||Above a brightly coloured marquee a South African flag dances proudly in
the afternoon breeze. Is this marquee on the hillside set up for a
function, a political rally, perhaps? No, indeed. This green, blue,
yellow and red symbol of nationalism stands ands guard over the home of
Raman in Crossmoor's informal shack dwellers settlement in Unit 11 of
Chatsworth on Durban's south side. Even on the best of days life in the
shack settlement is a tenuous existence, not to mention when the rains
set in and wash out the earthen floors or the wind picks up and whips
mercilessly at the plastic flaps of the marquee. And despite the
patriotic fervor of its resident, the South African state has been less
than accommodating, and in fact downright antagonistic towards him and
his neighbors in the shack settlement.
What began as a few shacks scattered on the hillside has grown in the
last three years into an informal settlement housing more than 300
families. Unable to find housing elsewhere, this settlement became a
(hopefully temporary) stopover of last resort for these families. Then,
in 2006, an already precarious existence became even more so when life
was interrupted by the municipality that had previously turned a blind
eye to their plight. The land was earmarked for the development of
middle-income housing and suddenly the shack dwellers presence would no
longer be tolerated. In an effort to clear the residents, the eThekwini
municipality sicced Land Invasion on the settlement and filed a legal
application to evict the settlers. Crossmoor resident Doris Naidoo
recalls how Land Invasion came bringing merciless destruction: emptying
shacks of belongings and foodstuffs, waking the sleeping children as
they demolished the only home some of them had ever known.
But the residents of the informal settlement refused to take it lying down.
They rebuilt their homes time and time again and with the help of the
Legal Resource Center filed a counter application against the city.
After stewing for more than two years in the bowels of the legal system,
the city's eviction application against the Crossmoor residents was due
to have its day in court on 23 September. The shack dwellers were
poised and ready for one last courtroom battle, but in an eleventh hour
settlement the municipality decided to withdraw its application.
Struggle for shelter
Unfortunately, forced evictions and the struggle for shelter are nothing
new in Chatsworth. Just down the road and across the Higginson Highway
are the Unit 3 Westcliff flats. In 1998, the municipality began a
campaign of forced evictions against residents whose apartheid-era
arrears where being used as excuse to clear them from their homes. In
Westcliff, the community rose up against the state's injustice, facing
teargas and rubber bullets along the way. For more than 10 years, the
Westcliff Flat Dwellers association has been tirelessly engaging with
local government and they have much to show for it – a moratorium on
evictions, success fighting water and electricity cut-offs, as well as
the current upgrading of the flats.
What's the secret to success in Chatsworth? The answer could be a
combination of three elements:
Collective spirit and identity - In the face of adversity, the
plural community in the Westcliff Flats came together in a fight that
crossed race, religion, age, and gender lines fighting under the adage
'we are the poors.'
Accessing and utilizing political and legal resources - The support and guidance of activists/academics such as Professor Fatima
Meer and Dr. Ashwin Desai have been integral in devising plans to struggle and engage with local government.
Sustained community organization - From the days of the first evictions ten years ago, tireless organizing has been led by community
advocate Orlean Naidoo and her husband, Pinkey along with a committed group of community members-cum-activists. The community holds a regular resident's forum for voicing concerns as well as community activities
such as the weekly feeding scheme and the yearly Diwali function.
The same elements that brought and continue to bring success in
Westcliff are also present in Crossmoor. The sense of community
necessary to fight collectively received an ironic boost from the
municipality's original efforts to demolish it when the residents came
together to lend a hand in rebuilding the shacks, sewing the seeds for
the collective fight against insecurity and injustice. The residents of
the informal settlement have also had the advantage of being able to
take note of the successes in Westcliff as they engage the municipality.
In addition, support from the Legal Resources Center has been invaluable
in the fight.
The way forward
There is no rest for the weary, however. What's the next step? "A
house," answer the residents, with breathy excitement. Now that their
legal right to occupy the land has been confirmed, the residents are
setting themselves to the task of replacing the precarious shacks with
decent, permanent housing. Secure housing, sanitation, electricity and
access to water are now probable goals. Energized and empowered by
their impressive success engaging with government in legal battles, the
community organization of residents is poised to continue the fight.
They are now in the process of garnering support from academics and
Hopefully, one day soon, Raman's South African flag will be flying over
a proper house. Perhaps then, his patriotism will seem at least a bit
Rebecca Hinely, a visiting scholar at UKZN's Centre for Civil Society, is also a Georgetown University post-graduate student.