Housing crisis inextricably entwined with land occupations

Widespread land occupations, evictions and service delivery protests in various communities and provinces occurred across South Africa last year — and they are likely to be repeated this year. 

There were 263 land occupations in the Western Cape alone, not to mention the 100 families (29 already evicted) that will be evicted at Steenberg, or the number of related service delivery protests. But this is not new to the history of struggle in South Africa; occupations and protests have become a permanent feature of the political landscape since the early 2000s. 

READ MORE: Evictees’ lives turned inside out

The significance of 2018 is the increase in both the scale and number; an increase incited by structural crises and the inability to create radical social change through legislation.

Predictably, these militant land and housing struggles continue to be largely unaddressed by the government. The solution has been at best cosmetic; a change in personalities by firing the councillors or the president, cutting the budget of one department to supplement another and even worse, forcing increased tax on the working-class poor. Most critically, the protests have been met with increased repression from the Anti-Land Invasion Unit and police brutality premised on the Unlawful Occupation of Land Act and Intimidation Act. Substantial efforts have been made to control occupations and protests as opposed to addressing their root causes.

My discussion looks primarily at the housing crisis. The contention here is that, firstly, housing has been separated from land by the law so that public discourse on housing is not steeped in the history of the land. Secondly, the rhetoric on land expropriation without compensation cannot be actualised by the law because the law, by its very nature, defends private property. Land expropriation can only take place politically.

As a member of the Housing Assembly who has been deeply involved in this crisis, I would argue that the reason for the increased occupations and protests in relation to land, housing and state violence are mostly because of the shift from the social justice-based Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) to the economic Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy. 

The RDP was the product of extensive and broad consultation meetings (which involved mass organisations, trade unions, civics, nongovernmental organisations, etcetera), which emphasised that the state should provide housing and, consequently, the mass construction would create jobs and economic growth; that is, mass housing provision would increase the demand for household appliances and jobs.

In contrast, the neoliberal Gear emphasises a free market approach and the privatisation of housing; the provision of housing is dependent on economic growth by corporations, and is implemented by government bureaucracy. 

The ongoing wave of mass evictions and land occupations is the result of housing allocation and land reform policies based on Gear; policies based on the premise that, with economic growth, the wealth that is now in the hands of a minority would trickle down to redress the wrongs of the past. The results have been disastrous.

For instance, in their quest for super profits, the BEE companies that won tenders to build social housing cut corners and used cheap labour and cheap materials. RDP houses were built on cheap land on the outskirts of cities, far from infrastructure and social amenities. 

This seriously compounds the misery of overcrowded housing and bad living conditions, because low-income households cannot afford the rising costs of maintenance or afford access to social services such as health and education located close to Central Business Districts (CBDs). This is in contrast to the “purpose of the land redistribution programme is to provide the poor with access to land for residential and productive uses, in order to improve their incomes and quality of life”.

Staying in or close to the CBDs of cities, with access to world-class quality infrastructure and amenities, has became too expensive for low-income households. The result? An increase in evictions and temporary relocation areas (TRAs) — essentially, government-built squatter camps. Although some people have been evicted from private spaces, most people have been evicted from public or state-owned rentals. Security of tenure has therefore become available only to those who can afford it. This has made the government a landlord, one that forcefully charges taxes and refuses to allocate land and consequently housing, thereby creating artificial scarcity — and then it violently collects rent!

This market-oriented development approach has exacerbated the housing crisis and deepened poverty. Gear, a neoliberal policy based on privatisation, deregulation and dispossession, works seamlessly with historical land laws and the state that have in every instance protected private property. 

Although housing is separated from land reform by political rhetoric and legislation, materially the disconnection is detrimental to both dignity of life and democracy. This disjuncture is made using the law.

READ MORE: DA accuses ANC of instigating Western Cape land protests

Firstly, the 1913 Land Act that originally gave “natives” only 8% of land in South Africa — amended to 13% in 1936 — was not the only law that enforced homelessness or what is now commonly known as forced removals. In fact, the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act and various influx-control measures and laws resulted in forced removals, thus creating overcrowded housing and bad living conditions. According to the Surplus People’s Project, “between 1960 and the early 1980s, more than three-and-a-half million forced removals had taken place”.

Furthermore, not only was the objective of expropriating 30% of land — a goal set in 1994 — and putting it back into the hands of those dispossessed by 1999 not met at the time; it remains elusive today. A recent report to the National Assembly in 2017 suggests that 35 more years are needed to settle all the claims submitted.

The restitution programme’s objective was to expropriate land and/or to compensate only those who had lost their land to racially discriminatory laws post-1913 (no mention of the 260 years of dispossession prior to 1913) and gave only a three-year period for claims to be submitted, a period fraught with neoliberal bureaucracy that undermined justice and rendered land restitution slower than the pace at which the population and urbanisation were growing. This, after having created a landless poor forced to relocate to cities for survival.

Secondly, amid mass evictions and occupations, public consultation hearings were taking place nationally after the pronouncement of newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa on “land expropriation without compensation”. 

On closer inspection of the pronouncement, the references made to “agricultural production” and redress of “colonial and apartheid dispossession” create a political discourse confined to farms and exclude from the public discourse the 3 000-plus informal settlements across the country whose occupants are in desperate need of land.

Yet the courts have continued to order, legally, mass evictions, in effect undermining the validity of “land expropriation without compensation” and ultimately disconnecting the land reform programme from the housing crisis. The main benefactors apart from the private landowners? Political parties, who use these crises to score points against each other, garner votes and validate themselves.

The land tenure program has thus created the rise of the “squatter movement” in urban areas. As the population increased, it led to more overcrowded housing and bad living conditions, and therefore more occupations. Because the state is founded on capital accumulation and private property, it gave the law, through the ruling government, the legitimacy to evict anyone with force in defence of property ownership. For example, in the Western Cape alone, according to the City of Cape Town: “The Anti-Land Invasion Unit removes, on average, 15 000 illegal structures per year. However, in the first four months of 2018 that figure was standing at 26 000.”

In conclusion, the state and the law are impediments to radical social change. Even when the government acquires, from time to time, a progressive character and gains are made for social rights, the state (and the law) as the custodian of those rights will erode them and render that progressive character regressive or temporary at best. In 2018 the ruling government tried to appropriate popular land and housing struggles waged by the communities in presidential pronouncement, even while the very same government legally repressed those struggles. In essence, last year was a testament to the fact that land expropriation will only happen politically, and unrestrained by the law.

Kenneth Matlawe is a grassroots activist for the Housing Assembly in Cape Town

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