Media: In South Africa, evicted residents struggle

10 07 2008


Residents of the informal Symphony Way settlement march for affordable and quality housing in Cape Town, South Africa. Tensions came to a head last Saturday, as officers with the South African Police Services, pepper-sprayed four residents. The protests underscore resistance to what some have called the persistent legacy of attempts to keep Cape Town’s impoverished black residents powerless under South Africa’s apartheid regime. (Toussaint Losier photo)

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Paramedics attend to Charl Jacobs, an 8-year-old child who was hit by a motorist speeding past Jacobs’ neighbors’ shack on Symphony Way in Cape Town, South Africa. The incident further stoked residents’ frustrations, as provincial officials had previously promised to ensure the road would be free from traffic. (Toussaint Losier photo)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Tensions between police and residents of a shack settlement in Delft, a township on the far outskirts of this city, came to a head last Saturday, as officers with the South African Police Services pepper-sprayed four residents, beating one and taking him into custody following a nighttime operation.

Earlier that day, a speeding motorist struck an 8-year-old child outside of his neighbor’s shack on Symphony Way, a road that is officially closed but is regularly used as a shortcut to get from one end of the township to the other. The incident further stoked frustrations, as provincial officials had previously promised to ensure the road would be free from traffic.

“It’s not something we want to do, because we want people to see the conditions we are living in,” explained Francis Arnold as she wiped pepper spray from her eyes. “But we have to do this for the safety of our children.”

The protests underscore resistance to what some have called the persistent legacy of attempts to keep Cape Town’s impoverished black residents powerless under South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Efforts to keep Cape Town a white-only city under apartheid have left the city with an official backlog of 360,000 people in need of adequate, affordable housing. Yet current housing policies have not yet begun to meet public needs, even as the backlog continues to grow.

“Each year, this backlog increases by some 18,000 — but only 10,000 houses are built,” explained Martin Legassick, emeritus professor at the University of the Western Cape in an article published in February. “Each year, people on the waiting list have less of a chance of getting a house. No wonder they are desperate.”

During the week leading up to the confrontation, more than 200 families living in the settlement have been blocking the road outside of their homes with burning car tires in protest over precarious living conditions.

“They treat us like animals, but we are not animals,” said resident Matilda Groepe as she eyed a barricade of tree limbs and concrete blocks intended to slow oncoming cars. “We are not stupid, we know our rights.”

In addition to Symphony Way, the small wood and tin shacks also look out onto a 7-foot-tall barbed wire fence separating them from the unoccupied homes of a pilot housing project called the N2 Gateway. Six months ago, Symphony Way residents were among some 500 families and residents that had occupied these unfinished homes. Residents alleged that they had been given permission to occupy the homes by their local city councilor.

This illegal action, they claimed, reflected their desperate need for housing. Nearly all the families that occupied the new project’s homes had been on the city of Cape Town’s waiting list for housing, many for more than a decade, while renting makeshift shacks in the backyard of someone else’s property.

After two months of protests, court cases and mass meetings, Cape Town’s High Court authorized the eviction of the roughly 1,600 occupants of the N2 Gateway homes. Beginning at dawn on Feb. 19, police and private security moved from door to door, removing the residents. The scene soon turned violent, as police began shooting into the gathering crowd of residents and pursued them as they ran for cover. Twenty people were wounded in the melee. Police eviction teams also confiscated residents’ belongings, leaving the evicted on the sidewalk alongside Symphony Way.

Since then, residents have constructed housing for themselves, continuing to demand that the city meet their needs after years of patiently waiting. While the cold and wet winter has forced some families to take up the offer of relocation to an equally barren campsite, most residents have maintained their demand for proper housing. When contacted, Cape Town’s Department of Local Government and Housing provided no comment.

“As you can see, this government has no sympathy for us,” sighed Symphony Way resident Alfred Arnold following his release from police custody. “That is why we are living in these conditions.”

Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa’s minister of housing, has described the N2 Gateway project as “the biggest housing project ever undertaken by any government.” The South African government has outsourced the construction of some 25,000 housing units to a private company, Thubelisha Homes, to manage the project. Although Delft is the primary site of the project, the bulk of the project is being built along the N2, a key highway in and out of this city.

Critics of the project claim that it has been carried out without proper public participation, providing a limited amount of housing that is unaffordable to the hundreds of thousands living in shacks and backyard dwellings. Rather than helping to solve the city’s housing crisis, they allege that it was designed to gentrify the edges of the highway, replacing the gut-wrenching sight of tin shacks with concrete housing in anticipation of the international spotlight of the World Cup, slated to come to South Africa in 2010.

“It’s a personal project,” said Ashraf Cassiem, an organizer from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, at a recent community meeting. “Millions have been overspent for it and Lindiwe Sisulu keeps putting money into it.”

A grassroots social movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign has sought to bring together residents impacted by different aspects of N2 Gateway, including some 4,500 families of the informal Joe Slovo shack settlement who have been threatened with relocation to Delft to make way for further housing construction. Those affected also include occupants of roughly 700 apartments of Phase 1 of the N2 Gateway Housing Project, currently boycotting their monthly payments because of shoddy construction and high rent.

Representatives from these different communities have established a joint committee and are planning a mass march to Thubelisha Homes, the housing project’s construction company, at the end of July.

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