The Mandela Complex

Harry Stopes

In December 2013, a group of people living in shack settlements in Newlands West, Durban, entered and squatted a development of 16 nearly complete apartment blocks on Castle Hill, about ten miles north-west of the city centre. They stayed for more than a year before they were evicted on 17 December 2014. The developer calls the site Hilldale; the squatters called it the Mandela Complex.

Since 1994 the main government policy for housing the poor in South Africa has been to provide free homes, for private ownership, through the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). To be eligible for an RDP home, your total household income mut be less than 3500 Rand a month. That isn’t much (currently around £200), but there are millions of South Africans who earn less, or nothing at all – a quarter of the workforce is unemployed. Around 180,000 RDP units have been built in Durban since 1994.

But even a relatively lowly job in the formal economy may exclude you from an RDP home. Sizwe Bophela, a 35-year-old who was born in Durban, lived in the Mandela Complex. He works as a driver for a large contract cleaning company, picking up and dropping off cleaners and equipment at sites around the city, for which he earns a little short of R4000 a month – too much to qualify for RDP, but not enough to maintain a living and pay rent in decent formal housing. There have been government programmes to encourage private developers to build rental housing for people earning less than R7500 a month, but not on a large scale. The Mandela Complex developer plans to rent the flats on the open market.

Demand for RDP homes far exceeds supply. In Durban, the municipality plans to build only 9500 units in the next financial year. And the system of allocating RDP homes is pervasively corrupt. Sometimes they are sold by officials; sometimes they are given as favours to supporters. ‘Housing has become a key mechanism for distributing patronage,’ according to Richard Pithouse, who teaches at Rhodes University. ‘In most cases this means you have to be linked to the ANC.’

Many poor and working-class South Africans are forced to house themselves informally. For others, informal housing is a choice. Even where it is available, RDP housing is often inadequate, far from schools and jobs. In Johannesburg, people squat in office buildings downtown, empty since many businesses left for the security of suburban Sandton. In Durban, they live in illegally built wood and corrugated iron shacks on interstitial land, as close to the centre as they can manage.

A lot of them are members of a social movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (‘shackdwellers’ in Zulu). The group campaigns for decent housing and against evictions, but its practice of democracy from below also presents a radical challenge to the structure of South African politics and society; a demand for a genuine stake for the majority. ‘It is for us to reveal a South Africa that you cannot read about in newspapers, a South Africa that you cannot watch on television,’ the national spokesman, T.J. Ngongoma, told me.

The response from the state has been violent. At least four members have been killed in the last two years, including a 17-year-old girl shot in the back by a police officer. Others have been prosecuted with, they say, falsified evidence, or threatened with violence by police and local councillors. In January, a meeting in Verulam, north of Durban, was attacked by an armed mob wearing ANC T-shirts. Last September, Thuli Ndlovu was shot dead at home. In a province where Zulu identity is mobilised as a source of political power, the fact that Abahlali has members from Indian, Xhosa and other African backgrounds also makes it a target. According to Pithouse, such violence is endemic in the province: ‘We are not talking about a few rogue councillors. Death threats and assassinations are a form of social control that is being endorsed at the highest levels of the province’s police and government.’

By organising among poor black South Africans, Abahlali undermines the ANC’s claim to speak exclusively for them. The hostility has broader roots though. Shackdwellers’ claims to urban land compete with other claims that municipalities are more inclined to favour. When I talked to a Durban city council spokesman in February, he told me that the land for the Mandela Complex had been sold to the developer Woodglaze, though he would not say when, or for how much. According to documents I received from the Office of the Registrar of Deeds in March, the land in fact belongs to the municipality. Neither the city nor Woodglaze's manager, Pravashkumar Inderjeeth, were able to explain to me why the company had been allowed to build apartments for private rental on land belonging to the city.

After being evicted, the former residents of the Mandela Complex went to live on a plot of land next to the site, in two large tents provided by Abahlali. I visited them in January. There were about 20 people in each tent, down from the 96 families who had been living in the complex. They were getting electricity on the sly from street lamps, and taking a van to collect water from a nearby outlet. Sometimes, Sizwe told me, they went up to the metal fence and tried to talk to the workers who were finishing off the apartment buildings. ‘When we approach them they ignore us or they go away,’ he told me.

Abahlali’s pro bono lawyer was preparing an application to the Durban High Court to overturn the eviction, on the basis that Woodglaze, they claimed, had not notified them of the court proceedings, and had made untrue claims in its submission to the court. The ruling came down on 18 February. The eviction was upheld, unsurprisingly. In his concluding remarks, the judge wrote:

If I were to have granted the reconsideration order, I would surely be opening the door to anarchy and civil disorder... society at large would never accept as just and equitable that in a free and democratic society, economically deprived persons could simply help themselves to the assets of others.

In search of inspiration for their nightmares, wealthy South Africans tend to look north, seeing in Zimbabwe a model of their future dystopia. But without a policy of state-directed land redistribution, which does not seem imminent, the country is just as likely to resemble a Latin American country moving seamlessly from military dictatorship to shock doctrine, enforced by state violence. Until a few years ago, the Durban municipality managed to control vacant land in the city. New occupations were prevented, and existing populations transferred to RDP developments at the periphery. Now they have no such control, and their response has been not an acceleration of house building but an escalation of force.

On 13 February, bidding closed on a contract to provide ‘specialised security services for anti-land invasion’ in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The winning bidder will conduct ‘reconnaissance’ and ‘situation monitoring’, allowing them to ‘develop early warning signals’ and deploy ‘counter intelligence’. They will provide ‘operations security and social engineering’, develop ‘counter-measures’ and be capable of ‘holding fort’ at a location in the absence of police. They will be answerable to the Department of Human Settlements.