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The Rise of the Shack Dwellers Movement


In an article entitled “The Third Force”, S’bu Zikode – the elected chairman of the abahlali base mjondolo (shack dwellers) movement, wrote that the shack dwellers movement has “given hope to thousand of people in Durban”. In Durban, it is estimated that 800 000 of the city’s population of 3 million people lives in shacks. When Zikode writes that the shack dwellers movements has brought hope to many, he has in mind the 800 000 people living in shacks. Zikode has in mind people like Walter Siyacela Ndenza. Ndenza came to the city from rural Bizana in 1990 looking for a better life. He first rented a shack in Mayville, just outside the city (Durban) but then bought a shack for R800 (about $120) in Lusaka informal settlement, equally close to the city.

“Buying my own shack was some kind of progress”, Siyacela said. With the little money he earned as a casual construction labourer in the nearby suburb of Reservoir Hills, Siyacela bought two lawnmowers and sought work in the suburb cutting lawns. This is how he supported his three dependents. People living in urban squatter camps are among the most marginalised in South Africa. They live in abject poverty, with no access to good education, nor proper health care. According to Zikode, the shack dwellers movement’s vision is: “For us the most important struggle is to be recognized as human beings.” One wishes that Zikode could go further than this, for to be recognized as a human being is not enough and is not all that the socially oppressed are agitating for in this country. The economically oppressed in this country (South Africa) are struggling against the capitalist system that penalizes the poor for being poor, while rewarding the over-privileged for merely being born in colonial privilege. The socially oppressed in this country are struggling against the colonial legacy of racism, which today manifests itself even in progressive social movements where blacks are treated as children by all-knowing whites. Whites in social movements rarely ever speak the “native languages”, but black activists in social movements are expected to speak “good” English. This, of course, stems from colonial logic – whereby the all-knowing whites have nothing to learn from the natives, whereas the natives are seen as being enlightened if they speak the language of the colonizers. One hopes that in time, the shack dwellers movements will, among other things, include such criticism in their analysis. It is not enough that Zikode should write an appeal stating that: “My appeal is that leaders who are concerned about peoples’ lives must come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6 000 people. They must dispose of their own refuse while living next to the dump. They must come with us while we look for work. They must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap. They must have a turn to explain to the children why they can’t attend the Technical College down the hill. They must be there when we bury our children who have passed on in the fires, from diarrhoea or AIDS.”

In addition to this, Zikode should be elaborating the kind of social arrangement we want to replace the existing oppressive capitalist system. Zikode should make it clear that the situation of white people owning more than 80 percent of the arable land in this country is unacceptable, and therefore, the landless people in this country should take over those farms. He (Zikode) should state in unequivocal terms that the shack dwellers movements want to see the factories owned and managed by the workers themselves, education and health care system subsidized by the state. This is what the majority of the people in this country expected when the apartheid came to an end in 1994. This is what people like Ndenza are yearning for in their hearts. Ndenza is one of 19 families who were forcibly removed from Lusaka informal settlement (one of the informal settlements in Durban) on 6th November. The shacks of the Lusaka 19 were totally demolished, the residents lost many possessions and they were not provided with alternative accommodation. For want of anywhere else to go, they rebuilt their shacks on the lawn outside their Councillor’s office. After four days living there, they were arrested for ‘trespassing’ and spent three days in jail – this despite the legal norm for first offenders on trespassing charges that they should not be held in jail but released on a warning. Six of the Lusaka 19 are women who desperately tried to rescue a few possessions, carrying them to jail wrapped up in blankets on their backs. The men were not allowed to take anything. When charges were withdrawn in the Durban Magistrates Court, the Lusaka 19 had nowhere to go. Knowing a few people from the Kennedy Road informal settlement Abahlali base Mjondolo (Shack Dwellers Movement), the Lusaka 19 walked about 20kms to the Kennedy Road community hall, where they slept for about a week. A municipal waste truck had been at the councillor’s office during the court hearing, removing all their furniture and only some of this was returned to the Kennedy Road Hall. Having been forcibly removed to a place (the name of the place is Mount Moriah) where they never wanted to live, the 19 families now have many psychological and financial difficulties to overcome.

