ONE of South African democracy’s most important challenges is how to turn planning problems into people with rights.
The fire which claimed nearly 80 lives in Johannesburg’s Marshalltown district was followed by reaction which showed what some politicians and much of the media really think of most people who live here. It came in various forms, but its message, in a nutshell, blamed the victims for the tragedy through which they were forced to live.
In the days after the fire, the politicians and their media supporters showed little interest in trying to find out what caused the fire. Instead, they blamed the victims for not sticking to the rules. Much of the reaction was summed up by the speaker of the Johannesburg council who scolded the victims for not obeying municipal bylaws. She complained that the city’s attempt to become world class was obstructed by the fact that it did not have world class citizens.
Inevitably, some blamed ‘foreign nationals’ even though we have not been told how many of the victims were born elsewhere – or why people who were not born here are more likely to cause fires. Building hijackers have become a favourite target. While blaming hijackers does not blame the victims themselves, it fuels a picture of the building as a scene of lawlessness where fires break out because people do not live the neat and orderly lives of suburbanites.
All this should sound familiar to anyone who has read the work of the Indian social thinker Partha Chatterjee. He writes not about flat blocks in Johannesburg but about slums in India, but there is an uncanny similarity between the official attitudes to slum dwellers which he analyses and the way in which the Marshalltown residents were labelled after the fire.
Chatterjee argues that official India harbours attitudes to dwellers which contradict each other. On the one hand, India’s constitution say that they are citizens with rights. On the other, city officials – and, no doubt, some politicians – say that they are a planning problem because they live where they are not supposed to be.
Faced with this reality, the slum dwellers and the activists who fight for their rights do what we would expect rational people to do – they draw attention to their rights because they want to be treated as people rather than problems. They also use one of their rights, the vote, to try to ensure that they are heard. This does not mean supporting a particular party in the hope that it will fight for them – instead, they take advantage of the fact that parties are competing, and so badly need votes, to get politicians to listen to slum dwellers in the hope of winning their vote.
The people in the Marshalltown block are in a similar position to the slum dwellers. Politicians, media, and some better off citizens see them as planning problems because, even if they are entitled to live in the building, they do this in a way which breaks the rules – by allowing overcrowding, for example. They also contribute to a bigger planning problem by paying rents to the building hijackers.
Of course, some in the building may be citizens of other countries and so would not be guaranteed the rights which Chatterjee’s slum dwellers enjoy. But people from elsewhere still enjoy human rights. It also seems highly unlikely that everyone in the buildings is not South African – one of the politicians complained that some came from the Eastern Cape, as though this meant that they were not entitled to rights! So the building residents are in the same boat as the slum dwellers. They have rights in theory but in practice are seen by the authorities, and many of those citizens whose views are taken seriously, as a problem.
People who live in inner city buildings are, of course, not the only ones in this country who are treated as problems – in a sense, most people are. Examples include people who live in shack settlements or are forced by homelessness to live on land where they are not meant to be. Or the many who earn their livelihoods on the streets or in back yards, not offices, shops or factories. Or those who cannot, because they lack the money, pay for public services.
But, even when they obey the rules, the two-thirds of the country who can’t rely on regular income from the formal economy are usually treated as problems, not citizens.
This was on display during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the government and everyone else responsible for protecting people from disease had seen people in the townships as citizens, they would have invited them to join a common effort to beat the virus. Instead, they treated them like problems. They assumed that people in townships and shack settlements would not do what was needed unless they were forced and so they needed to be controlled.
The result was a set of controls – bans on smoking or, at first, on buying cooked food from stores, and strict rules limiting when people could leave their homes – which were resented by everyone but were all designed, according to the government ministers who introduced them, to control people in townships and shack settlements because they would, it was claimed, spread disease if they were not restricted. This attitude created a climate in which the police used violence against citizens, claiming that they were breaking the rules.
The same attitudes continue. People who receive social grants are labelled a problem despite evidence that they use them to build local economies. Municipalities, often at the behest of formal businesses, treat street traders not as business people but as a public menace. Nor are they restricted to the government – suburban voters have, for years, berated the rest of the country for ‘slavishly’ voting for the governing party even though there is far more party competition in the townships than in the suburbs.
From Problems To Citizens
It should be obvious that reducing most citizens to problems is not a democratic view.
In democracies, everyone is meant to have an equal say, wherever they live and whatever they earn. And everyone is meant to be a citizen, not a problem. As long as most South Africans are treated as problems, most people will still be deprived of the say which democracy promises them. And democracy here will continue to work very well for the one-third who complain about it but not for the rest whose view on all topics is ignored.
How, then, might the millions who are seen as planning problems become citizens? The short, but accurate, answer is that they need to organise. Democracy offers everyone a say in theory. But people only enjoy a say in practice if they organise – if they get together with others who share their concerns and work together to make sure that their voice is heard.
Well-off people find it easy to organise, for everyone else it is a struggle strewn with obstacles. This is why so many people are not heard. But apartheid would not have been defeated without organisation and working people would never have won rights in their workplace without it. And so the ‘planning problems’, some of whom live in inner city buildings, will become citizens when they are organised enough to force everyone to hear them. As hard as organising is for the people who are treated as problems, this country’s history shows that it is possible.
Is there anything which those who want a stronger democracy can do to encourage this? Some are already helping – the public interest lawyers and non-governmental organisations who were denounced after the fire by those who see citizens as problems precisely because they help to enforce the rights of those who are not heard. People who are not lawyers or activists can help by demanding that the right of the people who are treated as problems to organise must be protected.
In places where people live in poverty, the political rights which the suburbs enjoy are often denied because local power holders don’t like threats to their power and so they use violence to protect their turf when people do organise. If we want democracy for all, we need to hear the same outcries when shack dweller or township activists are beaten or killed as we hear when the suburbs believe they have been treated unfairly.
There is also a role for everyone in challenging the attitudes which relegate so many to ‘planning problems.’ This means, among other things, insisting that, when the ‘problems’ are spoken about, they are also heard. And that governments, the media and those who influence the debate on politics and policy, have no right to claim that they are serious about democracy unless they are willing to hear, and learn from, the majority.
All of this would be a start on what is sure to be a difficult task – ensuring that everyone here is a citizen with rights and no-one is a planning problem.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the University of Johannesburg, faculty of humanities, politics department, and writes in his personal capacity.