Recently I listened to a radio programme on the growth of not just mega cities (those of over 10 million people) but meta cities with 20 million or more people – some crossing national borders – as a kind of corridor of mass humanity. The discussion centred around the need for public policy on how to manage these huge urban regions, and the implication for health, socio-economic and political structures and needs. One of the already recognizable impacts of mega and meta cities is the increasing poverty and economic divide within them, with large numbers living in informal settlements and on the streets.
One thing that the discussion failed to mention was the increase in forced removals of the poor from informal urban settlements to the outskirts of the mega/meta cities. The Shackdweller movement Abahlali baseMondolo, based in Durban, South Africa, has been under siege for the past four years and last September the Kennedy Road settlement came under attack from outsiders. Resistance to the attack was broken by the police, who proceeded to add to the destruction and to arrest of many of the residents. Abahlali are demanding the right of the poor to live in the city and for new housing to be built on its present premises and not in the outskirts of town, where their inhabitants become invisible people in a new form of apartheid based on class.
The attempts at dismantling informal residential and market traders in South Africa is directly related to the 2010 Soccer World Cup and the Government policy of hiding the poor to ‘protect the football tourists’ and present the country as a rainbow of prosperity. Apart from the millions of dollars already spent on building huge football stadiums – to which many of the poor will have no access anyway – $170 million is being spent on security to police the poor. Abahlali and the Shackdweller movement across South Africa are planning a series of demonstrations during the World Cup to protest against the lack of affordable and decent housing as well as the right for street traders to sell their products.
In July 2008 I visited Lagos, Nigeria. I remember the daily drive on a major highway, along which informal settlements and markets had grown over the years. Then one day all the shacks and markets had disappeared, broken and burned to the ground. Last year, thousands of Lagos beggars were rounded up and deported back to their home states – how do you deport people in their own country? A similar policy was adopted in Port Harcourt when thousands were driven from their homes in a massive act of violence.
These examples from South Africa and Nigeria are part of a global trend which increasingly denies poor and low-income people access to the city under the excuse of regeneration. In the US, in cities such as New York and Washington DC, low-income people are being forced out of their historic neighbourhoods as the process of gentrification takes over. Yet these cities vie for the privilege of spending massive sums of money on self-indulgent and ostentatious sporting entertainment.
In 2012 London will host the Olympics, at an estimated cost of $14 billion in a city which has a major housing crisis. Why is it that such monies can be found for a month’s entertainment but not for building new, sustainable homes? There is no doubt that some groups will benefit from the Olympics – investors, sporting businesses, sponsors and so on. But millions of ordinary Londoners will still be forced to live in sub-standard and inappropriate housing. The same applies for the majority of South Africa’s poor and low-income earners. The World Cup will not bring homes, access to better healthcare or even employment. Already those who were employed in building the stadiums are back on the unemployment line. I love football and there is no better way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon than in the stands at Arsenal FC, an activity which due to the $60 price tag of a ticket is sadly no longer affordable. However, I find myself feeling increasingly reluctant to engage with the World Cup, given the cost to the lives of ordinary people.