Shacks are here to stay

Every great city, from ancient Rome to New York, was, at some point, ringed by shacks. Today, about one billion people live in shacks and the number is growing rapidly.

In South Africa it is often confidently asserted that shack settlements are an apartheid hang-over that will soon pass.
In fact, the number of people living in shacks has almost doubled in the past 12 years. According to the minister of housing, the number of people living in informal settlements has increased from 1,4-million to 2,4-million.

In Durban, almost one in three people live in a shack. Despite this, politicians like KwaZulu-Natal housing minister Mike Mabuyakhulu insist that shack settlements will be eradicated in time for the 2010 World Cup.

Last month Mabuyakhulu tabled the Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act, aimed at eradicating shack settlements. While low-cost houses are being built, they are certainly not going up at a rate that would enable Mabuyakhulu to eradi-cate the settlements that are home to so many of the province’s people in his lifetime.

His plan is to pass new legislation enabling municipalities to set up their own “Red Ants” to destroy shack settlements. In effect, he is planning a legislated version of Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina.

In Durban the eThekwini Municipality has already illegally destroyed settlements, such as the Lusaka settlement in Reservoir Hills, leaving many homeless. The municipality acted with equal contempt for the law when the shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, attempted to express its concerns.

Last November city manager Mike Sutcliffe banned a shack-dwellers’ march, a move that the Freedom of Expression Institute condemned 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 beaten by police. Journalists Carvin Goldstone of The Mercury and freelancer Raj Patel, who is also a member of Abahlali, were threatened with violence if they reported what they had seen, and photographic evidence was stolen at gunpoint.

In February another march was planned and permission sought and obtained. Again Sutcliffe banned the march of 20 000 people into the city. Early on February 27 police occupied the largest settlements in a military style operation, using armoured vehicles and helicopters. All exits were blocked and key people were arrested (some while still asleep in their beds) and later assaulted at the Sydenham police station.

This time Abahlali approached the high court with the backing of the Foundation for Human Rights. The association won a court order interdicting the city and the police from interfering with its right to protest.

With the interdict in their hands, the shack-dwellers marched into the city in triumph later that day. Despite the interdict, police charged marchers with attending an illegal gathering. The charges were only dropped this week, on May 17, following legal intervention.

Shack-dwellers are now making their voices heard, using everything 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 genuine participatory policy-making.

The municipality’s response has largely followed a two-prong strategy: send in 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 United Nations organisation Habitat endorses the housing programme.

But most of the houses that are being built are tiny, badly constructed dwellings in bleak, apartheid-style rural ghettos far from opportunities for work, education and healthcare.

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 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 the past 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.

Within current budget and policy priorities, the only way that KwaZulu-Natal shack settlements will be gone in four years’ time is if the state wages a massive militarised assault on the poor.

And even if they do choose to step back from the madness that Mabuyakhulu seems to be planning, the shacks will still be there. And the women will still be discussing the latest fire in the water queue.

Richard Pithouse is an activist aligned to Abahlali baseMjondolo. He writes in his personal capacity

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