Ellen Dladla is a grandmother in her fifties. Just over a year ago she was evicted from her home in Saratoga Avenue, and now lives in a shelter run by the City of Johannesburg. Now the City wants to evict Ellen again. It says she has been in its shelter long enough and reckons that six months is all she should have taken to get on her feet and find her own accommodation. Ellen would very much like to find her own accommodation. Her problem is that, because of the City’s urban regeneration policies, the cheapest accommodation now available to her on the private market costs three times more than her income.
Another problem is that Ellen is an informal trader. She was a block leader of one of the areas cleared of all traders by the City six weeks ago. The City confiscated her goods, destroyed her stall and stopped her trading altogether. She used to earn R500 per month. Now she earns nothing.
The City’s recent brutal crack-down on inner city informal traders as part of its Operation Clean Sweep is being challenged in urgent court on Tuesday. This Mayoral initiative – aimed at ridding the streets of ‘crime and grime’ and ensuring a ‘safe, clean, law-abiding and healthy’ city by 2040 – amounts to little more than the near total exclusion of informal traders from the inner city. The City’s actions are in violation of its own informal trading policy and legal framework, not that it seems to care. In a series of raids the City and its by-law enforcers, the JMPD, have evicted traders from their sites (including those operating lawfully with municipal-issued smart cards or permits), confiscated goods and, in some instances, physically and verbally assaulted people.
In the wake of this turmoil, informal traders, like Ellen, have been robbed of their livelihoods. Many are desperate, with dependents to support and no means of income, with a month to go before Christmas.
The City’s illegal crackdown has shocked many. Yet, in truth, Operation Clean Sweep is far from an exception. It is simply another expression of the City’s dismissive and exclusionary approach to poor people living and working in the inner city. Operation Clean Sweep follows over ten years of evictions litigation and, most recently, a Draft By-Law on Problem Properties, which has made it clear that there is no place for the poor in the inner city of Johannesburg. While numerous inner city charters, plans, strategies and roadmaps have been drawn up over the years, very little has actually been done to address the housing needs of poor and low-income residents. Years of litigation and multiple progressive Constitutional Court judgments (such as Olivia Road and Blue Moonlight) have nudged the City to react proactively, however it has failed to develop a programmatic response to the provision of low-income accommodation in the inner city, or elsewhere for that matter.
The City has consistently refused to make appropriate provision for alternative accommodation to those evicted from bad buildings, unless litigation compels it to do so. Neither has it planned proactively for low-income housing options for those earning less than R3,500 per month, a large proportion of the city’s population for whom the market and the state do not cater. What little housing stock is provided at affordable rentals is quickly occupied. Vacancy rates in the inner city are incredibly low, at around 1%.
Instead the City is subjecting the city’s working poor to further attacks: ‘sweeping the city clean’ of its informal traders and developing by-laws that are unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny because they seek to make lawful the kind of violence (police-led evictions without court orders, arrest and detention of poor people seeking to make a living) of which the Constitutional Court has repeatedly disapproved.
It is important to emphasise that the City chooses to do this. It is not forced to by funding constraints or capacity problems. Its anti-poor policies are intentional. The choice to prioritise the needs of rich property owners, over poor informal traders, security guards, domestic workers, cleaners, car guards and other working people, is deliberate.
We know this because, when the City chooses to do so, it can do better. In response to the Constitutional Court’s Olivia Road judgment, it relocated 600 people from dilapidated bad buildings to safe, liveable accommodation in two buildings in Hillbrow. Here tenants are given one room per family, with communal cooking and washing facilities, pay an affordable rental and can stay for as long as they need to. On the City’s own figures, this costs R1.5 million per building per year – about 0.04% of its annual budget surplus of approximately R4 billion. The City, if it chose, could house all those living in bad buildings in the inner city for around 16% of its annual budget surplus, without asking provincial and national government for any support at all.
However, instead of investigating ways to scale up this model and tackle the housing crisis innovatively, the City insists on providing temporary homeless shelters in which people are not permitted to live with their spouses and children and are locked out during the day. During their six month stay, people like Ellen are expected to miraculously increase their incomes by the nine or ten times necessary to afford accommodation on the private market. Those who fail in this task – that is, everybody – are branded lazy and are evicted anyway. Though, amazingly, the City does not think removing someone from a shelter requires an eviction order, even if the person would be homeless and on the street as a result. According to the City, the shelter does not constitute “a home” and is therefore not covered by the Constitution or applicable legislation like the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act.
Poverty and informality are inescapable realities of our cities. We should at the very least be finding ways to make these spaces work for all who inhabit them, rather than trying to airbrush the symptoms of poverty and unemployment out of the cityscape. This requires a responsive City that acknowledges its obligations and proactively provides for all income groups, on the streets and in their homes. Instead, the City is turning into a rogue organ of state, unconstrained by law, compassion or basic decency. DM
Michael Clark (@sparktheclark) is a legal researcher and Kate Tissington (@katetiss) is a senior researcher at SERI.