Dispossession in the name of democracy

South Africans fight for “adequate housing,” freedom from eviction, and a government that will progressively realize both of these goals.

Police use water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse a land occupation in a Cape Town township. Credit Neil Baynes.

Whenever a new land occupation takes place in Cape Town, agents of the municipality’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU) are often among the first on the scene. Lest the reader think occupations are exceptional or even spectacular—they’re not. By some estimates, as many as one in five Capetonians live in informal housing. Even during the pandemic, they have remained frequent, with over 1,000 such occupations occurring since July. Given the scale and frequency of new occupations, what was the city government doing with an Anti-Land Invasion Unit? Why was it evicting residents with nowhere else to go?

This was supposed to be the “new South Africa,” a country whose government would remedy decades of apartheid removals and centuries of colonial dispossession. And indeed, the government does claim to do so. The post-apartheid constitution, for example, guarantees residents “adequate housing,” freedom from eviction, and a government that will progressively realize both of these goals. This is not merely rhetoric. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the government has delivered nearly four million homes. This project was central to the mandate of Nelson’s Mandela’s newly elected African National Congress (ANC) government, which was in power when the constitution adapted language from the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, demanding “the right to live where [people choose] and be decently housed.”

Considered in the context of the entirety of South Africa’s Bill of Rights, housing—along with employment, health care, and access to basic services—becomes a central component of the country’s democracy. This expanded conception of democracy includes these socio-economic rights along with more conventional political rights, such as protected speech, assembly, free exercise, and so forth. These too were enshrined in the constitution. But the ANC consistently equated socio-economic rights with democracy more broadly. This means that if a program as major as housing delivery were perceived as a failure, it would also represent the failure of the democratic project itself, calling the government’s very legitimacy into question.

The problem is that on the ground, there are two competing conceptions of democracy. Residents want to be consulted when it comes to their housing. This is not just to feel as if they are participating in the process, though this certainly figures into the equation. It is also because consultation has real material effects. For example, what if someone were provided with formal housing but this was located even further from their workplace? It would increase the cost of their commute without providing any additional subsidies. Or what if a resident was perceived as gang-affiliated by virtue of their previous location and their new house abutted the territory of a rival gang? These are issues that could be easily addressed, but only if people are actually consulted. This is not the sort of thing that housing officials can simply figure out on their behalf. It instead requires participatory democracy.

The municipal government was quite aware of this problem, having adopted “integrated development planning,” an approach that consciously solicits the input of residents by convening listening sessions. But from the perspective of many housing officials, incorporating all of these voices was an impossible task. This impossibility is a direct consequence of the forced relocation of more than 3.5 million Black South Africans under apartheid. Relegated to underdeveloped rural areas with few job options, hundreds of thousands returned to cities once mobility controls were relaxed in the mid-1980s. This influx of residents continued long after 1994, leading to a nearly ten-fold increase in the number of informal settlements by the late 1990s.

New residents had to live somewhere, after all. And it was not only rural-urban migrants. In addition, intra-urban migrants left relatives’ overcrowded homes, but given the high rate of unemployment, they could not afford to rent one of their own. So instead, they built shacks. Were officials supposed to consult every single one of these residents? And how would they do so given their limited capacity? The national government certainly wasn’t increasing the Department of Human Settlement’s (DHS)budget.

From housing officials’ perspective, this situation requires technocratic democracy. In order to ensure the equitable distribution of housing stock, democracy must be efficiently administered by impartial bureaucrats. This ensures that houses are not distributed through personal favors and that protests do not automatically translate into expedited delivery. Indeed, this is why many housing officials perceive participatory democracy as a threat: input is one thing, but if popular pressure translates into preferential treatment, disorder prevails, and it becomes impossible to deliver at scale, undermining the realization of the larger democratic project.

New occupations mean that the housing backlog—the number of those on the waiting list—is increasing, or at least remaining constant, over a period of decades. From housing officials’ perspective, this represents the failure of technocratic democracy, their very raison d’être. In order to clear smaller occupations, politicians and bureaucrats sometimes bump occupiers to the top of the list, even when they want to be left alone. In doing so, government officials actually produce queue jumpers, who they subsequently identify as objects of their ire. They thereby misrecognize occupiers as a cause, rather than a consequence of the state’s failure to deliver. They never consider the perspective of participatory democracy: that residents usually know better than officials what they need in order to flourish, or at least to subsist. Land occupations are an attempt to realize these needs.

An ideal entry on the waiting list is someone “who expressed a need and actually came forward to register like a good citizen should.” This is how one DHS official responded when I asked her how people on the waiting list should comport themselves. It’s an interesting formulation precisely because it avoids the question. Most of the land occupiers I encountered had registered with DHS for a place on the waiting list—but it’s just that: a waiting list. Where were they supposed to wait in the meantime?

According to Stuart Wilson, director of the Johannesburg-based Socio-Economic Rights Institute, Cape Town’s average wait time is now roughly 60 years—longer than the UN’s estimated life expectancy for South Africa until 2015. And even if this were a relatively recent phenomenon, wait times have been decades for a while now. This is why people occupy land. Certainly there are exceptions: party-orchestrated occupations do occur, bringing supporters of one party into rival territory. But these are exceptional.

The unfortunate irony is that this situation reveals just how much proponents of technocratic democracy actually rely upon their participatory democratic adversaries to self-provision in the meanwhile. But rather than acknowledge this fact, housing officials tend to wrongly identify squatters as causes, rather than consequences, of the slow pace of delivery. They therefore typically criminalize them.

Yet, it would be equally shortsighted to valorize participatory democracy without its technocratic counterpart. The benefit of land occupations is that they often express the collective locational preference of people in need of housing. This is crucial for any housing delivery program, as location can determine the availability of employment, transportation costs, educational access, and so forth. Likewise, struggling for access to a decent location should never be criminalized. Indeed, many occupiers understand their actions as the self-realization of the constitutional guarantee to housing, a promise seemingly denied by the slow pace of delivery.

The fact remains that no one wants to live on a field in a shack, and even if this increases locational viability, it’s far from an ideal solution. Only in conjunction with the technocratic delivery apparatus can participatory democracy be realized in this respect. But the crucial precondition for this to happen is for government employees to stop criminalizing squatters. After all, what is occupying land other than waiting patiently?

Further Reading

Cape Town’s Inner Ugly

Patricia De Lille, one of South Africa’s most popular post-apartheid politicians, claims she tried to redress spatial apartheid in Cape Town, but the legacy of her seven year run as mayor is one of violent forced removals and a refusal to upgrade informal settlements.