R42-billion Durban shack dweller shame

Anger in the largest organisation of militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa.

To put it bluntly, the eThekwini Municipality is deep in shit. Shack dwellers from its 569 informal settlements (which comprise about 238,000 households) are growing increasingly angry as they wait for basic services and housing. But it will take more than R42 billion “excluding inflation, and excluding any improvements to the current housing typology” to provide shelter for those households. Durban’s entire annual budget for 2017/2018 is R45bn.

eThekwini’s shack dwellers are in even more shit that their municipality. They have to wade through it –  often ankle-deep – on a regular basis, use plastic shopping packets as toilets, and watch as rats and cockroaches crawl over their sleeping children – children who have to play in areas strewn with loose live wires from illegal electrical connections. Electrocutions are not uncommon.

The target of the shack dwellers’ wrath is newly elected Durban Mayor Zandile Gumede of the ANC, who inherited a decades-long cauldron of crap, courtesy of her party.

But, as is the way of politicians, Gumede also targeted shack dwellers before last year’s local government elections with sweet promises, none of which she has fulfilled. This is the view of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers’ movement which describes itself as “the largest organisation of the militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa”.

Animosity between the political parties flared up in and around Durban’s squalid settlements in June and July when Abahlali members upped the tempo with several sporadic and purportedly unplanned protests.

“[We voted for] Zandile Gumede after a series of discussions with her where she made a number of promises to Abahlali membership,” said S’bu Zikode, AbM founder and elected president, who is a resident of Durban’s notorious Kennedy Road informal settlement.

“She also apologised on behalf of her political party and the previous administration for treating Abahlali so badly in the past, and committed herself and the city to work with Abahlali,” Zikode told Noseweek

Abahlali baseMjondolo members during a protest at Durban's City Hall in late June

Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has branches countrywide, claims a membership of 35,000 in KwaZulu-Natal alone. In July, its first branch was opened in Mpumalanga.  Branches are established when 50-or-more people sign up for Abahlali membership.

Noseweek was told that the organisation is widely regarded as the only one genuinely concerned with shack-dwellers’ rights rather than party politics. But satisfying even the most basic needs of shack dwellers is proving difficult for Gumede, who by now is publicly dubbed “The Mayor of Lies” by Abahlali – and referred to that way in their statements.

Abahlali founder and president, S'bu Zikode, testifying before the Moerane Commission investigating political killings in KwaZulu-Natal in July

At first, Abahlali “liked Gumede very much”, Zikode told Noseweek, especially because she was Durban’s first female mayor and people believed that “her heart will always be prioritised to the poor”. Now, the organisation says the mayor is too quick to sit back while members of the much-loathed and feared Land Invasions Unit, and police, are sent to clear out shack dwellers occupying municipal land burn their makeshift homes and meagre possessions – even their clothing – dduring evictions.

On 27 July Abahlali was granted an interdict against the municipality, restraining it from “demolishing, burning, removing or otherwise destroying and disposing of the informal housing structures… or from threatening to do so,” in seven city settlements that Abahlali claims are regular targets.

eThekwini says that the court order prohibits the city from evicting anyone in the respective areas. It says there was an undertaking that “the applicants would not build structures during the verification period”.

“This order was granted under the premise that the City was evicting people, which we do not do. The City will defend this allegation after the verification exercise has been done. Meanwhile, eThekwini’s Land Invasion Unit is mandated to stop and discourage people who attempt to illegally occupy land, and will continue to do so.” 

The city is due to defend its case in court on 1 September.

Mayor Gumede’s predecessor, James Nxumalo, faced the same problems, said Abahlali’s Zikode. He described Nxumalo as “a gentleman who was open to engaging Abahlali”. Factional divides within the municipality had had the effect of tying Nxumalo’s hands, said Zikode.

It was during Nxumalo’s term of office that 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza was shot and killed by police on 30 September 2013 in Cato Crest, the scene of regular flare-ups over the years.

“The protest that she was participating in had been organised by residents of the Marikana Land Occupation after repeated evictions, always illegal and often violent,” said Zikode.

“Nqobile was the third person to lose her life in the struggle for land and against repression from the ruling party and the state, in Cato Crest in 2013. Thembinkosi Qumbelo, who was president of the Cato Crest Residential Association, was gunned down in a tavern on 15 March 2013, and Nkululeko Gwala, a prominent member of Abahlali, was murdered on 26 June 2013,” Zikode said in a statement.

