Reply to KZN Slums Act judgment

2009-03-02 00:00

The response of the national Department of Housing to Judge Vuka Tshabalala’s ruling on the Abahlali base-Mjondo Movement’s KwaZulu-Natal Slum Act appeal presented by Ndivhuwo Wa Ha Mbaya on February 24, is as flawed as the judgment itself.

First of all, it is no business of a judge to repeat the political statements that the ANC president and the Minister of Housing made in praise of KZN’s slum elimination efforts. It is also outrageous for the judge to suggest that the act needs to be implemented before it can be evaluated. Further, neither the judge nor Wa Ha Mbaya show any signs of actually having read the KZN Slums Act and the national housing policy.

Wa Ha Mbaya claims that the act is “not [about] evicting people who are already residing in informal settlements”. I quote from chapter five, section 16(1) of the act: “An owner or person in charge of land or a building, which at the commencement of this act [August 2, 2007] is al-ready occupied by unlawful occupiers must ... institute proceedings for the eviction of the unlawful occupiers concerned.”

Had Wa Ha Mbaya or the judge read the Breaking New Ground housing plan of 2004, they would have noticed that this does not mention the eradication of informal settlements by 2014. Instead, it sets out the target of reaching the full implementation of a new informal settlement upgrading programme by 2007-2008.

This date has come and gone and there is still not a single completed pilot project under chapter 13 of the Housing Code or the upgrading of the informal settlement programme. Most provinces and municipalities are unaware that this programme exists; instead, they are indoctrinated by a ludicrous campaign to eradicate informal settlements by 2014.

The campaign itself stems from a misinterpretation in 2000 of the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of significantly improving the lives of 10% of slum dwellers by 2020. The unfortunate slogan of “cities without slums” accompanies this MDG. However, the UN states very clearly that the target is not to achieve cities without slums by 2020 — that is merely a long-term aim.

Ever since the president in 2001 mandated the Department of Housing to achieve shack-free cities by 2014, the housing ministers, their staff and their provincial and municipal counterparts have all toed the political line instead of applying their minds. This disease, it seems, has even permeated a part of the justice system in KZN, but it is unlikely to have infected the Constitutional Court where Abahlali now hopes to take its appeal.

Breaking New Ground does speak of the need to eradicate informal settlements, but only through structured upgrading. It further points out that “it is re-cognised that the high rates of urbanisation within larger cities and secondary towns will also necessitate the introduction of a fast-track land release and service intervention mechanism to forestall the establishment of informal settlements”. This is an indirect and positive approach to doing away with slums and it is the only acceptable approach under our Constitution and the 1997 Housing Act.

Breaking New Ground does not support the direct and negative informal settlement prevention mechanisms of the KZN Slums Act. Examples are (a) to prohibit unlawful occupation (Section 4(1)), no matter how intolerable the circumstances of the individual, and (b) to oblige owners of vacant land to “within 12 months of the commencement of this act, take reasonable steps to prevent the unlawful occupation of such land” (Section 15(1)).

Along with other academics I am deeply offended that my analysis is labelled a “scaring tactic” for my own “individual or academic benefit”. I challenge judges, politicians, officials and heads of media services to apply their minds beyond misinformed political rhetoric.

I call on shack dwellers to continue applying their minds as they did throughout apartheid and continue to do so in their everyday lives, even if it involves fear. Addressing an issue head-on is the only constructive way of dealing with fear. Let history not judge this society as complacent.

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