Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version Legassick argues that the high-handedness of the South African housing minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, towards residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement is 'reminiscent of old apartheid ministers. Her behaviour is a symptom of the arrogant, aloof, and self-satisfied unwillingness to listen to ordinary people that increasingly characterises the Mbeki government'.

Since the launch in 2004 of N2 Gateway, housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s pet ‘flagship’ project has run into problem after problem: delayed delivery, cost over-runs, above all lack of consultation. In their 2004-5 report the Development Action Group, an NGO, wrote 'The top-down approach in the N2 project undermines its overall sustainability…the casual, continued and increasing practice of excluding people from decision making about development processes that directly affect their lives is an obstacle that communities are unlikely to tolerate for much longer'.

Their prognosis was vindicated this week when the discontent of Joe Slovo residents boiled over. They closed down the N2 freeway at peak time on Monday morning. After the fire in January 2005, which destroyed 3,000 shacks and made 12,000 people homeless, Joe Slovo residents were promised priority in the allocation of N2 Gateway housing. But they were not accommodated at all in the allocation of the phase 1 flats. Now in 2007, they face being forcibly removed to Delft on the outskirts of the city to create space for the building of phase 2. Not for them, but for those better off. They have lived in Langa for years and do not want to be removed to the margins of the city far from job opportunities. What the Joe Slovo residents are asking for is RDP [low cost] housing to be built in the area for them. They have a plan as to how this can be done without any forced removal at all.

Incredibly, as a result of their occupation of the N2, they have instead been threatened by Lindiwe Sisulu with being struck off all housing waiting lists because they refuse to 'cooperate with government' in their eviction. Additionally, she said she had consulted with lawyers about 'legal avenues to compel' their removal.

Sisulu’s first threat, of course, violates the constitutional right to housing enjoyed by every South African. 'She has declared we are not South African', says the Joe Slovo elected task team member, Sifiso Mapasa, echoing the famous words of Sol Plaatje about the segregationist 1913 Natives Land Act, that it turned Africans into 'foreigners in the land of their birth'.

Moreover housing allocation is a provincial not a national competence, and Sisulu’s action is therefore additionally illegal. As well, at the whim of the minister, her declaration punishes each resident for refusing to cooperate with government, without even giving them a hearing - a third constitutional violation! Sisulu is losing her senses.

The Western Cape and the City of Cape Town waiting lists are anyway, in the words of regional COSATU general secretary Tony Ehrenreich, 'a joke'. There is a backlog of some 400,000 houses in Cape Town. Yet Dan Plato says there are only 3,060 names on the city’s waiting list!

There are not more than 20,000 houses being built each year in the whole Western Cape, barely enough to meet population increase, let alone the backlog. How many people have been waiting 20 years and more on the lists? The government could put the 4-8 million unemployed to work on a crash programme to build homes, were it not wedded to the capitalist profit system.

Sisulu claims that Joe Slovo residents 'would have to make way for people higher up the housing waiting list'. But Phase 1 N2 Gateway housing was not allocated on the basis of waiting lists because very few people could be found who were economically eligible. Instead, advertisements were placed in police stations to attract new applicants. What reason is there to expect any difference with Phase 2, which is so-called ‘gap’ housing for those earning between R3,500 and R7,500 a month? Rather than allocation by waiting list, she is moving out the poor to make way for the better off.

Some people ask why Joe Slovo residents are objecting, since they are only being ‘temporarily removed’ to Delft. But the national housing director-general has admitted that the plans are only to build houses for 1,000 people on the Joe Slovo land; whereas there are presently 6,000 residents. Thus, even if each one of those 1,000 were a Joe Slovo resident, 5,000 would still be stranded in Delft. But, since the projected phase 2 is ‘gap’ housing, most Joe Slovo residents (and most of those on housing waiting lists) will be economically excluded anyway.

