Battle lines drawn over eThekwini land

A shack being built at Cato Crest in Durban.

A shack being built at Cato Crest in Durban.


The KwaZulu-Natal department of human settlements and public works this week said it would forge ahead with plans to establish its own land invasion control unit. This follows a Durban high court ruling that forces the departments and the eThekwini municipality to obtain court orders to carry out evictions. The unit would survey and protect all land belonging to the department that has been earmarked for housing. There is already such a unit policing land owned by the municipality.

Mbulelo Baloyi, spokesperson for human settlements MEC Ravi Pillay said on Thursday they had already begun the process of identifying a service provider.

Following the high court decision last week to set aside an interim order that allowed the eThekwini municipality to evict shack dwellers without a court order, the municipality announced that, for them, this did not mean a return to business as usual.

Business as usual, as the municipality understands it, would mean Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban shack dwellers’ movement that has been fighting illegal evictions since its formation in 2005, continuing to strategically occupy land while pointing to recent legal precedent and the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act of 1998 (PIE Act).

The PIE Act and subsequent court judgments, such as the City of Johannesburg v Blue Moonlight Properties, have the cumulative effect of placing the onus on the state to provide alternative accommodation for the homeless facing eviction.

Pronouncements made since this month’s judgment indicate a further hardening of attitudes, particularly by the municipality which has reiterated that in its view, it does not need a court order in all circumstances to resist a land invasion.

“While respecting all judgments we disagree with certain factual conclusions in the judgment,” Pillay said in a statement this week, adding they were considering their legal options.

“It also seems that there is a difficulty in defining the dividing line between stopping a land invasion and affecting an eviction. In the latter respect we are very clear about the state’s constitutional obligations.”

Last week’s court ruling dates back to 2013 when the human settlements office sought an interim order to halt invasions on government owned provincial land earmarked for housing. The municipality and human settlements claimed that over 1 000 pieces of land in and around Durban had been occupied at the time.

Two sites of land that became touchpoints since that interim order, namely KwaMadlala in Lamontville to the south and Marikana in Cato Crest near the city centre, saw approximately 40 evictions in tandem, according to Abahlali spokesperson Zandile Nsibande.

One voice

Recalling the movement’s early days, Nsibande told the Mail & Guardian this week that it started with a road blockade in 2005 orchestrated by the residents of a shack settlement in Kennedy Road on the outskirts of the CBD.

“There was land that the municipality had promised to give to us for the purpose of building houses but then they sold that land to a brick building company. After we took to the road, other shack dwellers from other settlements followed suit as similar promises had been made to them. It was in October 2005 that we decided to form one organisation in order to speak with one voice.”

In what has been a decade marked by the slow grind of litigation, harassment and assassination, the movement continues to spread throughout Durban, some surrounding towns and other provinces such as the Western Cape.

“The fact that the EFF is now out there invading unoccupied land and Abahlali have a similar agenda, together these things are seen by the state as having a steamrolling effect that is hampering delivery,” University of KwaZulu-Natal politics lecturer Bheki Mngomezulu told the M&G.

“They started out as dissatisfied residents but now I feel the movement is more political in nature,” he said.

While the eThekwini municipality may accuse the organisation of running a queue-jumping racket (the city has a housing backlog estimated at 400 000 units), Abahlali has always maintained its goal is to fight against unfair housing allocations. Housing is seen as an integral part in how the ruling party dispenses patronage in the ANC-run municipality.

This forthright stance has set in on a collision course with several councillors at ward level. Four members of the organisation, including a 17-year-old school girl, were killed between 2013 and 2014.

‘Crisis of local democracy’

Imraan Buccus, a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says what these incidents indicate is that there is a huge disconnect between grassroots organisations and the processes of government. “If we dig beneath the surface, it points to a crisis of local democracy. What state actors can learn from this is that greater levels of participation at local government level can go a long way to addressing the issues we have at the base of our local struggles.”

MEC Pillay’s spokesperson Mbulelo Baloyi said the allegation that housing allocation favoured ANC members was untrue. “Whenever Abahlali organise as an entity, they always take an adversarial approach to existing structures on the ground. And those structures happen to be ANC. They have never taken such spirited action in wards controlled by the DA,” he told the M&G this week

The organisation backed the DA as a block in last year’s elections but has no formal relationship with the party.

As the organisation reaches the 10-year mark, it is a battle-weary unit whose legacy of defending illegal evictions and strategically occupying land has won converts and imitators. 

“The ANC has lost control of urban land, people are occupying all over the place, not only in places hidden or in the bush,” says Rhodes-based politics lecturer Richard Pithouse. “In Durban areas such as Springfield Park, the freeway to the north coast, Reservoir Hills, out of town, this is evident.

“It is not only Abahlali that are occupying, in some cases it is ANC people, in some cases it is Abahlali. Some come to Abahlali after they have occupied, which happens quite often. So it’s a broad social phenomenon with no organisation that is controlling it. So it makes it a difficult situation for the state, even if they clamp down on one organisation there are not going to stop it from happening.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo


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