“All people shall have the right to live where they choose,
be decently housed, and to bring up their families
in comfort and security.”
(Article 9 of the Freedom Charter adopted
by the Congress of the People at Kliptown
on 26 June 1955.)
There’s a house for sale for $125 just two kilometres from the beach at False Bay, in Khayelitsha, a township east of Cape Town, between Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope. The downside is that it is in the QQ section, an informal settlement on marshy land beneath the high-tension cables of Eskom, South Africa’s public electricity utility. Despite a ban, the area is covered with wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs, the homes of hundreds of thousands of urban poor.
More than 20 years after QQ was squatted, its 600 families still have no sanitation and rely on eight taps for drinking water. An anarchic tangle of electricity cables, hidden beneath tarmac, connects the shantytown to metered supplies in the adjoining legal settlement. Fatal fires are frequent. Anything that can be let out is for hire, even a key to the latrines. Not far from Mzonke Poni’s home, a branch from the main supply cable is concealed in a corner, behind a pile of boxes: he has lived in QQ with his mother for more than six years and hopes to avoid being cut off during the next police raid.
“We’ve got our own Waterfront,” says Poni. QQ has appropriated the name of Cape Town’s smart district because, for four months of the year, winter rains flood all the shacks on low ground. Some residents have raised the soil by a few centimetres to buy themselves enough time to move chairs, television and personal effects to the home of a neighbour or family member.
QQ is in Western Cape province, where half-a-million people are waiting for homes. Wave after wave of young workers flood into the shantytowns, most of them from the rural districts of Eastern Cape. To stay, they need the approval of the local residents’committee, which gives priority to couples with young children. Although, or maybe because, life is so precarious, there is a strong sense of community in these areas (1). So it came as a shock when the authorities decided to clear them out, district by district, without any preliminary consultation.
After a fire at Joe Slovo, another informal settlement beneath the flightpath of Cape Town airport, the victims were rehoused in new buildings further east, in the Delft area. But people who had not been affected by the fire began to be forcibly relocated. Mzwanele Zulu, a community leader, said: “We wrote to officials from the town council to the president’s office, but nobody would give us any explanation. We refused to be moved by force, we’re close to transport and work here.” The inhabitants decided to block the nearby N2 highway. The reaction was immediate: “The police fired [rubber bullets], then arrested us for incitement to violence.” The residents’ groups went to court over the evictions from Joe Slovo (2), but it was too late to save the school they had set up in a shabby building.
Rumours and dirty tricks
It is late morning in Delft and there is a palpable tension. A woman trying to get to the town hall climbs into our car and asks: “Do you think it’s right, giving new houses to young people, when we’ve been on the waiting list for years?” From a Mercedes, touring streets of newly built houses, a megaphone tells residents to disobey the security guards who are watching the area and who have started an unauthorised census whose final purpose is unknown. The courts upheld the status quo in a dispute between the constructors, Thubelisa Homes, and the squatters who occupied the houses before they were even finished. The housing minister, Lindiwe Sisulu (3), had visited on 16 December 2007 and handed over the keys to families evicted from Joe Slovo, forgetting that a third of the dwellings had been promised to Delft residents.
At Delft town hall, two women claim the same house. “It happens increasingly frequently,” explains Pam Bukes, secretary of the anti-eviction committee. “You can’t blame her [one of the women] for trying it on, but I’m sure she isn’t on any of our lists.”Inter-community tensions are rife. Most of Delft’s population is of mixed race (as defined under apartheid) and votes for the Democratic Alliance (DA). They suspect the African National Congress (ANC) of inciting young blacks from outside to try to force their way in. Martin Legassick, an historian and activist closely involved in the residents’ committees, said: “The place is alive with rumours and dirty tricks, it’s no wonder people are worked up. But bear in mind that the blacks were never able to register for the housing lists.” When something is in short supply, legality goes out the window.
A man of 83 symbolises the seriousness of the problem. He pays out most of his pension to rent a shack in a backyard. As DA councillor Frank Martin, an adviser to Cape Town mayor Helen Zille, points out: “He’s been on the waiting list for more than 20 years. People keep asking me about the risk of violence. The only way to calm things down is to apply the same rules to everybody. Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with the authorities – on Christmas Eve they took advantage of the fact that we’d all gone to demonstrate at the courthouse and sent in the security forces to clear the houses. People want a roof, water, sanitation and local employment. The government is playing with fire by ignoring people’s basic needs. It spends only 1.5% of the budget on housing, compared with 5% to 7% in similar countries.”
Since South Africa embraced neo-liberalism (open frontiers, economic liberalisation), the huge inequalities that already existed have increased. There are now two parallel economies that never touch; 60% of the population, mostly black and poorly educated, earn less than $450 a month; 2.2% make more than $3,500 a month and enjoy western lifestyles. Unequal land ownership, one of the legacies of apartheid – in 1994, 75% of the population lived on just 13% of the land – contributed to the rural exodus into the townships.
Half live in poverty. According to the United Nations, the current welfare system has only a limited effect on individual poverty and inequality (4). The majority are economically vulnerable and feel the full impact of rising housing costs. “South Africa experienced a significant increase in housing prices from 2000 to 2004-05. It is estimated that house prices increased by 92% in contrast with an average increase of workers’ income estimated at 8.3%.”
