Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Popular Struggle for the Right to the City in Durban, South Africa

Apartheid conflated modernity with a specifically white urbanism. This racial paranoia produced a tremendous white hostility to the black presence in the cities. Unsurprisingly both the elite and popular strands in the struggles against apartheid often put the demand for an equal right to an urban life at the centre of their politics. In parts of some cities, and especially in Durban, land occupations, particularly during the late 1970s and the 1980s, achieved a decisive break with the racialisation of space. In its latter years, the apartheid state made various concessions in response to popular agitation for the right to the city. These ranged from legal reforms, to trade offs in which an autonomous but precarious presence in the cities was exchanged for a subordinate but formal place in the cities, and some degree of state recognition for urban land occupations.


After apartheid, the right to housing was guaranteed in the Constitution and laws were passed to protect squatters from arbitrary eviction and to prevent any eviction that would leave people homeless. Housing policy was developed from engagement with World Bank models and was based on the allocation of a fixed government housing subsidy per household to be awarded to private contractors who must take their profit from building within the subsidy limit.


Although it had not been long since the mass mobilization against apartheid in the 1980s — a mobilization that was often driven by popular organizations acting with a considerable degree of autonomy from centralised party control, and which often confronted the urban question directly — the state and its allied NGOs were able to move very quickly to reduce the political question of the right to the city to a technical question of building houses. The reduction of a deeply political set of questions to the technocratic language that reserved urban planning as a state and NGO function and measured success in terms of “units delivered” became largely dominant in civil society. Houses were built in impressive numbers but they were often very small, of extremely poor quality and located in peripheral ghettos. Moreover, housing projects were routinely captured by local political elites and, at every level from the awarding of construction contracts to the allocation of individual houses, were used to support the personal and political interests of those local elites. This was often undertaken ruthlessly, and on occasion violently, by local party structures.



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