Out of Africa: Human Rights Habitat Struggles


Mid October 2017, Nairobi was host to an
intense engagement on housing rights, social justice and the right to the city.
This was amid political turmoil in Kenyan towns and cities, and unrelated to
this but largely unnoticed, a four-storey tenement 
building collapse in the western Kenyan town of
Kisii, killing at least seven construction workers.

The gathering in
Kenya’s capital brought together members of the four-decade-old housing rights
Habitat International
and an aligned solidarity platform, the 
Global Platform for the Right to
the City

HIC emerged out of a civil society
initiative that organised in parallel to the first United Nations Conference on
Human Settlements in 1976 (Habitat I). In 1987, at a meeting held at Limuru,
near Nairobi, HIC transformed from a Council that represented NGOs, mostly in
the First World, to a coalition of organisations in all regions, and including
social movements. It refocused its work on habitat struggles in the Third
World, operating from a Secretariat in the Global South.

The Limuru Declaration of 1987 leaves no stone unturned,
addressing pertinent issues such as the overlooked rights of women and the
unhealthy tendency of NGOs to intervene in the affairs of community-based
organisations. Veteran African organisations such as Environnement et Developpement
du Tiers Monde (
ENDA), in Francophone Africa, and Mazingira Institute, in Kenya, have committed three decades since Limuru
to a HIC-aligned approach.

The Global Platform
for the Right to the City (GPR2C), though operational only since 2014, has its
roots in the 
World Social Forums initiated from Brazil since 2001.
Co-managed from Brazil and Mexico, it aims to strengthen national and local
struggles and brings these together to influence the international development
agenda. Most recently it lobbied for the inclusion of the right to the city concept
in the 
New Urban Agenda, adopted at the UN’s Habitat III summit
last year.

In addition to the
GPR2C imagining and promoting a new right to the city, HIC also launched
Human Rights Habitat Observatory (HRHO) at its October meeting in Nairobi.
The HRHO is the culmination of the Coalition’s long-standing commitment and
strategy to defend and further develop universal human rights standards related
to human habitat. Adding to this longstanding commitment, the HRHO is an
approach that responds to the new 
UN Sustainable Development Goals and, related to this, the New
Urban Agenda, and insists on the application of the already-binding human
rights obligations of states throughout the implementation of these current
global policies.

reflecting HIC’s equally long-standing commitment to the inclusive habitat
approach, as defined in the Habitat Agendas, aligns with efforts that enable
convergence of rural, urban and indigenous social-justice movements within the
framework of codified human rights. It is no mere coincidence that this
approach—indeed its name—is inspired, in part, by the Nairobi Civic Assembly’s
2002 declaration of Greater Nairobi as a “human rights habitat.” In this term,
the concept of human rights converges with that of the right to the city.

“Right to the City”: From France to Latin America

It is 50 years since French sociologist and
Henri Lefebvre conceptualised “the right to the
city.” Lefebvre first published this idea in a journal article in 1967, and
expanded it in a book one year later.

By 1969, the book
had been translated into Portuguese and was published in Brazil. It appeared in
Spanish in the same year.

Beyond France,
Spain and Portugal, the book inspired Latin American political movements
struggling for democracy and social justice. The human right to adequate
housing, resistance to evictions and displacements, promoting models for
self-management of human settlements and wider “urban rights” have formed part
of these struggles.

At the height of
Latin America’s dictatorships in the early 1970s, Lefebvre visited and spoke to
banned political parties in Latin America and the social movements aligned to
them. Related to their struggles he visited informal settlements or “favelas”
[“shanty towns” in Portuguese].

Latin America has a
long history of engagement with Lefebvre’s ideas. In the drawn-out and
incomplete process toward democracy, which included 
a struggle for critical legal change, several Latin American states and
municipalities have adopted 
statutes that refer to a “right to the city.”

In Brazil, the
recent political turn away from the Workers Party to the right of the political
spectrum, understood by many as 
a coup, has led to a rapid undoing of many of these legal
advances. Associated to this, the state’s budget on social spending has been

and the Right to the City: From Latin America to Africa

Latin America, and
its struggles against political repression and closely associated, exploitative
capital interests, remains a strong reference point globally in collective
efforts toward more just countries, towns and cities.

