SACSIS: The Psychological Cost of Living in an Informal Settlement: ‘Like a Mountain Fell on Me’

The Psychological Cost of Living in an Informal Settlement: ‘Like a Mountain Fell on Me’

by Anna Majavu

The “overwhelming adversity” they had to face daily as a result of living in an informal dwelling felt “like a mountain fell on me”, said one Cape Town resident.

Politicians from across the spectrum have lied to the public for years about their plans to “eradicate”, “upgrade” and “transform” informal settlements. They have forced communities out of informal settlements into equally horrible transit camps or temporary relocation areas, guaranteeing them a short stay before election promises kick in, only to abandon them for up to eight years in sub-human conditions. The DA, which rules over the Western Cape’s dumping grounds for the poor, and the ANC, which governs the rest of the country’s sub-human shack lands, have both failed to carry out any rudimentary housing programmes beyond their drop in an ocean, small-scale developments which do nothing to meet the mass demand for housing.

The recent killing by police of 34 miners in Marikana shone the international spotlight on the brutality of poverty in South Africa. But for the residents of Marikana’s informal settlement, the nightmare is not yet over. R24 million has been budgeted by government for an inquiry into what is already clear – that police killed the mineworkers. The Marikana informal settlement is by all accounts in desperate need of a R24 million upgrade but instead its residents are being treated to a new military occupation by the army. The sense of justice that the commission was supposed to bring has been neutralised by the continued actions of the police, who recently managed to kill ANC councillor Paulina Masuhlo “by accident”, after allegedly shooting randomly at the community for days.

Because of the sub-human living conditions they have been forced into, residents of informal settlements and transit camps are seen as less than human by police and criminals alike, who have become accustomed to treating these residents with the utmost cruelty.

This was highlighted in a recent study by Bryony Fell, Christel Mennette, Emily Elkington, Saabierah Towfie, Sue Drummond and Weslin Charles – a group of psychology masters students at the University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology civil engineering lecturer Shaheed Mahomed. The study found that residents of informal dwellings suffer from severe psychological problems as a result of their living conditions. While the study focused on Cape Town’s transit camps – Blikkiesdorp (tin can town) and Happy Valley – its findings are likely to be relevant to all informal settlement residents.

The study found that residents showed “enormous resilience”, but were also plagued by problems such as a habitual inability to sleep because of the fear of crime at night – and the realisation that police were not there to help. They felt they were perceived as “dom en onnosel” (stupid and doltish) by the outside world because of their living conditions. After being abandoned for several years in what was supposed to be temporary housing, residents felt they had been made a joke of by government, and this shattered their confidence generally. They experienced feelings of extreme anger and desperation, isolation, distress and anxiety, which hampered attempts to create personal intimacy.

“The theme of overwhelming adversity was very strongly echoed. Participants sketched a picture of the numerous and seemingly insurmountable challenges that were part of their everyday experiences. These challenges affected all aspects of their being – physical, mental, psychological, social and spiritual,” the study reported.

The overwhelming adversity that comes with living in an informal dwelling felt “like a mountain fell on me”, said one participant.

Children were reported to be “blacking out” at times, seemingly from stress. With blankets and pillows soaking wet during the rainy season, parents had to cope with children being constantly ill or send their children to live elsewhere.

The participants also had harsh words for academics, complaining of unequal knowledge partnerships. Lots of overseas researchers come to Blikkiesdorp, but the results of their research are never shared, and these academic exercises did not benefit participants, the study reported.

The depression experienced by millions of informal settlement residents will not come to an end anytime soon without their fierce resistance to business as usual. The DA and ANC govern in an inappropriate fashion for the world’s most unequal country – spending public money on high-priced consultants, big salary bills for bloated administrations and on failed multimillion rand enticements for big corporations to set up mythical factories that will supposedly solve the jobs crisis. They have no political vision about eradicating inequality and are more likely to deploy the police and army to crush rebellions than to do anything to live up to their election promises.

The courts cannot be relied upon either to help do away with informal settlements, even though these dumping grounds contravene the right to dignity and safety. The Durban High Court last week ordered the eThekwini municipality to house – within three months – 37 families living in a transit camp near KwaMashu, Durban after the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute brought a case to court. But the court only did this because these families had been evicted from the Siyanda informal settlement three years earlier on the proviso that they be given proper houses within a year. The court had a problem with the fact that the eThekwini municipality had ignored the legal proviso, not so much with the conditions in the transit camp.

In 2009 in Cape Town, judges visited ‘Blikkiesdorp’ to vet the living conditions there after the city applied to evict a large group of people who had set up shacks alongside the busy Symphony Way road. Although the Symphony Way dwellers had refused to be moved to Blikkiesdorp because they had forged a better community on the roadside (and subsequently produced a book about their community), the court decided anyway that they would be better off in the transit camp.

It is tragic when people are forced to battle it out in court to prove to well-off judges that one dumping ground for the poor (the transit camp) is worse than another (the informal settlement). Politicians from the DA, ANC, and other parties have long had blind eyes when it comes to the horrible living conditions in the various dumping grounds for the poor. Transit camps, temporary relocation areas and informal settlements are now a fact on the ground. Unfortunately, their existence is no longer seen as a political dilemma or embarrassment — much less a human rights abuse by either the DA, the ANC or the judiciary.