Tensions between the middle class and poor are running high in Durban and in other parts of South Africa. Durban’s geography, with its hilly terrain, means that the middle classes, and sometimes even the rich, often live in close proximity to the informal settlements tucked into the hillsides and valleys.
For middle-class residents, many of whom are only a generation or two away from poverty themselves, a land occupation can instantly decrease the value of their largest asset, their homes. Protests, usually in the form of road blockades, disrupt their busy lives.
The dominant response has been to see land occupations and road blockades as symptoms of pervasive criminality rather than injustice. Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups are increasingly paranoid, often taking on a racist tone; calls for violent suppression of land occupations and road blockades are increasingly strident.
Powerful forces in the ANC in the metro seem to share this view. Not long ago the City officials posed proudly with the new Casspirs, bought at huge expense by the City to police land occupations and protests.
There have been ugly incidents of middle-class residents shooting into informal settlements, and dumping their trash at the periphery of the settlements. In at least one case the home of a middle-class resident was burnt, with the culprits believed to be residents of an informal settlement. When race and class coincide, class tensions can rapidly become race tensions.
Durban has become a lot like Rio, with its favelas a stone’s throw from the large homes of the wealthy. There have been periods in Brazilian history in which the state has understood that the favelas have a positive social function in enabling the poor to access the cities, and there have been interesting experiments in progressive urban planning. Of course now, with Brazil suffering under the weight of a right-wing demagogue, the favelas are seen in extremely pejorative terms and policed with worsening violence. Young black men are killed by the police at a terrifying rate.
Durban needs to avoid ending up like Rio under Bolsonaro. Middle-class residents need to understand that their future is tied up with that of the poor neighbours. They need to understand that poverty is a problem to be understood in terms of justice, not policing.
There are hundreds of thousands of people in Durban who do not have formal employment and who can’t afford formal housing. Many of these people work in the homes of the middle classes as domestic workers, or as casual labour on construction sites. The middle classes are direct beneficiaries of the labour of the poor.
However, in many cases, the middle classes do not want to live near to the poor, or to have their schedules interrupted by protests. This is just not viable. Spatial exclusion from the city on the basis of class reeks of apartheid, and would put most poor people so far from opportunities for work and education for their children that their poverty would just be compounded.
Durban will not be able to move forward if the middle classes do not accept the need to find a way to live in a diverse city on the basis of mutual respect. Of course, there are those who would rather flee to a gated community in uMhlanga, Cape Town or New Zealand rather than working out a way to live in the real world. But there are also many who can’t leave for various reasons, or who simply do not want to leave, because Durban is home.
Those of us who choose to stay here, or have to stay here, need to refuse the baying chorus that demands a violent and semi-militarised response to mass poverty. We need to understand that all who live in this city must find a way to share it, and that, like it or not, we will live in a shared future.
The demands made by poor people usually centre on a small patch of land to build a home, and access to water, sanitation, electricity, schooling and work. These are far from outrageous demands. On the contrary, they are demands that every middle-class person can understand. If met, they would improve the economy and the city for everyone.
In the 1980s the middle classes had some progressive leaders, people such as Pravin Gordhan, who was part of the Durban Housing Action Committee, that helped a significant chunk of the middle class to see the necessity for a shared future centred around justice. Somehow we have lost this. Today most middle-class people are left to the deeply toxic paranoia and racism of their neighbourhood WhatsApp group to make sense of a changing city.
We are sorely in need of enlightened leadership. Without it the middle classes will end up in fortified gated communities while the poor are ruled by semi-militarised force. This is not a democratic or just future. We can and must do much, much better. DM