Housing ‘delivery’ doesn’t work without grassroots’ urban planning

1 09 2008

Sep 01, 2008
Source: The Times
Richard Pithouse

Social exclusion in our cities is a key cause of the ferment in society at the grassroots. It has been central to much popular protest in recent years, to the emergence of well-organised movements to the left of the ANC and also, the catastrophic pogroms in May.

President Thabo Mbeki and ANC leader 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 cities.

None of the major shack dwellers’ organisations has 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 problem has long been reduced to a housing crisis and presented as a technical problem. But in recent years, it has increasingly been presented as a security problem as well. Both of these lenses bend our vision away from the real issue: the political question of who has the right to live in our cities and to make decisions about their development.

The most common way in which the housing crisis is presented as a technical problem is through 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.

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.

For instance, if a family of 12 people spanning three generations living in a four-room shack that is close to work, schools and a local clinic is then moved to a one-room house 30km 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 a forced removal.

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 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 in a manner that is all too familiar to those shack dwellers who remember the battles against forced removal under apartheid.

The question 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. 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 past couple of years. At one level, it is simply a question of paranoid slander. But at another level, there is a pervasive shift towards the general criminalisation of the survival strategies of the poor.

The talk about the growth of shack settlements – and the tendency of people to return from peripheral houses to better located shacks – as matters for the National Intelligence Agency and the police is a straightforward attempt to criminalise poverty.

Shacks are a popular response to the crisis in our cities not the cause of that crisis. Shack settlements should be supported and developed rather than eradicated.

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.

It is time to recognise that grass-roots political society and grass- roots urban planning need to be included in the decision-making processes that shape the future of our cities and, thereby, our polity.

Richard Pithouse is an independent writer and researcher based in Durban.

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