Listen to the shack-dwellers

Tens of thousands of shack-dwellers in South Africa are doomed to be evicted to transit camps.

Last week the Constitutional Court gave the green light for the eviction of 20 000 people from Cape Town’s Joe Slovo settlement to make way for the N2 Gateway Project. Most residents are to be relocated to the Delft temporary relocation area (TRA).

In 2005, 2 400 families from Langa, Cape Town, were relocated to a camp called Tsunami.
In Johannesburg, 6 400 families in Protea South, Soweto, fought a plan to move them to a decant camp in 2007. In Durban, 52 families in Siyanda, KwaMashu, were evicted in December last year and moved to a transit camp to make way for a new freeway.

Transit camps, as they were known during apartheid, were used in the Fifties for the screening, segregation and repatriation of unwanted black urbanites. And in the ambiguous late apartheid years, progressive lawyers used transit camp legislation to prevent the removal of people to distant sites and service areas.

Today, recent court cases have raised the question: do transit camps qualify as “adequate alternative accommodation” as required by post-apartheid law?

For proponents in government, transit camps are “formal” and temporary, an acceptable stopgap in the process of delivering permanent houses. For households refusing relocation, transit camps are unacceptable even by the standards of informal dwellings and even if temporary—which many are patently not.
Transit camp shelters ordinarily are one-room boxes of 25m² with tin roofs. Some are built in rows, with a single sheet of tin separating one family from another.

Often, the camps are without electricity. Some have outdoor communal taps, toilets or cold showers in tin or plastic structures. Toilets are massed together in rows.

Camps typically are encircled with fencing or barbed wire. Private security or police are stationed at lockable entry gates. Not only is access controlled, rules apply to camp life. Until two months ago, the Delft TRA had an armoured truck at its single entrance and was locked at particular hours. In the Protea South camp, spaza shops and other businesses will be banned.

Often transit camps are a long way from the shacks in which residents have lived for many years. In the Tsunami camp, some have lost their jobs as a result of relocation. Transport costs are higher; shops less accessible. Those with electricity in their shacks have had to revert to candles and paraffin stoves, both expensive and hazardous. 

The erosion of social networks means occupants are in greater fear of their safety—especially women when using communal toilets after dark. Children in Tsunami, not accommodated in local classrooms, were bussed 25km to school. In the Sol Plaatje camp in Johannesburg, those on HIV/Aids medication struggle to get access to treatment.
Some transit camps have taken on the status of permanent settlements. Happy Valley in Cape Town, originally built from government-issued poles and black sails, has been in existence for 12 years. Occupants who have been in the Tsunami camp for four years will be moved to the Delft TRA. In Symphony Way, 127 families will challenge their eviction to the Delft TRA in the Cape High Court in September.

From Langa to eMacambini to Siyanda, residents protesting against relocation—whether for reasons of livelihood, location or autonomy—have been portrayed as thwarting development. They have been illegally arrested, shot at with rubber bullets and seriously injured by the police.

A sustainable approach starts from the perspective of urban livelihoods, such as that of the shack-dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, in KwaZulu-Natal.

While formal housing is the desired option, the umjondolo (shack settlement) is not bad simpy because it is informal, but because it often lack services such as toilets. Its location also matters. A life is not improved by relocation from a shack to a distant “formal” structure.

National housing policy recognises this by prioritising in situ upgrading. But to rid KwaZulu-Natal of shack settlements by 2010, the province passed a Slum Elimination Act in 2007. Dubbed the “Polokwane Mandate”, all provinces are expected to enact similar legislation. In this Act, transit camps are central to the elimination of slums.

In little over a year football tourists will visit eThekwini and other World Cup cities. They will be encouraged to visit museums to view the horrors of forced removals and transit camps under apartheid. Ironically, to get to the Cato Manor museum they may have to drive passed bulldozed shacks and present-day transit camps.

Authorities must understand the lives of shack-dwellers themselves. When residents say they prefer a shack to a transit camp this must be taken seriously. It is not a vote in favour of shacks, but a stronger vote against the alternative.

Kerry Chance, Marie Huchzermeyer and Mark Hunter are based at the universities of Chicago, Witwatersrand and Toronto respectively

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