Uganda Transit Camp, Durban: A report from the frontlines of the struggle for democracy
Just two decades after the dawn of democracy, an old horror is revisiting the new South Africa. Transit camps are back, and they are back with a vengeance, writes JARED SACKS.
Close to midnight and you can still hear babies wailing, couples quarrelling and house music blaring through the razor-thin zinc sheets that the eThekwini Municipality calls “walls” in Uganda Transit Camp near Isipingo, Durban. Getting a decent night’s sleep is a struggle in and of itself. And yet, that’s only the beginning.
To cook, you need to navigate a sink-less kitchen and take a chance on your paraffin stove, which could blow at any moment. When water runs out, you have to stand in line to get more and then carry it 200m uphill to your home. If you are lucky enough to have electricity, bathing in a bucket requires you to first heat your water in a kettle and then navigate your body with a washcloth without splashing all over the floor. Privacy is virtually impossible as there are no walls inside the shack.
All this means you have to wake up extra early to get to work on time; everything takes longer to do when you are living in a government-built shack. Even an act as simple as going to the toilet can result in dire consequences: an old lady who was navigating back from the bush last year died when she fell off a cliff caused by erosion next to her shack.
Photo: Uganda shack settlement: most residents prefer living in these shacks to those built by the government for the transit camps.
There was a time when transit camps were considered part of the horrors of Apartheid. Now, two decades into the new South Africa, they’re back with a vengeance. EThekwini Municipality says it has moved about 11,000 families into transit camps. The City of Cape Town has built Blikkiesdorp to house families it evicts from all over the city; with over 10,000 residents, it is the largest relocation area in the country. Technocrats like them, because a shack in a transit camp counts statistically as a “housing opportunity”. In reality, they destroy the social fabric of communities, thereby making it difficult to organise for better services.
Still, few people who read this will actually know what it’s like to live in such conditions; right on top of others who are also struggling under the same circumstances. The tremendous stress of living in a place like Uganda Transit Camp can make any ordinarily laudable person react to life’s challenges in objectionable ways.
Photo: A badly designed new walking path is quickly being destroyed by soil erosion.
On 9 August 2012, a large section of the community of Uganda – people living in a combination of new RDP houses, self-built shacks and government-built “temporary” shacks – went to the RDP house of Jabulani Xolo and burned it to the ground. Why would the residents, who used to count Jabulani as their Task Team leader in Uganda, take such drastic action?
I went to Uganda to investigate charges of corruption and attempted murder and found a microcosm of the brutal and corrupt underside of “development” in South Africa. Uganda could, literally, be any poor community, anywhere in country.
To understand the current political struggles in Uganda, we must first understand its history. According to one of the oldest community members, John Mbuyisa, the name Uganda came from ANC comrades who sought to honour the country for its support during the anti-apartheid struggle. The land was first occupied during the 1980s and soon became an Inkatha stronghold under the direction of a “cruel dictator” named Ntini. However, residents responded by joining the ANC, chasing Ntini to the nearby T Section, Umlazi and renaming the settlement Uganda.
Photo: Two years later, most of Uganda's RDP homes still don't have water or electricity.
Between 1990 and 1994 the area was engulfed in the political violence that tore through the province from the late 1980s, leaving countless corpses on both sides. As an ANC stronghold, Uganda became a dangerous place to live while it was constantly being raided by Ntini and other Inkatha fighters, now living in nearby T-Section. The area became a key site of conflict in the civil war that raged across the province, with the likes of ANC strongman Bheki Cele coming to defend the community.
Fast-forward to the present: Uganda, a community never shy to stand up and defend their dignity, is once again in the throes of struggle. This time, however, residents seem to be rebelling against leaders within their own political party.
In 2009, the provincial government initiated an RDP housing project in the area. Under the leadership of Jabulani Xolo – an apparently nefarious character who had spent time in jail for various offences – the Uganda Task Team was put in charge of representing the community in negotiations regarding the project. It turns out that the proportional representation (PR) councillor at the time, Sipho Khuzwayo, used the task team to convince residents to willingly move into a cramped transit camp in order to make way for the housing project. Residents, like Nicholas Ngcongo and Zweli Nomdidi, willingly relocated to the camp based on the promise that they would soon move into brand new RDP homes. That was not unusual: across South Africa, shack dwellers have often been put in these “temporary” places with no idea of when, if ever, they may actually access the promised houses.
Photo: The water tap, shared by hundreds of people.
Then came the election in 2010 of Ward 89 councillor Lihle Khuzwayo, a friend of Jabulani Xolo (and no relation of the PR councillor). This was a key election for the ANC which displaced the IFP from the ward, which also includes T Section and parts of Umlazi. At the same time as the election, many residents began moving into the newly-built homes. But others, still stuck in the transit camp, began complaining that many people who were not on the beneficiary list, and who were newcomers or people from outside Uganda, were also receiving houses. Then all the members of the task team moved out of the transit camp and into new homes, leaving behind hundreds of angry households.
A young man named Mbongeni, who stays in his father’s RDP home, agrees with those left behind in the transit camp. Sitting in the “Phase 1” home (the only phase where the city has actually installed electricity and water), Mbongeni told the Daily Maverick that “the problem here at Uganda is that old citizens had first priority in getting the houses” but the “new citizens got the houses first”. He said that he is not sure who is selling off the government houses, but he knows first-hand that there is corruption going on. He also has plenty of complaints about the RDP houses, complaints echoed by other “beneficiaries”: leaking toilets, rain seeping through the brick walls and roof tiles blowing away with the wind.
Lindiwe Dungela and Mamakhosazana Hlongwani, two elderly gogos who have been living in Uganda since the mid 1980s, also received a Phase 1 home in 2010. They allege that the old task team lead by Jabulani Xolo has been selling homes to people they don’t even recognise as Uganda residents. They claim that quite often one family will get allocated two, three or even four RDP homes, all for themselves. Like Mbongeni, Lindiwe and Mamakhosazana also complain about leaking roofs and the overall quality of their home. As one can see from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's report on ANC election irregularities, there are similar stories in places such as kwaDengezi that show the close relationship between local party clientelism, violence and housing corruption.
It was only in June 2012 that fed-up residents of Uganda began to toyi-toyi. According to a former committee member who I will call Nomkhita, and who joined the task team in April 2012, there was a split in the committee when a beneficiary named Busisa Dlamini was sidelined and her house allegedly sold to Tholakele Lembede for R10,000. When news of the sale went public, it was the last straw for residents. Along with others, Nomkhita resigned from the committee in disgust.
Photo: Erosion is quickly eating away at the transit camp structures, causing serious safety hazards.
In July, residents again protested. It is alleged that two former task team members, Jabulani Xolo and Senzo Mbambo, drove up to the protesters and attempted to open fire on them with an R4 assault rifle. Again, this is not an unusual occurrence in Durban. When the rifle jammed, residents confiscated it and turned it in at the local police station where a case of attempted murder was opened (case # 990-07-2012). Police spokesperson Vincent Mdunge, however, has reduced the charge to “pointing of a firearm”. Though Senzo was arrested, he was soon released on bail and the police, as often seems to happen in cases of politically connected individuals, then “misplaced” the rifle. According to Mdunge, the case has now been withdrawn.
To add to the drama, Nomkhita alleged that Jabulani Xolo also tried to burn down the house of another former task team member, Nobongile, that same month.
Things got worse in August. Nomdidi Zweli, who was elected chairperson of the new area committee in July, led an investigation into the allocation of housing in Uganda and implicated the old task team in selling 22 RDP houses. On 8 August, Zweli was arrested after being accused by Jabulani Xolo of shooting him in the foot. After three days in jail, the case against Zweli was dropped and another community member was charged instead.
However, on 9 August, while Zweli was imprisoned, a group of community members reacted in anger and burned Jabulani Xolo’s home to the ground. A week later, on 17 August, it was, Zweli alleges, Xolo’s turn for revenge. Zweli told the Daily Maverick, Xolo arrived with three of his friends and shot up Zweli’s home in the transit camp. They also allegedly shot a young community member in front of her home. She has fled the area and is now living in another community. The woman, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told the Daily Maverick that she was shot in the arm and chin while trying to make a call on her cellphone. She lost almost all her teeth and has had to have reconstructive surgery.
Though Xolo and his friends were arrested for the attack (Case #661-08-2012), they appeared in court and were released on bail. Zweli claims that the Umlazi police are colluding to keep Xolo out of jail; apparently he still visits the transit camp from time to time to intimidate committee members.
Photo: View of Uganda Transit Camp as you enter from Isipingo.
In November 2012 residents of Uganda Transit Camp and the adjacent shack settlement joined the shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM). A press release by the movement states that: “This community was promised verbally that both those who still live in shacks and those who were relocated to transit camps were going to benefit in this housing project. However as the homes are finished people from outside the area are being put into these houses and the local residents remain in the transit camps. Once again there is no consultation or discussion and there is no allocation policy that is transparent”.
It seems the residents that did not join the movement (mostly those already allocated RDP homes) agree that something is very rotten in the Uganda.
When the Daily Maverick spoke to councillor Lihle Khuzwayo, he indicated that he was busy investigating the charges of corruption in the housing allocation process. Yet when asked about the case of Jabulani Xolo, Khuzwayo refused to comment, saying he “did not know anything” because it had nothing to do with him. This is more than a little odd given that in 2011 he plead guilty to taking an unlicensed firearm into a meeting on corruption held in the Durban City Hall. He was fined R2,000 for possession of the firearm which, he told the court, he had received from none other than his close friend Jabulani Xolo.
The case against Xolo remains ongoing, with an appearance in court last week. The Public Protector is also investigating the alleged housing corruption after Abahlali baseMjondolo laid a detailed complaint with her office last year. Still, it looks like it will be a long time before anything is resolved.
Uganda is not unique. This story is typical of the way services, homes and politics are “delivered” to the poor in this country. Abahlali baseMjondolo has told the Daily Maverick that it has dealt with similar situations in communities across KwaZulu-Natal. And while there may be a particularly violent dynamic in this province, it seems that across the country “service delivery” is an increasingly violent process when it is entangled with the local structures of political parties.
In Sweet Home Farm, in Cape Town, a councillor also stands accused of supporting local thugs who exercise control over the development process. In Makause in Gauteng and Marikana in the North West, the police join corrupt politically-connected leaders in attacking community activists with impunity. All over the country poor people are being undermined by local party structures, and their allies, who are seeking to profit from development.
All over the country people are standing up in rebellion against their oppression. Something will have to change. DM