The 2.7m homes built with the aid of government subsidies have not been enough to solve the crisis. Demand is rising by more than 200,000 units a year according to the housing ministry: on top of the rural exodus there is a sociological transformation related to political liberalisation, which is reducing the average size of households. There are now some 12.5m households in South Africa, 5m of them in urban areas. According to Legassick, 11% of households live in shacks and 12% in traditional huts; 56% depend entirely upon the government for their housing.
The poorest are being excluded from urban centres. Sometimes they are evicted by subterfuge, lured by the promise of a real house, sometimes under threat of violence. The UN’s special rapporteur blamed the police and a private company, Wozani Security, known as the Red Ants because of their capacity to send 500 men, dressed in red, to empty a building of its inhabitants in a few hours (5).
Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of President Thabo Mbeki, is a specialist on the area, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and chairman of the South African subsidiary of the Dutch producer of TV reality shows, Endemol.
He said: “South Africa has much in common with post-colonial Algeria. Our economy depends upon mineral extraction. There was a wide sociological gap between grassroots activists and the leaders of the struggle [against apartheid]. The latter did very well out of it, because they took over the state. They and their children now make up the ranks of the emerging middle class. They were lucky enough to get an education; they [ought to have formed] the base of a dynamic private sector in a country where cheap education under apartheid created a huge human resources problem. [Instead] the government spawned an enormous bureaucracy which was spectacularly successful in feeding off these resources, without creating work for the wider population.”
He recalled how in 1991 in Algeria the mismatch between the poverty of the population and the wealth of the privileged members of the political class encouraged the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front. The government’s refusal to accept the result of the ballot plunged the country into civil war.
A living saint
Things aren’t that bad in South Africa. But in a country where 4.2 million struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day, there is resentment of the new rich. The ANC’s image in the shantytowns had been tarnished to the point where even Nelson Mandela is no longer immune from sarcasm: “He’s a living saint… who has privatised water.” The neo-liberal policies that he introduced and his successor Thabo Mbeki continued have not yielded the anticipated levels of foreign investment, but have caused social damage. The Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programmes, supposed to open up economic opportunity (capital, participation in management) to blacks, have encouraged corruption rather than integrating the long-excluded mass of the population into the economic system.
As early as 2005 the ANC deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, stated: “It is the banks that have been the primary beneficiaries of this type of private-sector-led BEE… It should not be (and it is not) the objective of the democratic movement to support or advance such multiple, narrow-based empowerments… Genuine empowerment must focus on the black entrepreneurs who build viable and sustainable businesses [and] will be able to empower others in turn, and will be able to reap full advantage from the new vistas of opportunity that emerge as we integrate the second economy into the first” (6).
“Overall the BEE is crony capitalism,” confirmed Moeletsi Mbeki. “Most of these so-called business leaders are agents of white capital, hand in glove with the state; they aren’t entrepreneurs. Our country is undergoing very rapid de-industrialisation under the joint influence of its lack of entrepreneurial ability and Asian competition. Whole sectors are being undermined: 80% of the footwear bought in South Africa during the 1980s was home-produced. Now 80% is imported, mostly from China. Our mineral resources are enough to allow the government to maintain a welfare state, however limited; but they aren’t enough to support economic development. There is a danger of catastrophe if world prices fall.”
People may question ANC policies, but with 65% of the vote at every election it retains its hegemony. Real opposition to Thabo Mbeki has emerged inside the party, where a leftist coalition from the Communist Party and the Cosatu trade union federation secured the leadership for Jacob Zuma at the ANC national conference in Polokwane in December 2007. If he survives his forthcoming trial on corruption charges, Zuma should become South Africa’s third president in 2009 (7).
But few observers expect a real change of policy. “The ANC has done nothing for us,” an activist said. “Jacob Zuma’s people have been part of the government for 13 years, so they won’t change anything either.” On the ground, on the margins of a system that has let them down, social movements of extraordinary vitality, such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum and Abahlali baseMjondolo (8), are beginning to cohere into national networks and are not afraid to speak out or take to the streets.
In November 2005 police opened fire on 2,000 residents from the Foreman Road settlement, marching on the town hall in Durban. Two demonstrators were wounded and 45 arrested. The same week, in Pretoria, 500 people sacked the home of a member of the municipal council. Confrontations have continued. According to official interior ministry figures, demonstrations about the provision of basic services have increased from an annual average of 6,000 in 2004-05, to around 10,000. In February 2008 police fired on a peaceful meeting in Delft. On 10 March 500 residents of Klaarwater, in Durban, set up barricades and called for the removal of an ANC councillor who had failed to keep his electoral promises over services.
Returning from a recent mission to South Africa, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, complained that “there appears to be insufficient meaningful consultation between all levels of government, civil society organisations and affected individuals and communities”. More than $8bn has been budgeted for the building and upgrading of infrastructure for the football World Cup in 2010, including 10 stadiums and a high-speed train. Kothari warned: “Reconverting Johannesburg into a world-class city is already increasing housing prices and increased demand for construction materials has led to a foreseeable shortage of cement” (9). At his house in Orange Farm, a run-down district 40km south of Johannesburg, Richard “Bricks” Mokolo, a former footballer and a spokesman for the Anti-Privatisation Forum, predicted: “The World Cup will be our chance to make our voices heard.”
By Philippe Rivière.
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