On 14 May 2009 the Constitutional Court will hear the attempt by the shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo to have the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act declared unlawful. Other provinces have been mandated to develop similar legislation and the decision of the court may have a significant impact on the future of our cities.
Thabo Mbeki’s government built a lot of houses. But this does not mean that we have been building democratic and inclusive cities. On the contrary it is a major mistake to assume that the resolution of the crisis in our cities is a simple question of building houses. We should recall that the apartheid state built a lot of houses and that around the world authoritarian regimes, like the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, have often built a lot of houses.
In fact Lindiwe Sisulu, Mbeki’s Housing Minister, left the state’s housing programme in a catastrophic mess. The Breaking New Ground Policy, officially adopted in 2004, recommends democratic engagement with communities with a view to upgrading settlements where they are. It has never been implemented. The constitution protects unlawful occupiers of land against summary eviction but the state is the primary perpetrator of systematically unlawful evictions. The state’s actions are, in strict legal terms, routinely criminal.
Both policy and law have been ignored in favour of an increasingly authoritarian discourse around eliminating or eradicating slums. This has led to a deliberate reduction in the provision of basic services to shack settlements, often unlawful and violent evictions, and forced removals to out of town housing developments and prison like ‘transit camps’. Evictions leave people destitute and bereft of community, expulsion from the cities takes people away from work and schools and the reduction of basic services like electricity, toilets and water actively subjects people to relentless fires and the loss of children to something as easily avoidable as diarrhoea.
One of the many pernicious consequences of the slum clearance discourse is that the government ends up measuring its progress on the resolution of the urban crisis via two metrics the first being the reduction in the number of shacks. So if, as often happens, only half the residents of a settlement are accommodated in a new housing development and the rest are left homeless as their settlement is razed the state will measure that as progress. The other way that progress is measured is by the number of people moved into state controlled spaces. This is problematic enough given the well known fact that a well located shack is often much better for people than a poorly located government house. But in a perverse Orwellian move some municipalities are compounding the damage done and turning the urban question into a numbers game by calling the new and deservedly notorious transit camps, or even tents, ‘housing opportunities.’ So even when people are forced out of shacks and into transit camps against their will and at gunpoint the statistics will simply show that they have ‘accessed a housing opportunity’.
It is unsurprising that this technocratic approach to development, an approach that is incapable of measuring the human consequences of state action, has been subject to sustained resistance. Shack dwellers across the country, some organised into movements and others acting independently, have been blocking roads, marching on councillors and, on the rare occasions when they can access the judicial system, taking the government to court. Entirely legal forms of protest have often been responded to with unlawful state repression.
The Slums Act, passed into law in 2007, is an attempt to give legal sanction to the turn to an outrightly authoritarian and anti-poor response to the crisis of our cities. It has direct connections to similar colonial and apartheid legislation, like the 1951 Prevention of Squatting Act. It compels municipalities and private land owners to evict, gives legal sanction to the notorious transit camps and criminalises shack dwellers’ movements. It assumes that shack settlements, rather than the material and political realities that give rise to shack settlements, are the problem and so rather than seeking to reduce injustice it attacks ordinary people’s attempts to survive in an unjust society. Shack dweller’s organisations across the country and across the political spectrum have emphatically rejected the Slums Act. People have been beaten, shot at with rubber bullets and arrested while marching against it.
In his study of the rise of capitalism in England Karl Marx called the legislation aimed at controlling peasants who had moved into the cities after being forced off the land ‘bloody legislation against the expropriated’. The Slums Act is certainly not as blood thirsty as the laws of the English Kings that rained down beatings, whippings, brandings, enslavement, imprisonment and execution on people forced into vagabondage after the enclosure of their land. But it does demand that state violence be directed against the dispossessed. It is legislation against the expropriated. Its function is, quite clearly, to marshal state and private force against the poor in order to reassert the absolute control of the state and capital over urban planning and urban land use.
There are currently no grounds for optimism that Zuma’s government will seek a more just and democratic resolution of the urban crisis than that imagined by Mbeki. On the contrary the ANC’s Polokwane Resolutions actively endorse the extension of the Slums Act to other provinces.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The state could, along with meaningful and pro-poor rural land reform, actively support the efforts of poor people to hold their ground in our cities. It could, for instance, attempt to actually implement the Breaking New Ground policy. Or it could take a larger step forward and, following examples in Brazil and the Philippines, implement measures to put the social value of urban land before its commercial value.
Grassroots activists will be making their way to the Constitutional Court for the hearing on 14 May from shack settlements around Johannesburg as well as Durban and Cape Town. We will have to wait and see how the court decides to measure their humanity. We will also have to wait and see how it decides to weigh that humanity against the demand for legislation that can only, when it comes down to the practicalities of sending out the men with guns to banish the poor from our cities, be a bloody business.
Do you really think we should be emulating Brazil when it comes to sorting out our slums? Have you been there?