Transport MEC Marius Fransman maintained that it was 'unacceptable' in our democracy to blockade the N2 when 'we have the opportunity to access the government'. But Joe Slovo residents have tried many times to 'access the government'. On 3 August 2007, they marched to parliament to present a memorandum to Sisulu and asked to meet with her. It was received by her personal assistant, who promised a reply within a week. In fact the only reply from Sisulu was a disdainful one reported in an article in the back pages of the Weekend Argus of 25 August 2007. Sisulu did not even have the courtesy to deliver her reply to those concerned. Thus she undermined our democracy.

In her reply, she accused Joe Slovo residents of being 'unwilling to accept that communities of the future would cut across race and class'. If that is what she wants, then why does she not 'cut across race and class' and, as Ehrenreich suggested, move them to Constantia? She claimed she wanted to 'eradicate slums'. But what she is doing is merely moving the Joe Slovo ‘slum’ to Delft and installing better-off people in their place.

Sisulu does not like the term 'forced removal'. But what substantive difference is there in her present search for means of 'compulsion', from the apartheid government of the 1970s wanting to forcibly evict Crossroads residents out of Cape Town altogether?

I was an eye-witness to the events of Monday morning from 4am, having been invited to observe by the task team. What I saw, even in the dark, was a peaceful protest interrupted by a police riot. Contrary to some news reports, no guns were fired at the police. Nor were stones thrown, until the police had wounded some 12 people with rubber bullets. Riotous police behaviour was witnessed by reporters again later in the morning when police opened fire on a crowd including old people, children and women with a mere 20 second warning, and wounded many more. As of today, the police are still occupying Joe Slovo and arresting people at will.

On Tuesday, two leaders in Joe Slovo were arrested on charges of 'public violence' for daring to ask the police for permission to hold a general meeting! This too was a constitutional violation. There is a police-state atmosphere of intimidation in Joe Slovo, which is in no way compatible with the democracy talked about by MEC Fransman.

Sisulu’s refusal to meet Joe Slovo residents makes her responsible for these injuries and actions. She now has the blood of women and children on her hands.

She claims that Thubelisha, project manager of N2 Gateway, is responsible for interacting with residents and that she has 'the fullest confidence' in them. Thubelisha was established to build houses, and lacks people-management skills. Residents of Joe Slovo have met with Thubelisha management several times; to no avail.

At the same time as these complaints from Joe Slovo, the N2 Gateway phase 1 residents also have their grievances. Selected as beneficiaries, at preparatory workshops they were suddenly told that rent would be increased from the R350-R600 advertised, to R650-R1,000. Desperate for housing, and given no time even to read the long contracts, they signed. They moved into the flats - only to find cramped accommodation, serious structural problems, cracks in the walls and hopelessly defective plumbing.

Later they discovered that some people were paying the old rents, which, even Thubelisha admits, is an ‘anomaly’. Thubelisha has not addressed their problems to their satisfaction. They have launched a rent boycott in protest, and also marched to parliament on 17 July to present a memorandum to Sisulu – to which she again responded only in the media. They also are threatened with eviction.

The N2 Gateway ‘flagship’ project has become a fiasco.

The high-handedness of Sisulu in all this is reminiscent of old apartheid ministers. Her behaviour is a symptom of the arrogant, aloof, and self-satisfied unwillingness to listen to ordinary people that increasingly characterises the Mbeki government. Sisulu talks of frequent 'consultation' with communities over N2 Gateway. But this 'consultation' has not involved listening, but rather telling communities what they should do.

Minister Sisulu must come to her senses. By delegating the handling of her pet project to others, she has acted like a coward. Instead of issuing ultimatums from afar, she needs, above all, to meet with and listen personally to Joe Slovo residents (as well as those of N2 Gateway phase 1). Then it will become clear to her that both communities are united in their demands, and that they can suggest answers to their problems. Both communities are insistent that any attempt to forcibly evict them will be challenged in court, and, if necessary, physically. But there is a way out of this conflict, if Sisulu lives up to her responsibilities.

This article was originally published on Abahlali baseMjondolo -

Martin Legassick is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape. For pictures of the blockade and the police attack, as well as a small archive of Joe Slovo task team press statements click here.

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