Social Stability

South Africa’s homeless a ticking time bomb

Battle of Nellmapius
Battle of Nellmapius.jpg

Although some three million-plus low-cost houses have been built in South Africa since 1994, another 2.3 million are needed to accommodate the country’s homeless with more people living is shacks than ever before.

This situation has become one of the greatest threats to social stability in the country and the present isolated incidents of clashes between squatters and authorities could explode at any time in widespread violent revolt.

While scenes on TV screens of the chaos in parliament during the last few weeks were unsettling, they were not nearly as scary as the footage of burned-down shacks at Nellmapius, Tshwane. By burning the shacks down, not only was the construction material destroyed, but so were the few possessions of the poor who had erected them.

If looking at the Nellmapius situation only from a legal perspective, the occupiers deserve to be called “squatters”, as they are illegally settling on land belonging to the ANC-controlled Tshwane municipality. They were also in violation of court orders. This is symptomatic of what is happening in many areas in the country,

The other side of the coin is that the Nellmapius land, near the N4 highway, was acquired from a farmer 15 years ago and earmarked for low-cost housing. To this day not a single sod has been turned to make the housing a reality. Ward councillor Precious Marole, who had to go into hiding after his home was ransacked, said development will start early next year but the communities’ patience and faith in promises have run out.

Besides pitting the community against the police, who were called in when the municipality’s’ own eviction unit, known as the Red Ants, could not cope with the situation, it contributed to the matters becoming highly politicised. The local branch of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters seized the opportunity to position the situation as a “land-grab operation” and to establish a settlement called Malemaville.

An EFF spokesperson claimed the community has been waiting for promised RDP houses since 1996 and were exploited by having to rent rooms in the backyards of existing townships. It is also claimed that 7 000 people have signed up for the 12m x 12m plots that are being marked out.

Nellmapius is also not the only place in the country where the governing ANC is doing battle with sections of the community over land for shelter.

In October the website Pambazuka News published claims by the shack dwellers organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu/Natal that “… armed ANC members acting with police support now openly attack people struggling against corruption and for land in Cato Crest (at eThekwini). They are even hiring assassins …”

According to this report while the organisation was “… busy with the family of Thuli Ndlovu, our comrade slain in KwaNdengezi, the Land Invasion Unit accompanied by the local ANC evicted about 30 families in Sisonke Village. As always, there was no court order authorising this eviction, thus making the eviction criminal and unlawful.

“The local ANC claim that this piece of land is reserved only for the ANC members. This encourages communities to fight. This is also the case in Cato Crest where ANC members are told that the land that has been occupied by the Marikana Land Occupation is reserved for the grandchildren of the ANC members living in the area.”

Illustrating the volatility of the situation in KZN, the report also states: “It is clear to us that the ANC has issued an order to its members to engage in a politic of creating war within communities,” and “The situation in Durban is now very serious. We are evicted, beaten and killed without any consequence. Today there is no democracy for the poor in this city.

“If this is not challenged tomorrow there will be no democracy for anybody in this city. If the politic of war is not challenged in Durban it will come to other parts of the country too.”

At the end of October a department of Human Settlements “relocation” operation of informal settlements around Gauteng’s Ivory Park, Thembisa; Protea South, Soweto and Lehae also went horribly wrong. Various promises involving housing and the installation of electricity did not materialise and residents were badly inconvenienced.

In the province of Limpopo its government, like it did the previous year, failed to spend its allocated Human Settlements Development grant of R500 million for the 2012/14 financial year due to “capacity” constraints, and returned the money to National Treasury. At the same time only 1 500 of the 12 500 houses promised by 2014 have been build.

Rising emotions

The emotions around the housing situation generally also rose some notches when the Minister of Housing, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced at a recent conference in Johannesburg: “We will no longer give people who are young free houses. Those younger than 40 years can build their own houses.”

In response to this announcement she was severely criticised by Dr Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University in an article on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service:

“The gulf between the state’s aspirations to shape society and what actually happens in society has … been starkly illustrated at the more local level. Sisulu’s flagship housing project, the N2 Gateway project in Cape Town, resulted in acute conflict and remains in various kinds of crisis to this day.”

About her latest comments he wrote: “The inevitable consequence of the state committing itself to an urban agenda that simply has no place for millions of people will be a radical escalation of the already intense conflict in our cities. To put it plainly guns will become even more central to how our cities are governed. Sisulu’s comments amount to a declaration of war.”

Mining House Lonmin has admitted to the Farlam commission of enquiry into the Marikana tragedy during the strike at the mine in 2012 that the events, that cost 44 lives, were linked to the critical shortage of housing for workers. It could not deliver on housing promises because of delays in getting land approved for construction and a lack of funds because of the then financial crisis.

The way things are shaping up in the country’s housing crisis, constantly seeing communities and the police pitched against one another, means it might be just a matter of time before a next “Marikana”.

by Piet Coetzer

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