Editorial: It's urbanisation, not land invasion

Anger spills over: Were the Eldorado Park protests conveniently timed to coincide with the United Nations review? (Hanna Brunlöf, M&G)

Anger spills over: Were the Eldorado Park protests conveniently timed to coincide with the United Nations review? (Hanna Brunlöf, M&G)

Cops fire stun grenades and teargas at people protesting over housing shortages in Eldorado Park; running battles and highway barricades follow. Red Ants and the Ekurhuleni police descend on Ivory Park to evict shack owners; violence follows (as we report this week). Khayelitsha is the scene of one of the largest land invasions in memory; the City of Cape Town deploys its Anti-Land Invasion Unit, which it does violently and possibly deceitfully.

We have seen the likes of this so often that we no longer bother to make the comparison with the forced evictions and resettlements of apartheid.
We should, though, because part of what is going on, and what the post-apartheid ANC governments have failed to deal with, is something the apartheid overlords also failed to deal with – urbanisation.

No socioeconomic growth has taken place in the modern world without long-term movement from rural areas to urban areas, which in turn grew and grew until they dominated large regions, including the rural “heartland”. That has been happening in South Africa since the beginnings of an industrial economy were imposed by colonial rulers.

Apartheid’s spatial regime, culminating in the fake-nations Bantustan policy, was a desperate attempt to reap the benefits of modern industrialisation (for whites) while resisting the growth of a (black) urban proletariat, who, it could foresee, would ultimately render the whole apartheid scheme of exploitation unviable. Which is pretty much what happened in the long run.

The post-apartheid ANC government still faces the problem of urbanisation, of more and more people hungry for land or housing in the cities where they can find work – and where they are willing to live in self-made shacks and endure infinite privations to do so.

Often the hope of employment has proved to be illusory but there they are in the urban sprawl, without any better prospects in the rural areas, and they have to hang on somehow. They are simply trying to survive, and this movement from rural to urban areas is inevitable and unstoppable.

The first housing ministry, under Joe Slovo, during the Nelson Mandela administration, acknowledged this reality and set out to do something about it, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Nor were the subsequent efforts of Lindiwe Sisulu and, least of all, Tokyo Sexwale, when they were the government ministers in charge of “human settlements”. Now the whole business of land and housing seems immobilised by state inefficiency and/or corruption – for example, see our article about a housing scam in Ekurhuleni.

South Africa’s housing crisis is part of, but not coextensive with, the land crisis – which has, in any case, been over-romanticised by some Africanists to represent the restoration of the African soul. Such a mystical demand will not be satisfied by the government provision of decent housing for the urban masses, but it will go a long way towards honouring the promises of “a better life for all” that inaugurated the new South Africa in 1994. And perhaps we wouldn’t have to witness, yet again, the dreadful spectacle of state violence against poor people in destroying their homes.

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