The police admitted shooting Nzuza, but said it was done in self-defence. The SAPS officer who shot her was found guilty in July this year and will appear for sentencing on 9 October.

The shack-dweller “challenge” now rests with Mayor Gumede, a Zuma loyalist and self-proclaimed “pro-poor” mayor who recently made known that the city had purchased four Casspirs at a cost of R19.9 million from Denel for “crowd control” purposes.

The city said that it was primarily the safety needs of security personnel that had prompted the purchase, although Noseweek was unable to get a clear answer about what criteria, if any, were used to determine the need for military vehicles.

A deposit of R7m was made to Denel, with the remainder to be paid upon delivery of the other three vehicles, expected in September. One vehicle was mysteriously delivered in July but the city would offer no comment on the surprise package.

The purchases left Abahlali “outraged” and suspicious that shack dwellers would be the main targets of the apartheid-era vehicles. They are probably right.

In May, a two-week-old baby, Jayden Khoza, died at the Foreman Road informal settlement during clashes between police and residents after yet another service-delivery protest had soured.

Abahlali said police punched shack dwellers and used rubber bullets, batons and teargas during the confrontation. Police, in turn, accused the shack dwellers of attacking them with stones and other items. 

In a scene so heart-wrenching that it could have been scripted in Hollywood, the baby’s mother walked with the corpse to a nearby police station on the day of Jayden’s death. At the funeral, the colours of Abahlali were draped over the tiny coffin.

Community members believe the child died from inhaling teargas, but the State pathologist ruled the death to be of natural causes. Abahlali said it would be hiring a private pathologist to determine the cause of Jayden’s death, telling Noseweek that the State’s results were “not legitimate”. That has not yet happened.

In June, municipal security guards were demolishing shacks in eMansenseni informal settlement when, according to police, community members fought off the guards, leading to police dispersing the crowd with rubber bullets.

Three people were shot, SAPS told Noseweek, with 29-year-old Samuel Hloele dying at the scene after being hit in the forehead and body. Two others were injured and taken to hospital. A pathologist’s report is still awaited to determine how Hloele died.

Hloele’s death left the community incensed, which led to well over 1,000 Abahlali members marching on the Durban City Hall to hand over a memorandum of demands to Gumede and cooperative governance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube. Neither rocked up and marchers had to be barred from bursting through the doors.

The memorandum was nevertheless handed over and Gumede was given seven days to respond. She didn’t do so, which led to a two-day flare-up the following week; burning tyres and logs were placed on roads and a municipal bus was set alight. Abahlali claims its members were not responsible for torching the vehicle.

“If the Mayor of Lies refuses to engage with us the protests will continue. If the Mayor of Lies continues to send out armed men to wage illegal, brutal and sometimes fatal attacks on our communities with the aim of dispossessing us of the land that we have occupied, the protests will continue,” said a statement after the flare-up.  

The provincial human settlements’ department also denies that settlements are destroyed during evictions.

“Individual established and occupied shacks can only be destroyed by way of a court order or consent where there is an in-situ upgrade taking place. Our information is that in the course of resisting land invasions, partially completed shacks are demolished on a regular basis,” the department told Noseweek.

Some ANC members, who refused to give their names, believe the Democratic Alliance provides funding to Abahlali “to cause chaos in the city and derail the work being done by the governing party”.

Both Abahlali and the DA refute the allegations, with Zikode denying that any relationship whatsoever exists between the two – although photos can be found on Facebook of the DA’s KZN leader Zwakele Mncwango entertaining Abahlali members in April and June of 2014. 

Abahlali baseMjondolo endorsed the DA prior to the 2014 elections. At that time, Zikode said publicly that Abahlali members had been encouraged to vote DA but not to apply for membership. The move was seen as a “strategic” one in working towards the defeat of the ANC, which Zikode described as having blood on its hands. 

Abahlali members and various donors that include churches and NGOs fund the organisation, said Zikode. The party once had a “no NGO” rule but financial need – “to fund court cases, transport etcetera” – had led to a relaxing of that. A list of donors can be found on the group’s exceptionally informative and efficiently administered website.

Abahlali claims to differ from political parties calling for land justice because of its ideology. “We are not violent. We don’t condone violence, it’s not part of our ideology,” Abahlali’s general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi told Noseweek.

