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Publication Details

Reference
Ballard, Richard (2009) Give up on 'slum eradication', for now . Eye on Civil Society : -.

Summary
The language of slum eradication promotes overzealous eviction programmes that put some vulnerable people in a worse position than before.

In April 2006, the then KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Housing and Local Government Mike Mabuyakhulu tabled The Slums Act. The provincial legislation aimed to eradicate shack settlements in KZN by 2010.

In Section 16, the MEC is empowered to compel land owners to evict unlawful occupiers. The approach was adopted by other provinces.

The Slums Act was challenged by a social movement of shack dwellers, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Early this month, the Constitutional Court agreed with Abahlali that Section 16 was unconstitutional.

Since this finding guts the Act, the provincial government must now go back to the drawing board. It is a good time to reflect on the very idea of ‘slum eradication’ or what housing minister Tokyo Sexwale calls ‘slum elimination’.

The advent of democracy promised housing for all. This laudable objective was intended to correct the gross injustices of the past in which most people were excluded from the right to a normal life in South Africa’s cities.

We now have one of the most advanced house-building programmes in the world. A vast bureaucracy and construction sector is minting great numbers of low cost houses. Many lives have been greatly improved as a result of this process and many hopes remain pinned to it.

Policy-makers assume that by building enough houses, the state can work through the backlog of people waiting in shack settlements. The goal is to do this by 2014. But what is now apparent, is that no matter how fast we build houses, the backlog is not reducing.

In 2004, 23% of households in South Africa’s nine largest municipalities still did not have access to formal shelter. The most serious study to date, published this year, estimates that even if the housing budget is doubled, we would only overcome the backlog by 2030.

Many middle class people think that shack settlements are some parallel universe, a notion parodied in the film District 9. They are often seen as dirty, revolting and ‘alien’ to modern urban life.

Planners and policy-makers in contexts ranging from nineteenth century Britain to post-independence developing countries have sought to eradicate shacks, as if they were wild fires that have to be extinguished, or diseases to be cured.

Instead of seeing them as dysfunctional and threatening, we should acknowledge that shacks are the inevitable outcome of poor people’s attempts to survive in a highly unequal and exploitative society.

Shacks are not simply a problem of the housing sector. They cannot be targeted for eradication until we eradicate their causes: poverty, inequality, unemployment and labour exploitation. And while the objective of eradicating shacks is not bad in principle, it can be detrimental in a context where these causes remain firmly in place.

For at least five reasons, the language and policies of slum eradication are potentially harmful.

First, many who are relocated from shacks to low-cost houses find themselves worse off because their new houses are a long distance from their current livelihood opportunities. People surviving off R1500 or so a month simply cannot absorb an increase in their transport costs.

Second, when evictions take place, many people living in shacks are made homeless. Generally it is only a shack owner who is given a low-cost house when settlements are evicted. Tenants who were living with the shack owner are not accommodated. Shacks might not be adequate, but they are better than sleeping in the bush.

Third, local governments do not always follow the procedure set out in the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act, which requires the provision of a court order in advance of evictions. Without a court order, evicted people are not given proper opportunity to consider their legal options, as provided for under the Act.

Fourth, as long as shacks are in limbo, awaiting eviction, government holds back on service provision and residents hold back from investing in their own living environments. So while many people have been living in shacks for a generation or more, they do not have good access to water, sanitation and electricity and have little infrastructure for managing emergencies such as fire and crime.

Fifth, people evicted from shack settlements are increasingly being moved to transit camps rather than to new low-cost homes. These tend to be corrugated-metal barrack-like structures now springing up around many cities, hardly an advance on conditions in shack settlements. Those moved to transit camps often have no idea what their final destination is going to be. Neither is there a time limit to their stay and there is a danger that people will be languishing there for many years.

We can surely all agree that a slum-free society and 'housing for all' are great ideals. However the language of slum eradication might promote overzealous eviction programmes that make vulnerable people worse off than before.

Shacks are certainly not great environments for our fellow citizens to live in. But while they wait for low-cost housing, there is much that can be done to more positively support the lives of shack dwellers. We should take more seriously policies in Latin America that provide comprehensive services to slums and even offer tenure to those who wish to remain and improve their own structures.

It is paramount in a democratic South Africa that people affected by development strategies should themselves have the primary say in their own futures.

The needs of the poor should not come second to the achievement of some abstract notion of what a developed city should look like.

Richard Ballard is a senior lecturer in the School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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