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South African shack-dwellers’ movement fights for urban land reform

Residents not only lack basic services; they face as many as 23 attempted evictions in the Cato Crest region by the local municipality.

Five years ago Ndabo Mzimela was evicted from a cramped backyard shack in Durban to make way for the construction of subsidised government housing.

Those houses, he and other residents said, were allocated exclusively to paying members of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African ruling party that has been beset in recent years by allegations of widespread corruption.

It is a sentiment routinely heard across Durban, where more than 317 000 households – according to government data – live in impoverished informal settlements like Cato Crest, now Mzimela’s home.

Cato Crest alone has more than 1 000 such households. Residents not only lack basic services; they said they had faced as many as 23 attempted evictions by the local municipality – many in contravention of a court order, local media reported.

“The ANC had a chance to redress the issues of the past and give poor people the right to land and proper housing,” Mzimela told the Thomson Reuters Foundation of the party that in 1994 won South Africa’s first democratic elections.

“But it’s 24 years later, and they’ve clearly failed.”

Filling the void

More than two decades after apartheid’s demise, most private land remains in the hands of South Africa’s white minority, making it a potent symbol of wider economic disparities.

The ANC has made expropriation of white-owned land a key policy ahead of an election next year that is expected to prove a tough test against a backdrop of recession and signs of rising social discontent.

But as the government pushes ahead with its expropriation plans, Mzimela said the plight of urban shack-dwellers in Durban was still largely neglected despite mounting service delivery protests and land occupations across the city district.

“The government does not care about the urban poor. Their policies do not address our situation, they just maintain it,” he said.

A shack-dwellers’ movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) has become an important voice.

Since its formation in 2005 – after municipal land earmarked for housing for local shack-dwellers was sold privately – AbM has amassed more than 50 000 members across the country’s under-served informal settlements.

The bulk of its membership is in Durban, where the group has led a number of land occupations.

Mzimela, who heads AbM’s Cato Crest branch, said members routinely faced threats, intimidation and assassination as they tried to pressure local officials to make land available for housing, improve living conditions, and prevent the violent eviction of shack-dwellers from state-owned land.

“The government has tried everything to crush our organisation and our processes,” he explained.

Three AbM members were killed in service delivery protests and attempted evictions in Cato Crest in 2013, including 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza, according to local media reports. She was shot twice in the back while fleeing police.

A further 10 members have been killed since then, AbM said, most of them in Durban.

AbM spokesman Thapelo Mohapi said the ANC in Durban had routinely sought to “criminalise” and “persecute” the movement rather than engage with its leadership over how to implement much-needed urban land reform.

Nelly Nyanisa, ANC chief whip in KwaZulu-Natal, the province that encompasses Durban, said the local municipality wanted to build relationships with organisations like AbM, adding that the group’s actions often stood in the way of government plans to develop land for housing.

“Land meant to improve communities is often illegally occupied – then we can no longer build any community project to help benefit communities,” she said by phone.

‘Decisive action’

Lazola Kati, provincial organiser of local advocacy group Right2Know, said the conflict between AbM and the state was compounded by the lack of an up-to-date housing list in Durban, whose backlog has reached about 400 000 homes.

Kati told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the situation had allowed local power brokers to make money from improperly allocating government housing.

“We live in communities where local councillors are selling off (government) houses meant to benefit the poor, and municipalities are illegally evicting shack-dwellers,” she said.

“Even more drastically, activists are being killed for standing in the way of those same people,” Kati said.

Mzimela said he doubted the ANC could address land restitution meaningfully or the impasse between the municipality and AbM in KwaZulu-Natal.

“The policies that are being made are not supporting the poor,” Mzimela told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He said the ANC move to expropriate agricultural land from white farmers without compensation was merely intended to help secure the votes of the impoverished black electorate next year.

Land reform expert Ruth Hall said the land reform debate playing out in parliament was too narrowly focused on whether or not the constitution should be amended to allow expropriation without compensation.

“It is not focusing on how the constitution should be amended, nor is it focusing on who should get land, where and for what purpose,” Hall said.

But, she added, “putting land questions front and centre of political debate” meant the government “will be pushed to take much more decisive action to make land available, particularly for poor people who need it in both urban and rural areas”.

‘Crying for land’

Responding to questions in parliament in August, President Cyril Ramaphosa said urban land held privately for speculative purposes or lying fallow should be released for housing.

“Quite a bit (of land) is owned by state-owned enterprises and some by various government departments. Those must be identified, serviced and released to our people,” he said.

AbM leaders say such statements bear no relation to what is happening on the ground. It cites the occupation of eNkanini near Cato Crest, where the municipality last year demolished structures and evicted residents. Some were shot and injured.

The municipality has repeatedly argued against a court order preventing it from evicting 35 families from the greenbelt site, and to stop more dwellings being erected. The Thomson Reuters Foundation recently counted about 270 families living there.

More are coming, according to George Bonono, AbM’s KwaZulu-Natal chairperson. In September several structures were being built near the remains of demolished shacks.

Bonono conceded that the ongoing construction could well lead to further evictions and demolitions.

“But what choice do we have? People are still crying for land.” 

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I understand that people don’t want to live in shacks without access to water, electricity and sanitation. It can’t be fun. However, what were they living in prior to 1652? Was this any better? Why do people today have a right to live in a brick house with water, electricity and sanitation for which they don’t pay for in any case? Lately, it has been said that “access to free wi-fi” is now also “a basic human right”.

Easy for you to say…Have you ever lived in a shack? , have any of your relatives lived in a shack before?. Can we please be very sensitive with this issue because these people do not choose to be in that circumstance. They do not have a retirement plan or pension fund waiting for them after being unemployed for most of their lives like you do. They are not so fortunate. I suggest you give up everything you have and find youself and family a shack and try to live there for a week at the least and then come back and attest to your rubbish comment again.

Even if I was born in a shack I have the drive and go in me and the will to get ahead and I would have been out of there a long time ago. I also have the insight to see the value in small families, not smoking, saving for the future (instead of buying status symbols like cars), not destroying public infrastructure like 143 train coaches and not shouting “liberation before education”. I would have taken any job and worked my way up. Where big supermarkets have staff churn of over 30% I would have stucked it out. Besides with BEE, I have the whole deck stacked in my favour. So yes we are all responsible for the choices we make in life.

There is a very efficient system available to allocate land, housing and property to individuals. In fact, after centuries of trial and error, nobody has come up with a better system yet. This winning system is the most impartial, fair and incorruptible system known to man. Every person who accepts responsibility for his own life, and holds himself accountable for his material position, has an equal opportunity to benefit from this system. In other words, any mature and respectable individual will embrace this system because it does not discriminate against some to arbitrarily favour others . Under this system everybody is equal before the law.

Many alternative systems have been tried, without any lasting success. Each and every successful nation implements this winning system, while each and every failed state and basket-case country implement the alternative systems.

This beneficial system is called the free market. This system brings property rights, law and order and prosperity. The alternatives bring a collapse in law and order, corruption, a lack of service delivery, arbitrary rights, dictatorships and poverty.

We don’t need free housing. We need title deeds and property rights. A person with property will vote for the party that promises to protect property. A person without property rights will vote for the party that promises to steal property.

Why we keep on implementing the latter is simply beyond me.

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