Our urban land pages have been filled with the struggles of people living in townships and informal settlements during the pandemic. One of the controversial state responses to Covid 19 has been to propose the ‘thinning’ of densely settled areas in a bid to slow the speed of community viral transmission. These plans have been met with scepticism by residents of informal settlements who argued that such measures, taken without adequate consultation, would meet with resistance and be destined for failure.
A group of civil society organisations have provided a critique of the proposed de-densification of informal settlements as a crisis response to Covid-19 which they characterised as “bad short-term thinking”. (Daily Maverick 20 April 2020). The organisations argued that:
Focusing significant resources on only 29 selected settlements for de-densification/TRAs is highly problematic…Covid-19 impacts on all informal settlements and hence the short-term responses for protecting informal settlers from Covid-19 risk must be fairly distributed across all informal settlements. The provision and maintenance of basic services, communication, social learning and behaviour change support, the provision of medical care through testing and well-located field hospitals, and food relief can be rolled out at scale across all informal settlements in the country.
Meanwhile, despite an injunction in the Covid-19 regulations to cease with evictions, several metros proceeded to demolish shacks in informal settlements and eject people from abandoned buildings occupied in the inner city.
The shack dwellers organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo reported facing violence, evictions and demolitions at the hands of the eThekwini municipality, but according to the Durban Mayor “Covid-19 does not mean that there must be a holiday in respecting the laws of the country”. In the eThekwini case the courts validated the position taken by the Durban council, declaring their demolitions and evictions to be legal in the Ekuphumleni, Marianhill and the Azania settlements in Cato Manor.
However, in a recent evictions case carried out by the City of Johannesburg, the court found that the city had acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally. In Cape Town, the City demolished structures in Makhaza, claiming that they were not evicting people but demolishing uninhabited structures which had been erected on a speculative basis.
Numerous stories published in GroundUp chronicle the battle between community activists and law enforcement agencies in Khayelitsha. In one story (GroundUp 11 April 2020) it was reported on how a land occupation was a direct result of the Covid-19 lockdown. As the incomes of tenants occupying backyard shacks in the township have dried up, so they have been illegally evicted by the property owners to make way for those who can afford to pay rent. With nowhere to go, people opted for building shacks on unoccupied municipal land.
In what some have characterised as a return to the ANC versus DA political playbook the Minister of Human Settlements vowed to get to the bottom of illegal evictions in Khayelitsha. More important perhaps is the action taken by the Legal Resources Centre which has taken the City of Cape Town to court to prevent further demolition of shacks and eviction of residents from Empolweni in Khayelitsha (IOL 15 April 2020). Actions by municipalities and law enforcement agencies across the country prompted civil society to write to the President expressing concern over the treatment of poor people in South Africa during lockdown (Radio 702 15 April 2020).
On 17 April IOL carried a story entitled Families watch in horror as City of Joburg demolishes their homes. The article carries a photograph of a front-end loader destroying a house built of bricks and mortar, complete with a tiled roof in Lawley, after the council alleged that the land on which the houses had been built had been illegally occupied. In response to criticism of the demolitions the City stated that “criminal syndicates” were using the current national lockdown “to invade open spaces and land”.
When asked whether the city had a court order to evict the Lawley residents, Joburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane reissued the statement quoted above without answering the questions.
This led Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to stress once again that evictions are illegal during lockdown, condemning the evictions of people from informal settlements by the City of Joburg and the Red Ants in Gauteng.
An important piece by Lauren Royston and Maanda Makwarela (Daily Vox 15 April 2020) has drawn attention to the need to find long lasting solutions for South Africa’s informal settlement residents. The authors from the Socio Economic Rights Institute (SERI), highlight how urban land has not featured on the land reform agenda to date. They unpack the systemic constraints which render poor township and informal settlement dwellers largely invisible to state services and protection.
Approximately 60% of people living in South Africa do not have the benefits that access to the formal property system is meant to confer. For the majority of people therefore, your rights and claims are not recorded… Our policies do not even possess the language to describe these “off-register” arrangements which people have made in the absence of private sector delivery and inadequate state provision. Without recognition, access to water, sanitation and refuse removal are constrained because municipal systems of billing, taxation and land use cannot “see” you. As a result, you lack the protections that the system confers: against eviction (whether market, state or familial); locally unwanted land uses; environmentally unsound services which threaten your health and safety; crime, violence and abuse; fire and, as we now anticipate, disease.
The authors provide concrete recommendations for strategic responses in both the short and longer term which draw on the as yet unimplemented recommendations from the reports of the High Level Panel and the Presidential Advisory Panel. Royston and Makwarela see the pandemic as an opportunity:
As crisis measures are planned and implemented, an opportunity also exists to ensure that those people most affected are never again ignored, invisibilised or unrecognised because they are poor.