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By Nduduzo Majozi (PhD candidate and holds a SARChi Chair Scholarship at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape)

The local government in Ekurhuleni has continued to repress residents in an effort to prevent them from exercising their right to access land. This right remains little more than a dream here, as in many parts of South Africa. 

Access to land is a fundamental human right which has been established in large part to ensure that the poor are able to occupy and utilize land. This right is endorsed by the country’s most sacrosanct legal documents. It is listed in the Constitution of 1996 and protected by the Bill of Rights, Section 25(5), which places a responsibility on the government to take actions to broaden access to land on an equitable basis.

In the community of Vusumuzi in Thembisa, Ekurhuleni Local Municipality has been relocating residents from an area called eDampini behind Batch Acres Mall. As a result, this area has become a site of violence, community protests and contests over land allocated to residents. Ironically, “Vusumuzi”, which means “build a house” in isiZulu, has become a new center for official efforts to deny citizens a place to build homes.

Many residents in the area have suffered state-organized violence, under which para-military forces and repression have been deployed to oust land occupiers – which also used to take place under apartheid. The government-sponsored repression against landless occupants has resulted to injuries, deaths, and distraction of many homes. Recently, a resident in his thirties was shot in the leg by armed municipal security officials operating in the area.

As the state-led repression persists, local land and housing activists, including 41-year-old Melita Ngcobo and Musa Nonkwelo, have reportedly been targeted by the Ekurhuleni armed security force. Both belong to the nationwide Abahlali BaseMjondolo shack-dwellers movement which was founded in 2005. 

Although Abahlali organizers note that none of the movement’s members have so far been killed at Vusumuzi, they are fearful in the context of the significant losses suffered more widely across the country by the organization – including the assassination of three of their leaders at eKhenana outside Durban, in three separate incidents this year.  Ngcobo says that 23 of the movement’s activists have been killed since January 2020 in other occupations around South Africa.

The space-community nexus: Whose definition counts?

The open piece of land behind Batch Acres Mall which is at the center of the present contestation has for decades been used by informal traders, vendors and craft-makers during the weekends. Recently, these users have been targeted by municipal officials who claim the land has been reserved for important community events.

This begs the question: whose community? After all, aren’t these traders and craftspeople an integral part of the community? In fact, the local community comprises individuals renting space, some young people seeking employment and a significant number of workers, most of whom are employed on a casual basis in factories and the informal sector.

Making local demands known

The main demand of local residents is that they should continue to enjoy access to a piece of land which is lying fallow next to their community. They have also highlighted their need for a reliable supply of clean drinking water, functioning sanitation infrastructure and proper roads.

Magugu, a man in his forties, moved to nearby Lindelani settlement in Thembisa in 2009 and describes his struggle to establish a home: “I used to squat with my brother-in-law in a neighbouring settlement in Vusumuzi’s Riverside Section.

“I lived under very poor conditions due to flooding and, worst of all, our shack was built under a high-voltage electrical pylon. It took me between six and seven years to get out of there, and you can imagine what it must have been like living there with my daughter who is studying nearby at Masisebenze High School.”

After a long silence, Magugu pauses for thought before describing how a number of local residents have gamed the system, leading to inequitable distribution of land and housing: “In some cases, a single resident owns up to four plots. Does this seem fair or considerate to you?” 

Magugu talks of how residents double-dip, exploiting gaps in the system for allocating RDP housing. RDP beneficiaries rent out housing units they have already been allocated while also applying for new RDP houses elsewhere, he claims. 

Such systemic abuse indicates that the present land and housing crisis cannot be resolved by the mere provision of RDP houses. Issues of poverty alleviation, environmental justice and ecological sustainability should also be addressed. And all this points us to one solution- fair and equitable provision of land, particularly to the poor working class.

Equitable access to land may best be guaranteed by doing away with the current redundant housing policies like RDP, Informal Settlements Upgrading Programme (SITU Upgrading) and the likes which represses residents by asking them to wait passively for the distant dream of an RDP house, and in pursuit of an imagined idea of “modern society”. The alternative which is desperately needed is a radical new land policy that actually empowers urban residents. One example of such radical policy is the proposed ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ in order to redistribute land more rapidly.

Creating a new urban reality through ‘ubuhlalism’?

Abahlali BaseMjondolo is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces in the community of Vusumuzi and elsewhere in the area, aiming to unite shack-dwellers, landless people and poor urban residents in an effort to address the present urban crisis as this is made manifest in terms of the inadequate provision of housing, land and basic services. 

In June this year, Sbu Zikode, a leader of this movement, addressed the launch of a new branch of the movement in Germiston, which Vusumuzi residents attended. 

“Before asserting our material demands, we need to first humanize ourselves and the only way of doing this is through a continued conscientizing process,” he said. 

“Humanism is built and it can be destroyed. Coexistence is what makes humanity possible and no man or woman can be human or umhlali by themselves; for no man is an island. 

“By joining Abahlali movement, you pledge to be a better human, a better husband or wife, a better sibling or parent. Therefore, as we call for basic services and material things, we must also redefine who we are and what we stand for.”

Zikode also warned fellow movement activists that they should not become involved in intra-class conflicts and fall into the trap of promoting xenophobia. 

“In the face of rife xenophobic sentiments in our country, we must also stand with those who are suffering in the African spirit of ubuntu.  A nation built on kindness, dignity, and respect is what we aim for. In our movement, we do not have foreigners or kwere-kweres. We must treat everyone as brothers and sisters.” 

In other words, in a class struggle, it is essential to fight any emerging internal divisions among the poor and working class. 

In concluding, Zikode addressed the issue of power, noting that “the rulers of the country are not in the Union Buildings”. 

We are the rulers and that is why they always come back to us as ‘good-boys’ after two years to seek our votes,” he said.

Yet, being a citizen in a democracy means more than just voting. “We must ask critical questions: like here at Ekurhuleni, there are funds allocated for housing and land, so where does that money go?”

The Right to the City: Beyond the urban politics of contestation

A city is far more than just concrete walls and mortar. It cannot be reduced to the status of an object, nor can its worth solely be understood in terms of exchange values or market forces. The life of a city includes that of its society –  one cannot exist without the other. In the city, urban space is necessary for the existence of the people living there.

So, where exactly does this leave the urban poor who survive on minimal wages without the capital to trade and facing little or no employment? The answer is: nowhere, unless the unjust centralisation of capital in urban society is addressed and new policies are put in place to make urban resources more sustainable and redistribute them on the basis of need rather than as a function of market relations and exchange values.  

All pictures taken by Nduduzo Majozi on 26 June 2022