Account of time spent with South African Shack Dwellers’ Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Cape Town in 2008.
Update: In November 2008 my host was robbed in his home by a group of armed men and forced to leave his house in QQ section. Abahlali President at the time, S’bu Zikode was attacked in Durban around the same time. In 2013 a number of activists have been killed in Durban.
‘Be a visitor, not a spy’ – QQ Section, Site B, Khayelitsha
Matt Birkinshaw, October 2008
For the first time in history more people in the world now live in cities than in rural areas. Globally one in five people live on land that does not legally belong to them. The UN predicts that this will rise to one in three by 2050. The future, to paraphrase Mike Davis, is not made of glass and steel, but of plastic, zinc and cardboard.
Rapid urbanization is outstripping the capacity and political will of local and national government to provide affordable housing or adequate infrastructure. This situation is heightened in middle-income countries such as South Africa, India and Brazil where cities such as Johannesburg, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro function as regional and global hubs. The urban struggle for land and housing is set to become a key area for future social change.
Cities are places of exchange – of labour, commodities, and capital. As wealth is concentrated (nationally and globally) in cities, people are pushed and pulled towards it and the relation between people and space is exposed to market dynamics.
Organising around housing, land and questions of space runs a continuum from defensive to aggressive (and sometimes both). On one hand, people who face multiple overlapping forms of oppression may be struggling simply to remain in conditions of extreme exploitation and appalling conditions. On the other, community-based struggles have the potential to create progressive democratic community-controlled spaces, forming part of the foundations for future change.
South Africa has a unique history and cultural memory of struggle and my three month visit was motivated by a desire to learn from people’s struggles for housing, post-94. In South Africa, under the previous government, the apartheid state subsidized industries (especially textiles) in rural areas in order to prevent rural/urban migration. However, in the liberalised post-94 environment, these ‘inefficient’ subsidies were scrapped meaning that many people in rural areas have moved to towns looking for work. The number of ‘informal dwellings’ in urban areas almost tripled between 1994 and 1999.
While in South Africa, I spent the majority of my time living and working with Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, but for the last few weeks I was in Cape Town, where although some of the issues are similar, the style of organising and the ideas behind it are a little different. During this time I spent around two weeks at QQ Section, staying with Mzonke Poni for ten days and spending a few more days at the crèche.
I am being driven to QQ section in Khayelitsha where the Western Cape branch of Abahlali Western Cape has recently been launched. It’s on the Cape Flats about half an hour out of town along the shack-lined N2 Freeway. Jared Sacks, who works with Abahlali and the Anti-Eviction Campaign is driving. We are listening to kwaito-house. There are large cracks in his windscreen, the result of a failed robbery. The sky is overcast and it will rain later.
Khayelitsha lies on the Cape Flats, a sprawling, crowded, former township area home to between one and two million people. The township (the name means ‘new home’) was a sites and services area established in the late 80’s under the National Party policy of encouraging Africans to leave towns with the promise of free serviced land on the periphery. The Cape Flats, unsurprisingly, are a large flat, sandy, plain stretching between Table Mountain and the mountains at Stellenbosch. In winter they are cold, windy and rain swept. The sandy soil means that the ground is often waterlogged and the flooded. The Flats are the shadow cast by wealthy, cosmopolitan, white Cape Town. The racialised concentric circles of Apartheid planning are still evident and Khayelitsha is towards the far edge of the Flats.
We take the off-ramp that curls over the freeway. There are men lined up along the road waiting for work. People are walking and standing by the road, hawking things and cleaning windscreens at the lights. The next thing I notice as we enter Khayelitsha is a large municipal sign: “This is an Urban Renewal Area”. Underneath it is a sea of zinc roofs. To the left is a large new building that looks like a community hall. (Signs to the complex indicate a visitor centre. I find out later that the hall is unusable or unaffordable for residents – perhaps the hall is designed for visitors…) Jared says that Helen Zille, Mayor of Cape Town spoke there last week, but not many people came. A man is herding cows on the patch of grass next to it.
Drivers (in South Africa generally) are hectic, especially the minibus taxis. The potholed road curves around a slight rise. There are shops lining it in places – some painted with names and brand logos. One, two-stories high, is freshly coated from top to bottom. Others are rusty, battered shacks with the hatches and grills that are standard in spaza (convenience) stores.
There are shacks that sell fruit, with bananas and oranges hanging from their awnings and more produce in baskets below them. We pass a hair salon and a mechanics. People are braaing meat in rusty metal half-drums on the pavement.
