Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life- Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 34: 1965
Every now and then during my 5 year, all expenses paid for vacation at Rhodes University, I would be shaken by a course. It would shift my paradigm and change my reaction to certain future events or haunt my conscience. One of these courses was Politics 201 by Richard Pithouse. The essay question I chose to answer was “Are squatters a threat to the city”. I hadn’t thought about the essay for a while until this past week.
Not to gloat but I was at a 4 star wine estate in Kuilsrivier (Cape Town), eating to my hearts content, mixing with NGO leaders and engaging in a vibrant rule of law debate. It was nothing short of glorious until we drove into the Cape Flats for a seminar at a sexual violence centre called Thuthuzele. The essay I wrote 4 years ago once again became relevant. On the way to and from the hub of luxury and comfort we passed squatter camps that spanned for a distance further than I could fathom.
The revised and shorter version of the essay goes as follows:
Are the people living on the outskirts of the city a threat or danger to thriving towns? Squatter camps are typically located on the edge of urban spaces such Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban in South Africa. They are characterised by rundown housing, overcrowding, poverty, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation and constant insecurity. Perhaps this is made even more obvious because they are en route to cities with space, strong buildings, efficient government services and access to private healthcare, education, transport and security.
Judging from the way government and the upper-crust members of society exclude squatters, it’s easy to conclude that indeed; squatters are a danger to city dwellers. They are viewed as a disease to tourism, investment and economic growth and the general consensus is that they should be rooted out, they are a fundamental or structural problem. God forbid we see reality as it is; instead lets cloak it and divert funds to building a stadium we’ll never use again and when ‘they’ contest this- we’ll beat them!
In the course of eviction, squatters often turn to violence to use it as a defence against aggressive police behaviour, denied permits to protest or little media attention. Forced removals increase the feeling of domination and oppression over squatters. The 7 o’clock news will show footage of a possessed mob, composed of drunk or irrational men and women but never has it been reported that both privileged and underprivileged realise that there exists a need for change.
It’s easy to forget that within those endless rows of plastic, tin and wood are women who have travelled from the rural areas to live with their husbands as a family or that someone is running a crèche for young children out of their home and that there are entrepreneurs profiting from their “spaza” shops. Others live envious of city life, hoping to find employment and a better way of life. But the imposed reflection of squatters typifies them as “a sort of quintessence of evil” who lack values and ethics and are therefore a threat (Fanon 33:1965).
If you are choosing a different route to work to avoid the rows of poverty, who is investigating the truth about the lives of squatters? The Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement began in 2005 (. It serves to protect the needs of squatters and expose those who violate their rights. When squatters are being subjected to attempts of illegal eviction, toxic dumping and threats of violence form landlords and police, they retaliate. This is a group of people who do not retaliate because they view the government as some sort of commonwealth organisation but because they do not accept poverty as their fate.
The lack of information surrounding the needs of squatters is a reflection of city dwellers ignorance towards their plight. Squatters maybe a structural problem conflicting with the thriving personality of cities but they are certainly not a threat to the city. This perception is a manifestation of rumours, propaganda and the boundaries we’ve built for ourselves.
As Andy Warhol once commented on American popular societies in the 1960’s: familiarity breeds indifference. In a similar vein, the real threat to the city is familiarity, ignorance and ill-informed opinions that blur the true issue- a need for change.Ps. Follow me on Twitter @PhakamaniLisa