The group’s “strategic” or other political affiliations aside, its existence is a constant and very public reminder of how corruption, in the KZN public housing sector, kills.

In 2014, the organisation’s KwaNdengezi chairperson, Thuli Ndlovu, was gunned down in her home after blowing the whistle on corrupt ANC eThekwini councillors Mduduzi Ngcobo and Velile Lutsheku. They were found to be allocating houses to people who were not from the area. The councillors hired a hitman to deal with Ndlovu. All three were eventually sentenced to life although charges had initially been dropped.

The Mercury newspaper revealed in 2016 that Ngcobo and Lutsheku were still on the eThekwini payroll, while they were seeking to appeal.  eThekwini refused to answer Noseweek when asked if, a year later, both convicts were still receiving their monthly salaries, thought to be anything up to R32,000 per month.

Zikode, a dapper figure in his black suit, testified in July before the Moerane Commission investigating political killings in KZN. With more than 70 Abahlali members watching, he outlined the violence used against shack dwellers, placing much of the blame on Gumede’s administration and the ANC.

But, in what might be described as a politically strategic move by Zikode, president of the apolitical Abahlali baseMjondolo, he told commissioners he wanted protection because he had named the mayor. (This, despite the fact that Abahlali’s website is replete with references to Gumede as the “Mayor of Lies”.)

Zikode’s dramatics appeared to have worked. In a statement issued on 1 August, Gumede said her administration had started engaging with Abahlali “with the primary view of addressing their concerns pertaining to housing developments and opportunities as well as the inherent challenges associated with projects of this magnitude”. She said the city’s human settlements and infrastructure chairman had “hosted” Zikode and his “entourage” and had “charted a way forward which was acceptable to all parties concerned”.

On the same day, the mayor announced that money had been allocated for infrastructural improvements to early childhood development centres for informal settlements and under-serviced communities.

The programme had “commenced recently”, according to the city, and if it were found to be successful, would be implemented on a larger scale. “The actual construction work will be procured in compliance with the Supply Chain Management Policy. The start date will be determined soon. Each intervention will take approximately six months, depending on the scope.”

KZN’s human settlements department claims the number of settlements in eThekwini is fairly static, with changes occurring in the increase, expansion and densification of existing settlements. “We are awaiting the release of aerial studies done by eThekwini Municipality which will give us much more scientific data,” the department told Noseweek.

Qualifying for a fully subsidised housing unit is relatively easy. One has to be over the age of 18, earn less than R3,500 per month, have a dependent, and should not have previously benefited from a state housing subsidy. 

It is “prioritisation”, according to the department, that is the problem.

“Provincially we have a backlog of approximately 650,000 units against delivery of about 30,000 units per annum. Project areas are prioritised according to the Municipality Housing Sector Plan. Once the prioritised housing project is approved, households in the target area are profiled to determine: (a) qualification in terms of policy and (b) prioritisation in terms of level of need.”

The above could be influenced by other issues, says the department,  such as prioritising a set of families to be moved because they are occupying land identified for roads and services or dangerous flood plains or priority areas such as transit camps.  Abahlali says prioritisation more often than not involves ANC councillors and ANC members, i.e. ANC voters. 

Abahlali also downplays the occurrence of “shacklordism”, saying that though it does occur, it is exaggerated by authorities for political gain and to paint the poor as criminals. The department sees it as a very real problem. It is clear, says Abahlali, that the ANC is not against all land occupations, “It is against those land occupations that it does not control.”

Whether this will be revealed in a study commissioned by the Department of Human Settlements remains to be seen. The study on graft and shacklordism, carried out by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Morris Webb Race Relations Institute, was expected to be made available in February. That did not happen.

In July the department told Noseweek: “The research has been completed but needs to be processed through the Provincial Executive Council. The report will be released in early August.”

That has not happened.

On 2 August, the department told Noseweek it was in receipt of the report “but it has to be presented before the provincial executive committee (cabinet) before release. Currently we are awaiting a slot for tabling”.  That had not happened by the time Noseweek went to print.

The department says it would take R56bn to house the entire population of the province’s 663 informal settlements – about 334,000 households.

Share this article:

Reader's comments

Like to add your own comment ? Please click here to subscribe - OR -


While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the authors nor the publishers of this website bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on the information contained therein.