Khayelitsha’s QQ Section is an informal settlement at Site B in Khayelitsha, established in 1989 and home to about 550 families, approximately 3,000 people. Areas get one letter for ‘formal’ brick houses (e.g. Q Section) and two (e.g. QQ) for ‘informal’ shacks. The shacks that people live in are mostly made of corrugated sheets of zinc, and are densely packed together on a long thin strip of land between the brick houses of Q Section and the road.
QQ Section is on land owned by Eskom (the South African electricity company) and the shacks are built under electricity pylons known to have adverse effects on health. Ironically, despite living under pylons, people at QQ are refused access to electricity and those who can get them must rely on dangerous self-made connections.
There are no toilets at QQ Section. If people that live there know someone in a brick house they may ask to use the toilet in their yard. They might pay rent for this (c. R50 a month) or clean the toilets and dispose of the owners rubbish in exchange. People who are not able to do this have to cross the freeway to use the open land on the other side. Shacks are not allowed to be built on this land as, although it is currently empty, being reserved for ostriches.
I am told that it is not safe to go out at night, and people use plastic pots to relieve themselves. The contents are added to the shack’s container of waste water in the morning and disposed of on the road below the taps. Moving with Mzonke around Khayelitsha, I notice some rows of concrete toilets. They are often chained and padlocked. Mzonke tells me that they are called ‘powerflush’ toilets, because you must bring your own water to flush with. They are locked either because they have not been cleaned and are unusable, or because they are used by laities (youths) for robbery and gang rape.
We pull up to a car raised on bricks in need of, and in between, repairs. Trash is piled on the road behind it. Municipal refuse collection at the settlement is poor. Above the trash is a clearing in the shacks with a water standpipe. People do their washing here, and someone is filling a 20 litre plastic container with water. There are eight taps at QQ. They often get broken because of overuse and it takes a long time to get them repaired. Groups of young men are standing among the shacks and on the pavement chatting and looking over at us. We get out, climb across the rubbish, and as this part of QQ Section is about five foot above the road climb up the steep concrete bricks that buttress the sand. The shacks here are dense. We walk through them, and under an electricity pylon, saying “molweni” to the people we pass, and arrive at the crèche.
The crèche at QQ Section is an Abahlali project. AbM WC has an executive committee of seven people, a security committee, and a children’s committee which liaises with the crèche volunteers. Part of the thinking behind the crèche is that communities and movements need their own spaces to grow, form and think. The idea is also to make the movement multi-legged – to give it a number of bases through constituting it from a number of different projects aimed at different sections of the community. The crèche is part of the beginning of this process.
It was built around three months ago by the local community and hosts around 40 children between two and six years old. Residents, with the help of a small local NGO, paid for and constructed the building themselves, and then installed an environmentally friendly toilet for the children – the only toilet in the section. It cost R3,000 and they sent the bill to the city of Cape Town.
The building itself is roughly 4.5m by 6m with a corrugated zinc roof and cardboard insulating the walls. The floor is carpeted and coloured balloons hang from the ceiling. The walls display a weekly menu, daily routine and children’s names in alphabetical order. There are also pictures as well as an aerial photograph of QQ section opposite an Abahlali ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’ banner. The bookshelves contain a library that includes children’s books and novels as well as books on politics, history and development. A row of child-sized chairs lines the walls and a set of tables is in the corner. Food is prepared on a two-ring (electrical) stove. A heater is also often brought in the winter.
The crèche enables people from QQ section to leave their children somewhere safe during the day, which in turn means that they are able to look for work. The crèche is run at the moment by three volunteers working from around 7am till 4.30pm each day. There are hopes that once the relationship between parents and the full-time volunteers has been determined parents will able to contribute to the running of the space. The crèche charges a parents a fee of R40 a month.
As well as educating, entertaining and feeding children, the crèche provides a community run space that the residents can use to meet, talk and organize. The crèche is used for community meetings, Abahlali meetings, for ideas to spread and for discussion. It is part of the economy of organizing for movements to support the community that they work in. Education and conscientisation (at all ages) is also crucial in raising political awareness and critical thinking. One day, while I am there, Evelyn from the AEC occupation at Symphony Way comes to work with the kids. Watching her explain about the occupation to the children is a powerful experience.
At the crèche, Friday is ‘fun day’. The children are in fancy dress – wearing caps, berets and fantastic head-scarves. Some wear shirts, costume jewellery or older children’s clothes. Several are in drag. They play in clusters; bored, absorbed, excited, unhappy, shouting, fighting, singing and dancing. Jared has brought a friend (and her friend) to visit the crèche. He is looking for people to help him set up other crèches in other movement communities. Jared is working closely with the crèche at the time and we spend a few days here. Jared and Mzonke have laptops so we show some of the volunteers how to word-process and use spreadsheets, hopefully to be used later for crèche admin. Mzonke comes in the afternoon. He is energetic and engaging, and with typical good humour, introduces himself to me under a different name.
