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by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS, 22 July 2008

The crisis of social exclusion in our cities is a key factor in the ferment in grassroots political society.  It has been central to much popular protest in recent years, to the emergence of well organised grassroots movements to the left of the ANC and, also, the catastrophic pogroms in May.

Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma both support a coercive response to this crisis. Their support for legislation to eradicate shack settlements is, ultimately, support for the state to send in men with guns to drive the poor out of the cities. None of the major shack dwellers’ organisations have shown any inclination to rally behind the broader Zuma project. If he leads the ANC in the 2009 elections on his current platform of outright hostility to the urban poor he is certain to confront the same ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’ campaign that resulted in major clashes between police and shack dwellers during the 2006 local government elections.

The urban crisis has long been reduced to the housing crisis and presented as a technical problem. But in recent years it has increasingly been simultaneously presented as a security problem.  Both of these lenses bend our vision away from the real issues which are the political questions of who has a right to live in our cities and to make decisions about the development of our cities.

The most common way in which the housing crisis is presented as a technical problem is by the dominance of the eminently technocratic language of ‘delivery’. This language assumes that the problem is a lack of houses and that the solution is to provide houses. The problem with this is that the urban crisis is not reducible to the housing crisis and the housing crisis is not reducible to the provision of houses. We need to recognise that in the lived reality of the people behind the numbers of houses ‘delivered’ and ‘delivery backlogs’ things are considerably more complex. Sometimes people’s lives are significantly improved by the provision of a government house and sometimes people’s lives are considerably worsened by the provision of a government house.

For instance if a family of 12 people spanning three generations is living in a 4 roomed shack that is close to work, schools and a local clinic and are then moved to a one roomed house 30 kilometres outside the city and far from access to work, education and heath care the provision of a house can be a disaster. In circumstances like this people often describe the ‘delivery’ of a house as forced removal and name it as oppression.

This should not surprise us. After all in the 1950s shack dwellers fought epic battles against forced removals from well located shacks to government houses in peripheral townships. We should also recall that for many years the apartheid state was one of the largest builders of houses in the world. The same is true of the Pinochet junta on whose housing policy our post-apartheid housing subsidy system was based.

The fact that the South African government is building houses doesn’t mean that it is building democratic cities by meeting the needs of the poor in conversation with the poor. On the contrary it often means that it is actively forcing the poor out of the cities and away from opportunity in a manner that is all too familar to those shack dwellers who remember the battles against forced removal under apartheid.

The questions of where people live, who decides where they should live, and whether the social or market value of urban land is prioritised, are all political questions. The language of delivery disguises these political questions very effectively and has become so pervasive that even if people take to the streets in their thousands to issue clearly political demands the state, the media and most NGOs and academics will call their protest a ‘service delivery protest’. This sleight of hand makes it seem as though people are simply demanding more efficient ‘delivery’ when they are rejecting the whole basis of the ‘delivery’ model.

The presentation of the housing crisis as a security problem has been rapidly escalating in the last couple of years. At one level it is simply a question of paranoid slander in the debased language that characterises our political discourse. Elected shack dwellers’ leaders are described as ‘slum lords’, movements are described as the ‘third force’, sympathetic academics are described as ‘foreign intelligence agents’ and so on. But at another level there is a pervasive shift towards the general criminalisation of the survival strategies of the poor even when these occur outside of any organised political project. The talk about the growth of shack settlements and the widespread tendency of people to return from peripheral houses to better located shacks as matters for the NIA and SAPS are straight forward attempts to criminalize poverty.

People live in shacks because they have no other viable alternative. People abandon peripheral government houses in favour of better located shacks because they cannot survive in barren townships in the middle of nowhere. Shacks are a popular response to crisis of our cities not the cause of that crisis. Shack settlements should be supported and developed rather than eradicated. The current plans by Mbeki and Zuma to extend the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act, and thereby to extend to the rest of the country the criminalisation of shack dwellers and their organisations pioneered in KwaZulu-Natal, are a straightforward attempt to transform the repression and exclusion of the poor from the dirty secret of our democracy to an open policy position.

The crisis of our cities is neither a technical problem nor a security issue. It is a political issue about who decides who should live where and on what basis decisions about land use should be taken. The technocratic nature of the vision produced by three sector model of partnership between government, business and civil society has failed to grasp the roots of our urban crisis and clearly has no capacity to resolve it.  It is time to recognise that grassroots political society and grassroots urban planning need to be offered full and genuine inclusion in the decision making processes that will shape the future of our cities and, thereby, our polity.

By Richard Pithouse, an independent writer and researcher in Durban.

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