Peter's Blog

Informal Settlements

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Today, Thursday, was another full packed day that has left me and all the group deep in thoughtful reflection at what we heard, what we saw, and the conversations we had. We focused on informal settlements today. These are areas where people, for many different reasons, usually revolving around lack of resources (money, connections) have had to resort to living in informal settlements. These are settlements which are not sanctioned by the municipalities. People, in some desperation, have had to take their circumstances into their own hands. They have no other choice.

To put some context to this, it is worth considering that the relatively new constitution of South Africa states:

(1) Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.
(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.
(3) No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

That ideal from 1996 has failed. Too many people are forced by circumstances into situations where they have no choice but to take up residence in informal settlements, sometimes occupying land in order to build homes for themselves. They are in an incredibly vulnerable situation. The authorities do nothing to assist them. No water is provided. No electricity. No sanitation. So people have to get these things themselves. Some of this sounds alien and troubling to our Northern sentiments, but you have to understand the situation in which shack dwellers are trying to make a home for themselves. They have no other choice. So they tap into water supplies to create a communal downpipe, hook up a power supply to overhead cables, even create their own sewage systems.

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But they do all this with constant threat. The authorities often turn up and tear down the fragile homes that have been built, leaving people to rebuild them the next day if they want a roof over their heads. They are extremely vulnerable to climate change and the more extreme weather events that has brought, particularly flooding which can wipe away whole communities. Women are both incredibly strong and courageous in the efforts they put in to creating homes in these terrible circumstances, but also vulnerable to gender violence. We heard first hand stories of how violence and sexual violence towards women would never see justice done as the local police and authorities would dismiss any accusation from within one of these settlements.

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We heard today both from a large organisation (Abahlali BaseMjondolo, AbM) with over 100,000 members from informal settlements of how some of the leaders with whom they worked in local settlements had been murdered for their role in supporting the members of these communities. It was heartbreaking. Young lives, committed to helping their brothers and sisters, ripped away in the name of greed and power. Capitalism, raw and wild.

Evictions happen frequently from these communities, despite rulings from the courts to say that the evictions are not legal. Those with their eyes on the land just threaten and evict anyway, getting rid of troublemakng voices if necessary.

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This is the context for what we heard today. We had almost three hours in the morning with a group of activists from AbM who either live in or used to live in informal settlements (and still support them). We explored with them the topics of climate justice and racism, what it is to be black and poor in post-Apartheid South Africa, and the particular challenges faced by women in informal settlements.

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It was an eye-opening, harrowing, exhausting morning. I took lots of notes, but at the late hour at which I am writing this I have not quite had the time to process all that we heard. Save that there are many incredibly dedicated people seeking to create a movement of people who aspire to the same dignity that others are treated with. It was overwhelming. There were glimmers of light, in the stories of evictions that were succesffuly quashed through the law courts, and stories of communities working together to support each other and try to model a different kind of world.

Visiting Informal Settlements

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Which led us in the afternoon to visit two quite different informal settlements. One was being run as a socialist commune, the residents having chosen to live together in this way. Think of St Paul talking about the early church as a place where everyone shares all that they have and work together to form a new community and you get the idea. It sounds idyllic on paper, the reality is heart-rending. This community lost one of its leaders, murdered by someone who was known and for whom there were eyewitnesses, but no arrest has been made. The local pastor (this was deeply, deeply troubling) is in cahoots with the councillors and police seeking to evict these 17 families because he has eyes on the land for his own enrichment. It is disgusting to think of this distortion of gospel values.

We met in their own community hall which is used as a meeting space and school, named after another leader who was murdered in a different community - a sense of solidarity across the different settlements in the city. That sense of solidarity is always expressed in song - with songs of protest reclaiming power for themselves sung at every gathering.

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What was deeply impressive were the young people of this settlement. Two young women in their early 20s spoke to the small group I was with about their experiences and how they work together. It was both wonderfully encouraging to see the spirit of resistance and fortitude in women so young trying to create a living for themselves, but also horrifying to think of the trauma they lived with day in and day out. They had lived through the murder of a servant leader of their community, they knew the vulnerability of having their gardens washed away in the floods, and of the constant threat from others who saw them as a target. They tended to sleep during the day and be awake at night for fear that it would be at night that others might come to destroy all they had built. One of the ways AbM was able to help this settlement was with the construction of fencing and a gate to the commune.

I kept coming back to the fact that these young women were the same ages as my own girls. I'm not going to use the names of the settlements in order to protect their residents.

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The community worked as one in raising their chickens, selling the eggs for some income, and working out their plans for what vegetables to grow on the land in order to support themselves and, if possible, have some extra to sell to others.

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We had to leave this settlement sharpish as there were worries our presence might be creating too much interest amongst others in the surrounding community.

We visited a second much larger informal settlement, only four years old. As we arrived and moved to their community gathering space, complete with stage area for performances - all built with their own hands, we soon found the space filling with residents who wanted to meet us and to share some of their own story. We heard from some people who had been living in rented accomodation but had found themselves unable to continue paying the rent - a combination of rental prices moving upwards and lack of job opportunities. Their only option was to move to an informal settlement.

Over and over again we heard the plea simply that they be recognised by the state, by the municipality. It was a plea to be given dignity and for their constitutional rights to be respected. It was a plea that their humanity not be neglected, that they not be treated as second-class citizens. It is a plea that, it would seem, is not heard by those who are in or close to power.

The Vanishing Church

Which led to another eye-opening moment from the day. We who were part of the church in the visiting group noticed that there was very little mention of the church. When we drilled down into this, it was devastating. The church, having played in many parts (though not all) such an important role during apartheid to speak truth to power made the decision after 1994 and the fall of apartheid to step back from politics and 'return to being the church'. This seems, in hindsight, to have been a grave error. The church is now, we heard, almost absent from the plight of people in the informal settlements. Where would Jesus be ministering, one inevtably asks? Furthermore, many in the church have cosied up to the powerful for the access and status this brings within society. This then has weakened their ability to challenge those who are failing the people, harming those who are most vulnerable. It is complicity in a corrupt system. A story that has been told many times within churches over the centuries.

Having sat with the memory of the Most Rev Desmond Tutu's amazingly powerful rhetoic when he addressed the General Assembly in 2009, it is hard to now hear how the church is failing some of the most vulnerable people within South African society. It was deeply shaming to hear from the young women directly how the pastor was not just absent in their own situation, but an active participant in the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.

It was quite a day. We were scheduled to have a time of reflection on all we had witnessed while still at the second of the informal settlements, but it was too early. We decided to do that tomorrow morning instead. In the meantime, over dinner and fellowship this evening we did share our thoughts and feelings from the day, but we'll reflect more tomorrow.

And tomorrow involves visiting the University in Pietermaritzburg to visit Ujamaa and how they are using Contextual Bble Study, and then a session talking in detail about the work of Church Land Programme, who are our wonderful hosts here.