I arrive at QQ with my large ‘hiking bag’. Mzonke comes to the car to collect it with me. He insists on carrying it back to his place. Feeling a bit anxious I am keen to get it there (and out of sight) as quickly as possible. However, he starts a rather long shouted conversation with someone on the other side of the road, rather oddly I think. Then I realise, that (as at other shack settlements that I stayed at) he is demonstrating publicly that I am his guest. By carrying my bag and standing with me in a prominent place (by the taps, which are raised five feet above the road, and where we can be seen for a long way) he is making it clear that I am staying with him and that this is for my own protection.
Mzonke has lived in QQ Section for seven years. The first place he was living had a very high water table so that when it rained, and even sometimes when it didn’t, water would come up through the floor. The person at his current site moved his shack to another settlement elsewhere in Khayelitsha and Mzonke took his shack down and rebuilt it in the vacant space.
Mzonke takes me on a quick tour of QQ. At the western end of QQ there is a marshy area called “the Waterfront”. In the winter it doesn’t dry out and remains permanently flooded. The shack in the middle of the water is completely surrounded by water. There is another waterfront at the eastern end of QQ and we also go there. Mzonke used to live here before is current plot came free. One of the shacks in the middle of the water is abandoned, but we pass another, a foot deep in water. We greet the resident, a young mother holding her small baby. She is cooking on a gas stove. Her bed is raised on pallets and her dresser is raised on plastic crates which also form stepping stones inside the house and outside to the planks which form the path past her house.
We pass a young woman on the way to the waterfront who fails to return our greeting. When Mzonke asks her why in isiXhosa she says “andibahandi abelungu” (“I don’t like whites”). This is one of the few / only elements of hostility I encounter apart from the youths gathering as I use the cash point. Most people are friendly or indifferent. Some of the youth are less friendly. Some more so, such as the guy I meet playing pool who is at technical college learning robotics.
Mzonke’s shack is built of metal and wood – there is less natural wood on the Cape Flats and a large number of the shacks are built of corrugated zinc – relatively safer for fires but hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There are two rooms at Mzonke’s, maybe 2.5m. One with a double bed, TV, dresser, fridge, stereo, for him and his wife, the other has a TV and fridge, stove and two single beds for his daughters.
His wife has just moved to Worcester, a town about three hours by train from Cape Town, for work. She has just had their second baby, Eminathi, but her maternity leave finishes next week. Mzonke’s elder daughter is familiar from the crèche.
I sleep well at Mzonke’s, although it is cold and the roof leaks in places. Mzonke does not sleep well at QQ as I learn during the time I am there. People knock on his door day and night at any time with problems; a woman’s waters have broken and needs to be taken to the hospital, a woman is being attacked, someone has left a stove unattended – all kinds of difficulties and disputes come knocking on his door.
He usually works late into the night. I read in a newspaper that when he first started organising he received death threats and no longer sleeps at night. Around 2004/2005 the community was highly mobilised, blocking Lansdowne Road with burning tyres and fighting the police. One time they hijacked municipal vehicles and held the drivers hostage (in a friendly way, Mzonke says) in a (successful) bid to win a municipal street cleaning contract for local residents.
Saturday morning – community meeting
We are woken by a loudhailer announcing a community meeting at 9am. Community meetings happen on Saturday morning in the crèche if there are issues to discuss. Mzonke arranges translation for me. The meeting however is not a public meeting. People are initially a little surprised to see me but not unfriendly. Mzonke introduces me and I attempt to explain what I am doing there, which –as it is not study, work, or tourism but perhaps something in between – I fail to do to anyone’s satisfaction. They are however reassured that I am not working for the municipality or the newspapers. This can be a surprisingly common assumption at other times.
The meeting has to deal with some incidents that have happened in the community over the last few weeks. While crime in the Cape Flats is often dealt with by communities very swiftly with beatings, and expulsion (shacks being torn down), at QQ, disputes and crime which are not serious are attempted to be solved through community meetings and discussion.
“If you will call the police and send someone to prison,” Mzonke says “you are just building a criminal. People often don’t see the causes of crimes. If someone steals a TV and he does not have electricity and the TV is not in his house, it is not because he wants to watch TV, but because he is poor. He is poor because of the system”.
Mzonke believes in making decisions by consensus even though it takes time. Although voting is democratic, he says, it is still the majority over the minority. He admits that it is difficult if parties in a dispute fail to participate adequately in the process and although other communities would not tolerate this – “If we do not know the causes we cannot help them”.
