so on that living in state housing is simply not viable for many people. Many people are much better off in well located shacks than in housing developments in the middle of nowhere.

In recent years both the eThekweni Municipality and the new Minister of Housing, Tokyo Sexwale, have publicly admitted that there is no chance of ‘eradication’ by 2014 and the language of ‘eradication’ is no longer promoted at national level. This is a welcome development because it shifts the discussion about the housing crisis off the terrain of fantasy and back on to the terrain of reality. But the problem with the rhetoric around ‘slum clearance’ was not just that it is, under current realities, a fantasy and a form of denialism. It also led to all kinds of other problems most of which come down to the fact that progress was assessed by the statistical measure of how many shacks were knocked down and how many houses were erected rather than how the City’s approach to housing affected the lives of people.

People were often left homeless when their shacks were demolished. And the City often acted with violence and in systemic violation of the laws that protect people against arbitrary eviction when it demolished shacks. People were also often subject to forced removals to transit camps or government houses which were sometimes structurally worse than their shacks and which often took them far away from social networks and opportunities to sustain livelihoods and access to education. For some people ‘housing delivery’ was, in fact, a disaster. Moreover the fantasy that all shack settlements were now ‘temporary’ meant that very little support was provided to shack settlements in terms of essential, and at times life-saving, services. The results of this included regular fires, children dying of diarrhoea and women without access to toilets risking rape when finding a private place to go to relieve themselves at night.

Unsurprisingly the city’s ‘slum clearance’ programme led to international condemnation from human rights organisations and sustained popular opposition from shack dwellers. The response of the City often took the form of outright repression including unlawful bans on protests, violent police responses to peaceful protests and violent attacks on individual activists by both the police and party structures. And Mike Sutcliffe’s substitution of spin and authoritarian bluster for open and rational engagement was a corrosive force in our public sphere.

However many grassroots activists, as well as many people working in the City, felt that the appointment of James Nxumalo as the new mayor marked the real possibility that a new start could be made in Durban. Nxumalo was seen as someone who was willing to engage, who treated poor people with respect and who could shift the discussion of the problems that we confront in Durban on to the terrain of reason and into a mode of partnership, or at least productive engagement, between poor communities and poor people’s organisations and the City.

The reality is that most of the forces that are driving the growth in squatting around the country are global and national and are outside of the control of any Mayor, City Manager or Municipality. But there are valuable things, even within current budgetary and policy constraints, that the eThekwini Municipality can do, and do very quickly, to seriously improve the lives of shack dwellers in Durban.

For instance immediate steps can be taken to urgently provide services like adequate and properly maintained water, sanitation, foot paths, access roads for emergency vehicles, fire extinguishers as well as electricity to shack settlements. It’s also possible for officials to take immediate steps to stop the farce that consulting with local party structures, or in the case of Motala Heights a local businessman who is widely referred to as a ‘gangster’ and whose taste for thuggery is well known, is the same thing as consulting with the people that are actually effected by decisions around development.

The City could also take urgent action to provide subsidised transport from the peripheral housing developments in places like Parkgate, Welbedacht and Waterloo, to fix up the houses in these areas and to provide other facilities, like parks and libraries in these barren spaces. The return to the apartheid strategy of forcing people into transit camps can also be halted, immediately, and adequate housing sought, with urgency, for all people that have been pushed into these inhuman spaces. And of course decisive action can be taken against corruption. Poor people’s organisations can be brought into planning processes and there is also nothing stopping the City from making a serious commitment to operating within the law. Moreover a serious attempt could be made to access resources, provided for in the Breaking New Ground policy, that, where possible, encourages the progressive and participatory upgrading of shack settlements into formal houses where they are rather than forced removals to peripheral ghettos.

But the most important shift that has to take place is that our urban crisis needs to be seen through the lens of an urgent imperative for justice rather than, as so often happened under Sutcliffe’s brutal reign, in terms of the language of security or making Durban more attractive to investors and its wealthier residents. We need to oppose any attempt to present the urban poor as a threat to society and to recognise, as the shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo has always insisted, that the same history and the same economy that has made some of us rich has made others of us poor. The Municipality should, as an urgent priority, be offering maximum support to the city’s poorest residents in ways that will result in the maximum improvement to their lives. This is the commitment that we need to be hearing. A return to the ‘eradication’ agenda will take us back to the numbers game that has very little regard for the lives of the people behind the statistics.