Poor people are not a threat to social order The real threat comes from attempts to expel them from the city

by Imraan Buccus

Source: The Mercury

This week academics from around the world arrive in Durban for a major international conference on poverty.

The conference will be opened by a high profile city official and would have been an ideal opportunity for Durban and KwaZulu-Natal to put their best foot forward. But instead delegates will arrive in the aftermath of the arrest of 500 street traders and a growing wave of international concern about the sudden passing of the Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Bill.

The mass arrests of the street traders and the Slums Bill are both clear indications that the city and the province are planning to deal with the poor by expelling them from the cities.

The most sober-minded critics are arguing that here in eThekwini and in KwaZulu-Natal we are beginning to see a slower and legislated version of Operation Murambatsvina, the notorious Operation Drive Out Trash, which drove street traders and shack dwellers out of Harare.

Within days of the Slums Bill being passed churches, NGOs, academics and the huge shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, were making plans to mount a major campaign against the Bill, which they argue is both immoral and unconstitutional.

Abahlali is already working with senior legal people to mount a constitutional challenge and some NGOs have already written to the United Nations seeking their intervention.


The Slums Bill makes it a criminal office for landowners to fail to evict squatters, makes it a criminal offence for squatters to oppose evictions and, perhaps most chillingly of all, provides for squatters to be moved to “transit camps”. South Africa has a very, very poor history with “camps”.

Now our nation’s dignity is stained by the notorious Lindela camp for illegal immigrants. Lindela is a corrupt, violent and dangerous place that is regularly cited as a key violator of basic human rights in global reports.

If Lindela is such an appalling place it’s not surprising that shack dwellers are talking about resisting moves to “transit camps” by all available means. In India, shack dwellers who were moved to “transit camps” in the 1960s are still there.

It is clear that in their desperate drive to produce “world class” cities, both the city and the province have decided that the easiest way to achieve this is by simply expelling the poor.

However, organisations of the poor are arguing that a world-class city is one that cares for the poor and makes policy decisions in consultation with them. There is no doubt that international academics coming to Durban this week to discuss poverty will take the second view.

Anything else is fundamentally inhumane and poli-tically very dubious in that it is likely to lead to major clashes with the police and general social instability. Both street traders and shack dwellers have clearly demonstrated that they will not take their expulsion from the city quietly.

We need to ask ourselves how things could have gone so badly wrong so quickly. A few years ago Durban‘s policy on street traders was consi-dered exemplary and the city won awards from the UN for its housing programme.

Now there is a more or less complete breakdown between the city and its poor, a breakdown that is certain to be internationally condemned. Some have suggested that this breakdown is because we are now quite close to 2010 and that this is the reason for the attempts to drive the poor out of the city.


If this is indeed the case there is every possibility that a massive police operation will be needed to protect the World Cup from the legitimate and desperate anger of poor people whose livelihoods and communities have been destroyed in order to make the city “look good” for foreign football fans.

If it does happen that the beautiful game has to be played with a ring of police officers protecting it, not from criminals, but from the anger of ordinary people, our city will be remembered across the world in an extremely negative way. We’re certain to suffer major embarrassment at this week’s poverty conference. Let’s hope that our officials and representatives see reason and change course before 2010.

Seeing reason and changing course will require the development of a different conception of citizenship. Right now there is an implicit assumption that “real” citi-zenship is for people with access to the “formal” part of the city.

People who, through no fault of their own, have to make their lives in the “informal economy” are implicitly seen as invaders and a threat to the city.

But people living in shacks and trading in the streets are simply trying to make a life for themselves and for their families. They are not a threat to the social order. The real threat comes from attempts to expel them from the city.