Lindiwe Sisulu and the New Denialism

2014-10-30 00:00

IN 2005, early in her in her first term as Housing Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu announced the state had resolved to “eradicate slums” by 2014.

This was a time when the technocratic ideal had more credibility than it does now and officials and politicians often spoke, with genuine conviction, as if it were an established fact this aspiration would translate into reality. It was not unusual for people trying to engage the state around questions of urban land and housing to be rebuffed as troublemakers, either ignorant or malicious, on the grounds it was an established fact there would be no more shacks by 2014.

As we head towards the end of 2014, there are considerably more people living in shacks than there were at any point in our history. The gulf between the state’s aspirations to shape society and what actually happens has also been starkly illustrated at the more local level. Sisulu’s flagship housing project, the Cape Town N2 Gateway project, resulted in acute conflict and remains in various kinds of crisis to this day.

One of the lessons to be learnt from the denialism around the nature and scale of the urban crisis that characterised Thabo Mbeki’s presidency is although the state is a powerful actor, it has often been profoundly wrong about its capacity to understand and shape social reality.

Misunderstood demand for urban land

But Sisulu’s first term as Housing Minister is not only remembered for her failure to grasp either the scale of the demand for urban land and housing or the limits of the state’s response. There was also a marked authoritarianism to her approach. She did not oppose the escalating and consistently unlawful violence with which national municipalities attempted to contain the physical manifestation of the urban crisis via land occupations.

She also offered her full support to the failed attempt, first proposed in the Polokwane Resolutions, and then taken forward in the KwaZulu-Natal Parliament via the 2007 Slums Act to roll back some of the limited rights conceded in the early years of democracy to people occupying land without the consent of the state or private land owners. Simultaneously, she earned notoriety for her unilateral and unlawful declaration in 2007 that residents of the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town would be permanently removed from the (entirely mythical) “housing list” for opposing forced removal. She was also silent in the face of the violence marshalled through party structures against shack dwellers who had had the temerity to organise around issues of urban land and housing independently of the ANC in Durban and on the East Rand in 2009 and 2010.

Important shifts in position

Her second mnisterial term in a portfolio now termed Human Settlements, has been marked by a similar silence in response to the even more brazen forms of repression, including assassination, now visited on people organised outside of the ANC in shack settlements in Durban. There have been some key shifts in her position. One is that like her predecessor Tokyo Sexwale, she no longer speaks as if the “eradication of slums” is imminent. The state has developed a realistic understanding of the situation it confronts. Another shift is her opposition to unlawful evictions in Cape Town. This is, given her ongoing silence in response to violent and unlawful evictions elsewhere, is clearly an expedient rather than principled position. But in a context where land occupations are routinely misrepresented through the lens of criminality or political conspiracy, her framing of her opposition to eviction in Cape Town in the language of justice may open space in elite publics to politicise the contestation over urban land, something relentlessly expelled from the terrain of the political by a variety of elite actors.

Controversial declaration

But, it is Sisulu’s recent declaration the state intends to do away with the provision of free housing and people under 40 will no longer be eligible for public housing that has been particularly controversial. Both aspects of this comment position her in direct contradiction to the law and the policies to which the government is in principle committed. This is nothing new. When it comes to its response to the urban land occupation, the state routinely speaks and acts in direct contradiction to law and policy. What is significant is the indication the state, increasingly short of cash, intends stepping back from some commitments to sustain some forms of public welfare.

Sisulu is presenting the state’s public housing programme as if it were a temporary state response to apartheid, which, now things have normalised, can be abandoned. Both parts of this equation are seriously problematic. The ANC, in a posture simply farcical given it is Vladimir Putin not Vladimir Lenin restoring the sparkle to Zuma’s eyes in tough times, likes to pretend to itself it is a revolutionary organisation. Yet, public housing, far from being unique and temporary, is a standard part of even basic social democratic programmes.

Countries like Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela have various public housing programmes. They all have serious flaws, but the fact they exist and that other states are committed to public housing as a principle, should not be denied. In Venezuela the public housing programme includes housingentirely free for impoverished people. There are also governments in the south that have actively sought to legalise land occupations and support the improvement of conditions in shack settlements.

Out of touch

Sisulu’s assertion that people under 40 “have lost nothing [to apartheid]” is one of the most extraordinary statements to have escaped from the mouth of a cabinet minister since 1994. The pretence that apartheid’s consequences came to an end in 1994 is the sort of denialism so out of touch with reality it’s almost obscene to engage it as a serious proposition.

In a situation where millions of people cannot access housing through the market, the state should recognise the social value of land occupations; offer all the support it can to improve conditions in shack settlements and develop the best and most extensive public housing programme possible.

But, if the state continues seeing most land occupations as criminal and curtailing its own public housing programme, it will place millions of people in an unviable situation. The inevitable consequence of the state committing itself to an urban agenda that has no place for millions of people, will be a radical escalation of the already intense conflict in our cities. To put it plainly, guns will become even more central to how our cities are governed. Sisulu’s comments amount to a declaration of war. — South African Civil Society Information Service.

• Dr Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

“Sisulu’s assertion that people under 40 ‘have lost nothing [to apartheid]’ is one of the most extraordinary statements to have escaped from the mouth of a cabinet minister since 1994.”

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