Mercury: Temporary Camps That Become Prisons

The published version is attached, below. The text here is of the original version.

The Forgotten World of Transit Camps

Mark Hunter

In cities across the country there has been something of a quiet epidemic of tiny state built structures called transit camps—or amathini (tins) by those who live in them.

Transit Camps are purportedly temporary places to where shack dwellers are relocated while their RDP houses are being built. They are not designed to be inhabited for a long time; the problem is that this is exactly what has happened.

“We were told that we would get a house in 6 months” said Thembi Gumede (a pseudonym), who lived in a shack in Durban until moved to Isipingo Transit Camp in 2009. But now 3 years has passed. “They promised toilets and good houses at the Transit Camp,” said Mr. Ngcobo, “but we are left to die.” “We have been thrown away,” said Mrs. Magwaza.

On 19 Sept. this year, the Durban High Court ruled that city officials would be fined or imprisoned if they did not find permanent homes for residents of Richmond Farm Transit Camp. EThekwini had ignored a ruling three years earlier requiring it to do so in less than a year. Complainants were dumped in this camp when their RDP houses were wrongly assigned.

Transit camps can be a one way ticket to unbearable conditions. Floods haunt the settlement built in Isipingo, south Durban. Located inexplicably on a flood plain next to the Isipingo River, in March this year a torrent of water engulfed the settlement and almost every house is now stamped with a vivid watermark up to a metre high above ground.

Children play daily near dirty water whose stench gets stronger as summer approaches. Portaloo toilets provided by the city are much less clean than the self-built structures at the shack settlement from where they were removed. The debilitating TB germ has now taken hold of the settlement, and diarrhea is common among young and old.

If you are a child, and have not succumbed to the bacteria, you will grow up being told to avoid electric cables protruding invitingly from the ground. The permanent limp of one young boy stands as a tragic advert for the disfigurement that one massive shock unleashed. Had illegal electricity connections not been made—let’s be clear—paraffin and candle fires would have taken their own noxious toll.

In 2009, I interviewed some of Isipingo Transit Camp’s residents when they were still living in shacks near King’s Rest rail station at the Bluff, Durban, my research focused on the schooling problems faced by shack dwellers.

The settlement was overcrowded and starved of services. Few residents found permanent work. Yet its location did offer intermittent means of subsistence, perhaps R50 to R100 a day working as domestic workers, in local factories, or at the port. The backbreaking task of collecting sellable scrap metal from suburban houses fashioned probably the most critical buffer to starvation.

Though nobody praised living in a shack, the colloquial name for the settlement Emantombazaneni (place of women) signalled a sense of the community that congealed after 2001 when several women first moved to this location. These women chose to make a temporary home in the thick Bluff bushes after police destroyed their shacks located near to Bayhead.

It was in late 2009 that city officials moved residents to Isipingo Transit Camp. Former Bluff residents joined those removed from settlements elsewhere, including one near to Umlazi’s soccer stadium. Now, over 700 households live in tiny rooms with wafer thin walls and corroding corrugated steel roofs.

At Isipingo, the R50 to R100 jobs that bought a few meals have mostly disappeared, and no longer can residents grow the odd crop or tend chickens, as they could when staying in shacks. They now compete with several thousand other residents for work, the high cost of public transport making mobility for job seeking almost impossible.

Local domestic labour is worse paid, maybe only R20 a day, and harder to find. Residents might collect scrap paper instead of metal, and earn R20 a day. Everyone I knew from Emantombazaneni says that they are worse off, and regret their move.

These conditions create solidarity and deep care among residents but they can also divide communities, for instance when groups lock toilets in an attempt to keep them clean or compete over who might gain from tenders to maintain the settlement.

Why, then, are residents located and kept in transit camps? It is no secret that the run up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup unleashed a zealous attack on shack dwellers, symbolized in KwaZulu-Natal by the 2007 Slum Elimination Act that was eventually ruled unconstitutional after being challenged by the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.

At Emantombazaneni the stated reason for residents’ removal in 2009 was the building of a fuel pipeline on the settled land. But technical reasons are often summoned somewhat promiscuously to remove shacks. Some residents had in fact lived on the other side of the railway tracks from the proposed pipeline and, ironically, elsewhere in Durban residents fought against attempts to place the same pipe so close to their homes.

The rhetoric of slum clearance by state officials certainly reflects a wider anti-shack prejudice that stretches back to the colonial period. But eThekwini has won prizes for its housing strategy and many in government are genuinely motivated by the belief that no-one should suffer the indignity of living in a shack.

And when state coercion and benevolence come together they can fuel a sentiment whereby formal housing, even in transit camps, is always seen as superior to informal housing. Those that question this logic, such as the shack dwellers’ organization Abahlali baseMjondolo, can be condemned by government as an “anti-development” annoyance at best, an enemy at worse.

State bureaucracies also manifest a technocratic logic whereby if a shack is removed and its residents located to a transit camp, the statistics actually improve – one less informal dwelling, one more achievement by government.

Throw in corruption that stalls RDP house allocation, tenderpreneurs who can gain from the building and maintenance of transit camps, and one has a powerful set of forces that have kept them in place.

The reality is that without pressure from below, once built, transit camps can remain for years, over ten years in some cases in South Africa. They have no official advocate and low priority in most bureaucracies. Perversely, even councillors who work studiously to end their location will not be rewarded electorally if residents are moved into RDP houses elsewhere.

Yet shack and transit camp dwellers work through a different social geography, one that enables survival through proximity to family, friends, and potential income generating opportunities in a city desperately starved of employment opportunities.

There are three rather modest commitments that local governments should make to redirect housing policy in a more pro-poor way.

• Greater emphasis should be placed on upgrading rather than removing shack settlements.
• No shack should be destroyed without residents being granted an acceptable RDP house or, as a last resort, temporarily moved to transit camps with a written guarantee of when they will attain a RDP house.
• Every resident of a transit camp must be given a written guarantee that they will access a RDP house within a year—and senior officials must commit themselves to honor such agreements.

In Isipingo, residents have marched and blocked roads to make visible their plight, as yet to no avail. But in a post-Marikana world, mechanisms that consider and genuinely engage with poor people, and thus rebalance the city’s social forces, must be urgently embraced.

Mark Hunter is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough.