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Squatting and Loathing in Joburg

Nov 8, 2017


Wall on a former school house, now an informal settlement in Inner City, Johannesburg


By Max Rameau November 2017

During the apartheid era, Black people were not allowed to live in the cities of South Africa and required passes to be there after dark. Black people were relegated to rural areas or suburbs far removed from city centers with their  jobs and infrastructure, such as running water, electricity and public transportation.

When the system of apartheid- legal segregation which dictated where Blacks and other 'coloreds' could live, what jobs they could occupy and what social indignities they had to endure- ended the laws constricting movement and placement were removed.

However, in a strategic decision made to avoid a civil war, Nelson Mandela and the ANC decided to pursue political freedoms, such as the right to free speech and to go where one wants, and abandon (some say compromise) the economic rights outlined in the Freedom Charter, the blue print for the anti-apartheid movement.

The compromise essentially meant that any lands stolen prior to 1994 would remain in the hands of the thief, as would any profits derived from that land, unpaid labor, factory production or mining of raw materials, such as gold and diamonds.

Victory over apartheid meant Black people were now free to live anywhere they wanted in South Africa. The compromise, however, meant that those same Black people could only move where they could afford to pay, and thanks to over a century of stolen lands, resources and labor, that was not much. 

In November 2017, a few miles away from the location where the famed Soweto uprising re-energized the anti-apartheid movement that would cause it's downfall, downtown Johannesburg is bustling with activity. Small dilapidated shops run by very small business owners compete with street vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalk in an attempt to eek out a living. Both parties face in uphill battle as brand new buildings are raised and house hipster coffee shops and modern clothing lines skillfully displayed in large glass windows. 

This is Johannesburg's Inner City.

In an unambiguous victory, Chapter 2 Section 28 of South Africa's constitution enshrines the right of every human being to housing, making legal evictions close to impossible. Those with nowhere to live often take over vacant land or even entire buildings. Most in the West call this 'squatting,' but in South Africa, these are given greater legitimacy than that with the term 'informal settlements.' Occupants of informal settlements are extended full constitutional rights, meaning no matter how they are loathed, squatters have rights too.

Evicting residents of an informal settlement requires a court order and that court order is supposed to refrain from 'resulting in homelessness.' In practice, that means before signing an eviction order, the court must ensure the tenants have a place to move into after the eviction. This responsibility ultimately falls on the state, but because the state is trying hard not to build housing, eviction orders are rarely signed.

However, anyone involved in social justice issues knows that just because the private capital is not allowed to do something does not mean they are not doing it. People are evicted- illegally- all the time and it is destroying lives.

In a small corner of Inner City, tucked away between a bridge wall and a modern shopping plaza, is a long abandoned elementary school campus consisting of several one story buildings, some still with paintings of white families at the beach and two young white people playing football (soccer), organized into a mid sized rectangle, with another school building in the very center. The buildings are abandoned by the school, but not by those desperate for the work and income the city promises. Dozens of people pack the school buildings in cramped living quarters that can be shared by as many as seven (7) living areas in a single class building. 

Parents have no privacy from their children in their living area and sometimes a hanging blanket is the only privacy from a total stranger sharing the classroom.

For unskilled laborers, men find back breaking work more easily- not easily, but more easily- than women, so many of the women are completely at the economic mercy of their lovers, who make their living by hunting down scrap metal and selling it by the kilogram or, when they are lucky, engaging picking up trash in the filthiest parts of the city for a small monthly stipend from the municipality.

As bad as conditions are in the settlement, however, residents gather each and every Thursday night to make decisions about how their little town is run. Clean up day is Sunday, but cleaning assignments are handed out on Thursday, as are logistical questions about settlement security, dealings with the police and job leads. Conflicts among neighbors are brought to members of the 10 member elected committee- 6 women and 4 men- who determine responsibility for the harm and decide a resolution. 

Tough life? Not yet.

The campus is not huge, but it is semi-prime real estate next to a shopping plaza and walking distance to a vibrant downtown. Developers are eager to to get their hands on the property to turn it into a money maker, instead of free sub-standard housing for poor Black people. The only thing standing between wealthy developers and even more wealth, is a few dozen people that no one cares about and who are protected only by the words on a document voters made into the constitution.

In the early morning hours of July 1, 2017, a private police force popularly known as the 'Red Ants' raided this Inner City settlement, beating residents bloody and stealing their belongings. The Red Ants attacked with crow bars, boots and bare fists. Residents ready to choose their lives over their homes attempted to run between buildings to escape, but were met by Red Ants in waiting who beat them again.

Multiple women were raped by the Red Ants on floors of their own school house homes. No one has been arrested.

After residents fled, the Red Ants robbed them of their belongings, threw out other items such as clothes and then stole critical personal documents. Parents can only enroll children in public schools with proof that those children belong to them, primarily through identification cards and birth certificates. With those confiscated, some children were unable to register for the new school year as parents had to endure the government bureaucracy for new documents. Of course, those who moved from another province would have to go to their province of birth to secure the documents. Residents were also left unable to cash public assistance checks or apply for new public assistance without proper identification.

These evictions are all illegal, but all too common. Red  Ants are not allowed to evict, only to assist an eviction with the police. As such, most people are convinced the Red Ants operate with the full knowledge of the local elected officials- who are overwhelmingly members of the ANC- who are paid by developers to look the other way as their constituents have their rights violated.

Residents are organized by the Inner City Federation, a group that organizes residents of Inner City informal settlements. With their help, as well as legal support from SERI (Socio-Economic Rights Institute), a legal services organization, residents filed an emergency injunction in court and were granted relief, which means they were moved back into their school house homes. 

But their belongings were stolen and critical documents gone. More than that, they were completely terrorized, particularly the women who faced both beatings and brutal sexual assaults. If they had anywhere else to go, no one would have returned. 

But they had no where else to go. No where else to live.