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Shack dwellers’ struggle

On 27 September the Kennedy Road settlement in Abahlali, South Africa, was attacked by a group of 40 heavily armed men. They destroyed 15 homes belonging to members of the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC), including that of S’bu Zikode. Some people were killed, including two of the attackers. The police were called, but only arrived on Sunday morning, when they arrested eight KRDC members but none of the armed gang. Residents are fleeing the Kennedy Road settlement and both the elected chair and deputy of Abahlali are in hiding following threats on their lives.  

We are the city banner

The story of the shack dwellers’ struggle dates back to the pre-apartheid period, when there was a policy to remove the urban informal settlements from city centres to allow for gentrification of the areas. The 1994 South African Constitution directly addressed the needs of shack dwellers by stating that new homes would be built to house them. However, rather than build homes on the existing land, the ANC Government has built poor-quality, inadequate homes on the outskirts of cities, where there is no transport or other infrastructure, mirroring the Apartheid era when non-whites were moved to locations far from the centre of cities. 

The Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement began in Durban, South Africa, in early 2005 and is the largest group of militant poor in South Africa today. The Movement began with a blockade by Kennedy Road residents protesting against the proposed sale of a nearby piece of land which had been promised to them by the local council as a site for permanent housing. Since then, the Movement has survived fires, attempted evictions of their members, destruction of shacks, hundreds of arrests and continuous harassment by the local municipal council and the police.  Under the banner of ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’, Abahlali boycotted both the 2006 local elections and the 2009 presidential elections and have more recently challenged the legality of the apartheid-type legislation of the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination & Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Bill, whose aim is to: 

• Eliminate ‘slums’ in KwaZulu-Natal
• Prevent new ‘slums’ from developing
• Upgrade and control existing ‘slums’
• Monitor the performance of departments and municipalities in the elimination of ‘slums’ and the prevention of new ‘slums’ from developing.

It has detailed plans to make sure that all of this really happens. The Bill also says that it aims to ‘improve the living conditions of communities’, but it has no detailed plans to make sure that this really happens. It is therefore clear that its real purpose is to get rid of ‘slums’ rather than to improve the conditions in which people live. 

The sustained attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo and other shack dwellers in cities across South Africa raise a number of questions about the meaning of democracy and justice and who has the right to the city. Specifically these attacks speak to the rights of the poor not only to live in the city but to be a part of the development process. Looking at the Abahlali struggle in a global context we can see there is a policy of systematic harassment and removal of the poor from urban centres, along with the harassment and attempts to evict shack dwellers in a replication of apartheid-era policies based on race and class.

In New Orleans in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding from the broken levees destroyed some 142,000 apartments of working-class families, plus thousands of public housing homes. In the aftermath of Katrina, thousands of residents were dispersed throughout the US in what many thought would be a temporary move until they could return to their homes in New Orleans. There was a housing crisis in New Orleans even before Katrina, and the city was one of the most deprived and underdeveloped in the country. Katrina was, for the developers, a godsend… Four years on and thousands of poor, mainly Black people, remain either homeless or are living in their ruined homes. The New Orleans state government, along with developers, has used Katrina as a way to deny the poor the right to live in the city – to be citizens.   

Back in South Africa, the Durban government has been trying since 2002 to evict and relocate the people of Abahlali. They have been lied to, tricked by developers and the local government, harassed by racist police, had their leaders arrested on false charges of murders, and had protesters   – including women – beaten by the police. All of this so the shack dwellers’ land can be used by developers to build houses for middle-income people, whilst they are sent to the wilderness of outer Durban.

Like Operation Murambatsvina in Harare, the Bill uses offensive language such as the word ‘slum’ to describe the communities and ‘eliminate’ to remove them. It gets worse. The plan is to place people in ‘transit areas’ between their eviction from their present homes and relocation to new homes. How long this will take is not clear. But forcibly removing people and placing them in transit camps before dumping them in wastelands of poorly built houses with no facilities sounds very much like the racist Group Areas Acts of the apartheid era. The Mail & Guardian even compared the Bill to Nazi Germany. In addition, the punishment for trying to prevent an eviction is 20,000 rand (about US$2,600) or five years in prison.

The city, regional and national governments have a choice. They can either invite representatives from the various shack dweller settlements, the street vendors, homeless and the street children to sit down and develop a proper, decent plan where people are treated as human beings with respect, or they can continue to be confrontational, anti-poor and inhumane. They have chosen the latter option, but it will not work – South Africa especially should know that it will not work. One final point: The policies discussed above are closely connected to the anti-immigration policies of the US and Western Europe and all those other countries in the world that are building walls to keep people out and imprison people inside.

The attacks against Abahlali are an attack against the poor and their right to exist and to live in the city. It is an attack against justice and against democracy. It is clear that both the local police and local ANC are complicit in the attacks against Kennedy Road. The informal settlements that make up Abahlali baseMjondolo house thousands of people, some of whom have been there for 20 years.  I have no doubt the aim is to attempt to destroy the Movement. It didn’t work for the apartheid regime and it will not work now

Related weblinks: SquatterCity
Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

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