The Macassar Village Land Occupation, organised by Abahlali baseMjondolo, has rocked Cape Town. In a context where all political parties support the criminalisation of land invasions and the violent 'eradication' of shacks Martin Legassick has publicly defended the invasion.
Macassar: if the state can't provide, people must be allowed to build themselves
Too few houses, too many people to house
May 26, 2009
On Tuesday last week, backyarders in Macassar, desperate for homes, built shacks on municipal land on a field adjoining the N2 - and were illegally evicted by Cape Town's Anti-Land Invasion unit, together with the SAPS and Metro Police.
Their building materials were confiscated and taken off in a truck. In the process, four people, including a two-year old child, were wounded by police rubber bullets, four people - including myself - were taken into custody and three of these charged with public violence.
On Wednesday evening a solution to the situation appeared to have been reached. The Macassar SAPS superintendent, Princess Benjamin, brokered negotiations between representatives of the occupiers and the local Independent Democrats (ID) councillor, John Heuvel.
At 8pm the representatives returned to open land next to the field, to which the homeless occupiers had removed their furniture, where they had slept the previous night, and where they were now sitting around fires.
The representatives announced that the councillor had agreed that the people could occupy a piece of land nearby and that they should build shacks there immediately. The councillor promised that the mayor, Dan Plato, would come at 9am to endorse this. The people rushed to begin, and as they did so, some 10 police cars guarding the field that had been occupied left it.
However, on Thursday morning Plato did not turn up. Instead, Metro Police appeared and supervised the renewed destruction of the structures and more building materials were confiscated. What caused this disgraceful abandonment of an agreement between the people and the ward councillor?
Macassar, a formerly "coloured" area, is now bursting at the seams with overcrowded houses, occupied by both coloured and African families, as well as a few white families. Both coloureds and Africans participated in the occupation.
Macassar is one part of Cape Town's housing crisis, where there is a backlog of some 400 000 homes, increasing by some 20 000 a year, but with a maximum of 8 000 houses a year being built. Backyarders in Macassar pay exorbitant rents to the house owners of R300 to R500 a month, and that is why they want decent homes of their own.
Before the elections, backyarders in Macassar had approached then mayor Helen Zille several times with letters and SMSes. She eventually said she would get Plato to visit them to hear their grievances. He never came.
After the elections people decided they would have to go it on their own. They identified a piece of vacant land and spent three days cleaning it in preparation for a picnic and sports event on Saturday, May 16, but this was wiped out by the first of the Cape's winter storms.
So on the night of Monday, May 18 they gathered at 6pm to build, and succeeded through the night in erecting a number of complete shacks; many brought their furniture to put on their intended shack sites.
In spite of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from, and Unlawful Occupation of, Land Act of 1998, which states that a court order is necessary before people are evicted from any built structures, the shacks were torn down again and this time the materials were confiscated.
The initial response of the community was to try to occupy the adjacent N2, which the police prevented.
People returned to the road next to the field they had occupied and marched up and down, singing and toyi-toying. The police became very restless and tried to block the marches by parking police cars three abreast in the road, but people just marched through without touching the cars.
I was there taking pictures of all this. Someone in plain clothes who later turned out to be a Crime Intelligence Unit photographer started trying to take pictures of me, perhaps because I was the only white person there. I tried to dodge him but he persisted.
An SAPS inspector in plain clothes came and stood right next to me, trying to intimidate me. When I swore back at him he became incensed and grabbed me, soon supported by other police officers.
People were disturbed and started to complain and move in my direction. Very fast, a ring of police was around me, with their shotguns pointing outward. I was told to move quietly towards a police van and as I reached it, the police opened fire. In the hail of rubber bullets four people - including a two-year-old child - were wounded.
Soon three other people were escorted to the police van. None of them was in the slightest way involved.
One had been riding past on a bicycle and dropped to the ground when he heard the fire.
Another fell over as the shots were fired, and happened to touch a policeman.
The third had been pepper-gassed and had handcuffs on, but said he had done nothing.
The following morning they appeared in the Somerset West court and were released with no bail, but charged with "public violence".
All this, apparently precipitated by the inspector grabbing me unnecessarily, was quite needless.
Now the responsibility for denying these homeless people land on which to build shacks rests with the DA-controlled council.
Plato has recently claimed he intends to increase house-building in Cape Town from 8 000 to between 20 000 and 25 000 a year. This would, he claimed, allow the backlog to be ended in less than 20 years.
How he expects to do this in these times of recession is anybody's guess. But even if he could manage it, given that the backlog increases by 18 000 to 20 000 a year, on his figures for house-building it would take something like 100 years to end it.
If house-building cannot solve the ever-increasing backlog the pressures will become too great.
If the DA's "no tolerance of land occupations" is rigidly enforced - as it is trying to do - it will increase the overcrowding of houses - and, most likely, the abuse of women and children, drug abuse and crime - all of which the DA claims to be against.
If housing cannot be provided immediately for all, people must be allowed to find land on which to build shacks, whether that land is municipal, state, provincial or private.
The officials of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit behaved very arrogantly and inflexibly.
Repression is not the answer to the housing crisis, and the unit should be immediately disbanded.
Zille has criticised the ANC's N2 Gateway housing project for favouring an elite. Instead she promotes the old apartheid site-and-service schemes, yet she wants to repress people building housing for themselves. This is despite the DA ideology of entrepreneurship and the free market.
The ID ward councillor, Heuvel, says he opposes land occupations because people who carry them out "gain the impression they should get the first option for housing". Of course this is nonsense. People in shacks want houses, but they are prepared to accept waiting lists - provided those waiting lists are fair and transparent.
In fact many involved in the Macassar occupation have been waiting 20 or 30 years for houses. But to ensure fairness and transparency, it is incumbent on the Cape Town council to publish its waiting list, with clear indication of the dates on which people first applied for housing.
In Macassar, as elsewhere in the Western Cape, big mistrust in political parties is developing, despite the recent elections. People believe politicians only want their votes to enjoy the privileges of office, and that they are universally corrupt.
The housing crisis in the Western Cape and nationally continues. It is, in fact, an emergency situation. But no political party has answers to it. None of them is prepared to put the 4 million to 8 million unemployed to work to build mass housing under the aegis of the state. So the rich continue to get housed and the poor suffer overcrowding, as well as police violence and deprivation of property when they try to assert their rights.
Legassick is Emeritus Professor at the University of the Western Cape and a housing activist.