Fittingly, Kenyan
co-host Steve Akoth from the Nairobi-based NGO 
Pamoja Trust opened the HIC and Global Platform
workshop, on 9 October 2017, with a tribute to the struggle for social justice
led by 
Ernesto Che Guevara, 50 years since his execution by the Bolivian Military, at the order of a CIA official.

With reference to
the title of his 1970s book “The Urban Revolution,” Lefebvre notes that “the
words `urban revolution’ do not in themselves refer to actions that are
violent. Nor do they exclude them.”

The right to the
city is sought through peaceful means, though, out of necessity, often
subversive or clandestine. Those engaged in protests and resistance that might
involve occupations are often violently repressed.

Activists on the
ground, have faced assassination in their pursuit of a right to the city.
Fatalities in South Africa’s largest social movement 
Abahlali base Mjondolo are a case in point. Six of its members
participated in last week’s workshop as active members of the Global Platform.

The right to the
city, which is about ordinary people’s ability to inhabit, shape and enjoy
their environment, linking the rural to the urban, is a political project. The
notion of a right to the city unsettles the status quo of capital-driven
spatial change. It is deeply unpopular in many powerful circles, and disliked
by many governments. Proposals for its inclusion into the UN’s New Urban Agenda
were among the most 
contested agenda items for nation states at the
negotiation table.

and Urban Space in Nairobi

contestation is increasingly inseparable from the struggle for urban space. It
plays itself out vividly in urban centres. In Kenya’s cycle of political
contestation, Nairobi’s most symbolic public space, Uhuru Park, is the spatial
locus of both ruling party and opposition demonstrations.

It is estimated
Uhuru Park can fit 60,000 protesters. Protests staged here have
included those against land grabbing, a blatant violation of individual and
collective rights held in land, and one that has shaped much of the
profit-driven vertical and horizontal expansion of Nairobi.

In 1989, author,
activist and the first African woman to receive a 
Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai staged a protest against the ruling
plan to construct a 60-storey commercial complex in a
section of the park

In 2010, the launch
in Uhuru Park of the new, democratic 
Constitution gave the nation hope of a
less-violent, less-corrupt and less elite-driven future.

Spiral of Fatal Tenement Collapses

But it is evident
that neither global policy statements, nor the Constitution, on their own, can
deliver this more-equitable future at the local level. The seven plus deaths
from the four-storey residential building collapse in a wetland at Kisii, on 11
October 2017, was preceded in that town by ten deaths caused by the 
collapse of an unauthorised ten storey tenement less than a year before this.

Tenement collapses
in Nairobi have escalated in recent years. Rapid succession of fatal collapses
in December 2014 and January 2015 ushered in a building inspectorate and
building audit. For many subsequent building collapses, journalists have reported
the officially unfit status of the buildings and the lack of action about this.
Corruption has long been a factor in this equation. The most iconic collapse
was yet to come in 
April 2016 with 52 fatalities. More have followed since.

Last Frontier: African Wisdom for Civil Society Solidarity with Social

The gathering in
Nairobi tended to focus on the many violations faced by those unable to afford
rents in the tens of thousands of private multi-storey tenements rapidly
spreading across the city and threatening to collapse. Displacement,
dispossession and dislocation featured in many grassroots accounts. The meeting
launched a 
campaign to stop forced eviction.

Veteran Kenyan
activist Davinda Lamba of Mazingira Institute explained that the last frontier
of civil society in solidarity with social movements must be to deepen its
involvement in the political decision-making process. This space is all too
often occupied exclusively by private interests in capital accumulation, which
in turn spawn many of the violations that the new observatory for a human
rights habitat, the HRHO, intends to expose.

As African NGOs and
social movements organised to coordinate solidarity activities going forward,
veteran HIC Member and environment activist Malik Gaye of ENDA in Senegal
reminded that the “pacifist wisdom of Africa” has much to contribute to this
global struggle.

Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES)
School of Architecture and Planning, Wits University, Johannesburg

Joseph Schechla
Habitat International Coalition
Housing and Land Rights Network, Cairo