Opinionista Chris Harrison 9 May 2013

Sacks & the City

The City of Cape Town’s reply to Jared Sacks’ article on the eviction of people living in the newly-built ‘Marikana’ settlement on Symphony way makes for interesting reading - not least because they completely fail to engage with Sacks’ claim that they fabricated a new law to justify their actions.

I was present at ‘Marikana’ on the morning of Sunday 28 April, and bore witness to the events of that day. Whilst Sacks and the City have both referred to what occurred as ‘evictions’, I find the term ‘forced removals’ to be a more suitable description. What I saw in ‘Marikana’ directly contradicts many of the claims advanced by the City in their response.

The City’s justification for their actions hinges critically on the claim that the demolished structures were unfinished and unoccupied. So long as informal houses are incomplete and uninhabited, the law allows the City of Cape Town to demolish them at whim, without need for a court order. However, if the structures were occupied and complete, then the City’s actions would constitute a grave violation of the basic rights afforded to all people by the Constitution.

Whether fuelled by delusion, denial or deceit, the City’s central claim is quite simply untrue, as the included photographic and video evidence attest. In their response, the City cynically moves to pre-emptively rubbish such evidence by claiming that residents “may have brought items on site to make it appear as if the structures were occupied”. This line of reasoning is incredibly convenient, as it grants the City and the Anti-Land-Invasion Unit (ALI) sweeping powers to disregard essentially any evidence of occupation as being ‘for appearances only’.

During my visit to ‘Marikana’ in the hours before the forced removals, I spoke with many of the residents, and was shown around a number of the houses that had earlier in the day been marked for demolition. These houses were unambiguously occupied. Surrounded by their possessions, the occupants of the condemned houses cooked, napped, and breastfed infants right in front of me. If the City’s spokespeople genuinely believe that these houses were unoccupied, then it speaks volumes; either of their wilful blindness to the reality of life for Cape Town’s poor, or of their elitist suburbanite standards that consider desperate people as a ‘refugee’ burden. In other words, they simply do not consider shacks to be real houses and therefore real homes.

When the City claims to be committed to “providing a safe and habitable living environment for all of its residents, especially the poor”, I presume they must be referring to Blikkiesdorp. Whilst formal channels for getting state housing exist, the City itself admits that these are inadequate, with waiting times measured in years. These programs have nothing to offer the inhabitants of Marikana, who are in desperate need of housing right now.

The City often boasts of its record in uplifting and delivering services to its poorer residents, but these claims stand in stark contrast to the violence with which the City responds to desperate people’s attempts to improve their lives. Could the City of Cape Town really be so violently contemptuous of the poor that they find it acceptable to forcibly jettison whole families into a winter of homelessness, all in the name of keeping an unused plot empty?

I find the cruelty and lack of empathy shown by the authorities in their interactions with the poor truly stunning. The City, province, and country all routinely pay lip service to the noble goal empowering the desperate and dispossessed sections of our society, but also greedily lord over vast hoards of unused public land. Until this fundamental dissonance is resolved, illegal settlements will continue to spring up across the country. DM

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