Sonwabiso Ndenza says he is also one of Siyacela Ndenza dependents because he is sick and can no longer work. Both men say that in Lusaka a strong social network existed and they were able to eke out some kind of meagre existence on the casual jobs they did in Reservoir Hills. “I had customers whose houses I could walk to with my lawnmower,” says Siyacela. “Now they are calling me to cut their grass and I can’t deliver. In any case I can’t take my lawnmower on two taxis to Reservoir Hills.”

There are no roads in this new section of Mount Moriah and no shops, clinics or schools anywhere in sight.

The homes in Mount Moriah have water but only for the next two years and after that, pre-paid water meters will be installed. They have no ceilings and seem to be built precariously on sites cut out of the clay hillside. Dubious, unstable washing lines come with the houses. Siyacela Ndenza’s washing line fell down during the interview, all the clean clothes landing in the mud. Most of the houses have pre-paid electricity which nobody can afford. Siyacela Ndenza’s house has not been fitted with electricity at all.

The housing project itself is built in a highly dubious way. Most of the money is not spent on the workers or the building materials, but is kept as profit by the contractor. The government pays the private contractor between R31 000 and R35 000 per house, although the value of the houses are under R10 000 each. The private company then outsources the building to subcontractors. The actual workers are paid virtually nothing. For every roof they put on a house, workers reportedly get paid R8. A worker would have to roof more than 20 houses in one day to earn anywhere near what constitutes a living wage – clearly an impossible task. Subcontractors are paid R60 to install plumbing in an entire house. The corruption going on here calls into question the quality of the houses themselves.

Asked if he had anything to say to the government, Siyacela Ndenza said: “I want the government to be compassionate because their actions have destroyed a lot of families in Lusaka. Our valuable goods were broken. Also, we tried to negotiate with the government when they told us they intended to move us. Our attempts to negotiate only left us facing a lot of intimidation. Suddenly, out of the blue, the government came in full force to smash our shacks. This is not the way to treat people. All of us have to start from scratch buying the bare essential furniture and clothes that we already had.

“We need to be compensated because it’s just not fair that we have to buy all the stuff we had before. We were only given 30 minutes to take all our belongings out of our shack but during those 30 minutes they already started breaking our things. Others of us were at work and didn’t have a chance to rescue anything.”

Sayinela Silenge is also one of 19 families who were forcibly removed from Lusaka informal settlement moved from Port Shepstone to Lusaka in 2002. He is fairly happy so far that he has a house in Mount Moriah, which he says is better than living in a shack. But he says “It wasn’t nice being forcibly removed. It wasn’t decent. I lost a lot of valuable things. We moved to the Councillor’s lawn after our shacks were destroyed to show we are against forced removal and we want housing. The Mayor saw us as some kind of irritant and hence decided to throw us in jail. Even though the authorities thought it was childish of us to occupy the Councillor’s garden, we made our point through this action. Before, the Mayor was just running around and not listening but now he had to talk to us.”

Sayinela’s financial situation is as precarious as the rest of those forcibly removed. He has always been unemployed but in Lusaka he, like other residents, worked casually in construction in the nearby Reservoir Hills suburb. “I still have to figure out a way to survive in Mount Moriah because there is no suburb nearby. It’s a real predicament. We are a family of three but nobody is working”.

Sayinela is very unhappy that he has been forcibly removed in the post-apartheid era. “The way we got these houses was not exciting. In fact, I am very disturbed that before we got houses, we first had to be thrown into jail. This is not logical. I don’t understand why we were arrested in the first place because the call for a house is a legitimate one. We shouldn’t be persecuted for wanting a place to live”.

Public interest law organisations must support groups like the Lusaka 19 in taking up a legal case for compensation for their destroyed belongings. There is a longstanding illegal practice of the municipal police (and the private security forces who often help them) to wilfully destroy each and every belonging owned by a shack dweller (including clothes!) In Mandela Park, Cape Town, evicted people have even had books and loaves of bread destroyed by municipal police.

In the past, other Mount Moriah residents have complained about a high rate of cancer and miscarriages that they say comes from living under electricity pylons. Nobody has told the Lusaka 19 about this yet.

It is disturbing to witness how, having been left with absolutely nothing, residents are hankering after the highly exploitative and underpaid casual work they used to do in Reservoir Hills. The Lusaka 19 have been dumped into a situation of abject poverty and utter hopelessness as a result of their forced removal, which can only worsen greatly in the near future. * interviews with Lusaka 19 conducted by A. Weekes

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