The Right to Remain

One of the questions I have been asked many times since leaving South Africa is “are they going to be ready for the World Cup”. My standard refrain is they shouldn’t be hosting the world cup in the first place which like BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) will benefit a small minority with an even smaller minority making huge sums of money from the competition. Is the the World Cup in anyway influencing anti-poor policies in urban centres such as Durban and Cape Town? I imagine yes, that it is playing a part as the SA government is no doubt concerned to remove any evidence of poverty from the centre of it’s cities. However the real issue behind the attacks against the poor in the Eastern & Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal is LAND and MONEY – property development and gentrification.

What I want to try and highlight here is the similarities between what is happening in South Africa with what has happened and continues to happen to the survivors of Katrina in New Orleans. The systematic harassment and removal of the homeless from urban centres along with the harassment and attempts to evict shack dwellers also from urban centres in a replication of apartheid era policies based on race and class.

In New Orleans, Katrina and the 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. Note there was a housing crisis in New Orleans before Katrina and the city was one of the most deprived and underdeveloped in the country. Katrina was, for the developers, a Godsend…..

After the disaster, public officials famously made race-tinged comments about the flood as an act of God cleaning up New Orleans public housing, and the city being better off without welfare queens, pimps and “soap opera watchers.” HUD’s Jackson signalled his own low opinion of public housing when he told the press that “only the best residents should return. Those who paid rent on time, those who held a job and those who worked.”

“What you see in New Orleans is happening in every other community around the country. What is different about New Orleans is Katrina gave the government a chance to fast forward what other communities are going through in terms of the conversion of traditional public housing, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families,” said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University and one of the main advocates on the residents’ lawsuit.

An interesting sidebar: The oil is produced by the State of Louisiana is 3 miles offshore therefore the state receives no monies. Like the Niger Delta, all off shore oil monies go direct to the Federal government. “if Louisiana seceded from the US” they would be able to build their own levees, homes etc. Even receiving a percentage like every other oil state could enable it to be self-sustaining. (Source: “When the Levees Broke”)

But it’s not just the US that is engaging in the displacement of thousands and theft of housing and land from the poor and marginalised people in the country, the majority of whom are Black people. In South Africa the displacement is taking place in cities and rural areas across the country. In the past year there has been a systematic removal of some of the most vulnerable sectors of the community such as the homeless including street children from Cape Town city centre. The children have been picked up by the police and dumped in outlying communities such as in Muizenberg where there are no support systems in place leaving them even more vulnerable to physical attacks and sexual assault. Residents of Conifer Court and Grassy Park (Cape Town) are right now facing eviction following continued harassment of those communities as part South Africa’s anti-poor policy – many of them have been living in Conifers for over 15 years. It is their home, their community. The ultimate aim of the government is to bulldoze all shacks and remove the families to locations as far away as possible such as to the ridiculously named “Happy Valley” where they are given “starter shacks” to set up homes in that wasteland miles from nowhere.

I have reported previously, the Abahlali baseMjondolo – [the Durban Shack dweller’s Movement] are constantly battling eviction notices and harassment by local racist police. The aim of the Durban government is to remove the Shack dwellers to out of town locations into cheap and poorly built boxes with no community facilities and far from any opportunities of work.

The evictions in Cape Town and more recently in KwaZulu-Natal are both underpinned by two pieces of draconian legislation that criminalises poverty and dehumanises the poor. In Cape Town, the City Streets, Public Places and Public Nuisance Act was adopted in May last year. The section that impacts on the homeless including the street children is “prohibitive behaviour”.

This includes intentionally touching another person or their property without consent, continuing to beg after someone has said no, starting or keeping a fire, erecting any form of shelter or sleepingor camping overnight and bathing or washing in public. The lumping together of human beings and toxic waste within one piece of legislation has sparked outrage in some quarters, with others taking offence at the references made to the poor and disadvantaged as ‘nuisances’.

In addition to prohibiting the homeless from being on the streets, the by-law also prevents them from earning a living from street vending including selling the homeless magazine. Patric Solomons, Director of Molo Songololo (children’s rights) likens the application of the law to be equal to apartheid when certain laws applied to certain people.”

‘the public has very little care for children living on the streets, they are seen as nuisances’. Molo Songololo has also received reports of children being removed from the city centre and dumped in areas such as Belville, Eerste River and Khayelitsha as well as being physically assaulted, having their possessions confiscated and officials soliciting bribes form them……………..’By doing this we are criminalising the children and and introducing them to a life of crime, for very petty things. I have seen cases of children, with no history of criminal activity, being locked up for something as petty as loitering. In some of these instances the children get sent to a juvenile facility, where instead of being rehabilitated, they are introduced to gang life.’ Of course, such a system then creates real criminals out of children who could have been reintegrated into society at a much lower cost..

The “KwaZulu-Natal Elimination & Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Bill” is possibly the worst piece of legislation since the end of apartheid and one that has striking parallels with that era. Abahlali have described the legislation as “an attempt to legalise attacks against the poor” – the shack dwellers and the street vendors of KZN.

We have heard Ranjith Purshotum from the Legal Resources Centre say that “Instead of saying that people will be evicted from slums after permanent accommodation is secured, we have a situation where people are being removed from a slum, and sent to another slum. Only this time it is a government-approved slum and is called a transit area. This is the twisted logic of the drafters of the legislation”. We have heard Marie Huchzermeyer from Wits University say that this Bill uses the language of apartheid, is anti-poor and is in direct contradiction with the national housing policy Breaking New Ground. Lawyers have told us that this Bill is unconstitutional.

Since 2002, The Durban government has been trying to evict and relocate the people of Abahlali. They have been lied to, tricked by developers as well as the local government, harassed by racist police, their leaders arrested on false charges of murders, protesters including women beaten by the police. All of this so the shackdwellers 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” in 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 R20,000 or face 5 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 street children to sit down and develop a proper decent plan where people are treated as human beings with respect or continue to be confrontational, anti-poor and inhumane. They have chosen the latter and it will not work – South Africa especially should know that it will not work. It didn’t work for the Apartheid regime and it will not work now. 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 USSF starts this Wednesday and one positive outcome would be for those social movements here in the US to begin to build serious links with social movements in Africa and elsewhere around issues such as land rights and immigration. Another positive note is that the forum will be followed by the 3rd “Towards an Africa Without Borders” conference (5th July at the Durban University of Technology)- one of the primary aims is to “internationalise” the struggle in Africa by “bringing together conscious voices of all those struggling to bring change to their societies so that they can recognize each others’ struggles. We also hope to provide a forum by which a unified voice can generate a platform that is, in praxis, cognizant of struggle, not only in Africa, but in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.” [One of the speakers will be Andile Mngxitama so I hope he will be able publish his own keynote speech of the conference here]

Links: KZN Slum Elimination Bill: A Step Back

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