There are no rules for this; each issue is dealt with on a case by case basis. I wonder how the cases in question will be resolved. People in Khayelitsha, many people, are fed up of crime. People are fed up of getting up at 6am to work everyday and saving money and then someone who is not working stealing their things that they have worked for.
Incidentally Mzonke tells me that umlungu (white person) is still used to refer to work and employers (regardless of race). As in “I’m going to my umlungu, do you have an umlungu? etc. In this situation of high crime, widespread poverty and frustration the first steps towards a rehabilitory, consensus-based approach to autonomous community justice are an inspiring initiative.
Saturday afternoon – Abahlali WC meeting
After the community meeting there is an Abahlali meeting. Mzonke has been working with 16 shack settlements in Khayelitsha and today’s meeting is to discuss and arrange a march on local government (at Stocks & Stocks) to demand action on the issues facing shack dwellers in Khayelitsha. Each settlement has sent a representative (sometimes two), usually community leaders. Everyone takes a turn to speak and say what issues are facing them and what they think about the proposed action.
QQ residents have been trying to meet with their local councillor for four years. They have only managed to meet him twice and believe that he is avoiding them. After working closely with the Ward Development Forum for two years, the community committee pulled out. They have seen no tangible benefit in terms of service delivery and say that the Ward Development Committee is not informed about any plans for relocation to a better area and has no influence over the process. The Ward Development Committee has listened to resident’s concerns but not taken action. Before the 2004 elections they came and promised electricity. It is now 2008 and there are no (legal) connections.
The Khayelitsha Development Forum has not been of assistance either, as the people that represent QQ section there are from the Ward Development Forum and seem unable to channel development to ward communities. KDF have been unable to control employment opportunities in Khayelitsha. They are supposed to ensure that councillors give monthly feedback, and they have organized meetings with councillors, but the KDF seem to support the councillors instead of the residents. QQ community committee no longer has direct contact with KDF.
SANCO is seen as useless and concerned more with political power and infighting. They act as a go-between between people and councillors demanding a letter be sent to them to assess the merits of the matter before meeting with councillors.
The community has received no response to letters they have sent to the Mayor’s office at Cape Town City Council. When an official did come to assess the situation the community committee was not allowed to participate in the discussions, which were with the Ward Development Forum Committee.
People are angry at the failure of the official channels, the local government neglect, and, obviously, the conditions and lack of services. One woman suggests that they march on the mayor and not the local council. A man with a long scar on his face describes being thrown out of a meeting after attacking the Ward Councillor. He seems prepared to do it again.
After the meeting we go with a friend of Mzonke’s (who I know as Promises, being unable to pronounce or remember his isiXhosa name! – Mbongeni) to visit a friend of Mzonke’s at Site C. Her sister has just had a baby. We sit down on the sofa. The walls are made of thin (5mm) chipboard and painted light blue. A religious picture hangs on the wall. A TV is playing (gospel?) in the corner. The door is open to the street and people walking past occasionally slow down as they pass to look at me.
After this we go to a tavern nearby so that I can see what it is like. On the way we pass a group of young men wearing suit-jackets and trilbies. The place is packed and spilling out onto the street. Inside there is very little room to move. A TV is showing soccer and a DJ is playing house and, later, trance on CD decks. People are drinking, dancing and talking. As usual, some people are a little surprised to see me, but everyone is cool. The place is just rammed with people on a Saturday evening having a good time. Vendors (somehow) circulate through the crowd selling sausages and fried fish. As the DJ picks up the tempo, more and more people are brought into the dancing until the whole place is moving. Still relatively early (before dark), the music stops and people start to head off. Although Site C is still in Khayelitsha we need to catch a taxi back to QQ as it is too far to walk.
The following day I take advantage of a break in the rain to do some washing before a meeting of the Children’s Committee in the afternoon. Clearly, I am not the only person with this idea; there is a queue at the tap for water, four or five people are washing clothes there and the alleys around Mzonke’s house all have laundry hung across them, flapping in the wind.
I am still impressed by the mountains which now that the sky has cleared can be seen on the horizon. Mzonke tells me that the mountains “are a capitalist thing” – if you live in Khayelitsha and are hungry, what use are they to you? Later, while I am enjoying another clear, sunny day, I realise that the weather too is “a capitalist thing”. Without space – without shelter from the elements when they are harsh, or access to places outside to enjoy them when they are clement – the weather becomes just another aspect of deprivation in a world where day-to-day existence is just one struggle after another. Abahlali’s struggle starts from these daily conditions of oppression. It is a fight by ordinary people for a world where life isn’t a fight any more. At Khayelitsha, another front is opening.