There is much talk that we will soon need to be framing our references to societal dynamics as pre-Covid and post-Covid. Economic uncertainly coupled with concerns around poor governance make this one of the most difficult periods for South Africa since 1994.
The unemployment bloodbath is set to worsen and evictions continue to be a huge problem, especially in a city like Durban. During the peak of the Covid 19 pandemic we witnessed several evictions against shack dwellers around the country; each time accompanied by gratuitous state violence. Unfortunately lock down was used as a cover to mount a sustained attack on the city’s most vulnerable residents.
There is a massive move towards the cities in SA, and indeed across the world. In a context where we now talk about cities with slums as opposed to getting rid of slums, we know from a 2018 report by the NGO, SERI that one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks. Each time we witness the eviction of shack dwellers across our cities, city authorities argue that the shacks were unoccupied. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth but it allows them to escape legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people, according to Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI. Evictions in SA are not new. But the brutality of a post-apartheid state shocks many.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has been hit particularly hard with informal settlements affiliated to the movement being attacked several times in the last few months. There have been serious injuries and anger is at boiling point. It would be no surprise if the movement’s members felt that under the circumstances, they have no option but to return to the streets in their thousands.
Although the poor are always more vulnerable to any health crisis, we are all, rich and poor, vulnerable to Covid-19. We are all lucky that, unlike Donald Trump, we have a president who did well throughout our crisis to take medical science seriously and appointed the best doctors in the country to plan and manage our response to this crisis.
But lockdown has meant fundamentally different things for the middle-class and for the poor. There are people in the middle classes who face the loss of jobs or businesses and a real decline in their economic situation. But for many, the lockdown is (was) largely just a matter of enduring a set of manageable frustrations. But for poor people, who often have no savings and can’t eat if they don’t work, the lockdown is (mainly was) a very different situation. Hunger places people in a desperate situation. The attacks on their already precarious homes radically compound the desperation.
At the same time as hunger is pushing people into deeper and deeper desperation and the evictions that we witnessed at various points during the lockdown posed a serious threat to the fragile social fabric of our society.
Shack dwellers are often among the poorest in a city like Durban and it is absolutely vital that the national government ensure that no further evictions mar our political landscape; even as we prepare to enter level 1 of our lockdown in South Africa.
A research report by the Church Land Program (CLP) suggests that over 900 people’s shacks have been illegally demolished in the Durban area in a period of two months during the lockdown. It would seem that shack dwellers were targeted during a period of evictions and demolitions.
The report makes mention of the fact that during the month of April a security company ‘violently attacked the eKhenana settlement in Cato Crest by firing live ammunition at unarmed people, destroying homes, stealing possessions as well as subjecting residents to abuse’. This is said to have followed an interdict that the 109 families in eKhenana successfully secured in February 2019 from the Durban High Court against the illegal evictions occurring. In the city of Durban the eThekwini Anti-Land Invasion Unit issues orders for these evictions. According to the Church Land Program (CLP) report several companies have been contracted to help the city and these include private security companies like Calvin and Family Security Services.
Speaking to the CLP, one member of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit maintains that “We did demolishments in eKhenana maybe two months ago. We were issued with a court interdict that says people must not continue building because it’s a settlement that’s already there. So people were taking advantage.”
“The men in blue, carrying axes, came inside and demanded that I leave. I was woken up by the noise and, as some had axes, I began packing my belongings and watched as they broke down my home piece by piece,” Sipho Sithole told a New Frame journalist and several other members of the media.
One advantage that shack dwellers have in a city like Durban is that often academics and other civil society activists come to their aid and take progressive positions in the national conversation. We learn from the CLP report that Professor Bernhard Gaede, the Head of Department for Family Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), said that evictions and demolitions in the context of poverty have “a compound effect”. According to this academic “the chronic exposure of violence, both by state organs and within the community creates a particularly harsh context for people who are living in poverty and whose daily actions of survival are routinely de-legitimized and de-humanized.”
It is worrying that across many of our cities evictions continue even though they are unlawful without a court order under the Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation Land Act 19 of 1998.
As we enter level one there is a huge concern that evictions will escalate again. Even though the lockdown is being eased, the full effects of the loss of jobs have not been felt yet.
The Housing rental tribunals, statutory bodies that mediate between tenants and landlords in rental disputes, have also seen cases escalate in recent weeks. According to a recent Mail & Guardian report, in Gauteng, the tribunal has received 268 cases since April, in the Western Cape 460 and, not surprisingly, 1 149 cases are before the tribunal in KZN. It would no doubt be worrying if the tribunal found in favor of the landlords in many of these cases.
However, while KZN might be in the spotlight for evictions in the context of Covid 19, we do need to note that with the help of some great NGOs, KZN did well to deal with the crisis of hunger amongst the poor, in the early part of the lockdown. And the state was impressively effective in its rapid roll-out of water to informal settlements that had previously not had access to water.
Along with the urgent need to stop evictions and to provide food to the hungry, there is a third imperative that must be taken seriously if we are to come out of this lockdown without the stain of another massacre on our national conscience: The national government needs to take decisive action against the brutal forms of policing that often generate anger and turn people against the state.
To his credit, President Cyril Ramaphosa has explicitly stated that the police and the army should see their role as offering social assistance in this crisis and that they should not collapse into brutality. But over the recent months, social media has been awash with images and videos of police brutality. Anger is running high and there is a real risk of serious conflict.
Ramaphosa needs to be encouraged to act decisively against members of the police service who have been shown to have participated in the abuse and violence of ordinary people during the pandemic. Quick and decisive action will go a long way to restoring popular confidence in the state, and to reduce the risk of a breakdown in consent for the lockdown.
Plans are afoot to relax lockdown rules even further. This makes sense in light of the reduced infections but if the issues of hunger, evictions, and police brutality are not addressed, we could see some real social conflict in the near future.
The same level of expertise and the same degree of commitment that has been brought to the medical aspects of the current crisis now need to be brought in to resolve the questions of hunger, stop the evictions and stop the police brutality. The situation is urgent, and time and tide do not wait for bumbling bureaucracies.
Dr. Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.