Housing a metro flash point

A partly demolished shack in Joe Slovo
A partly demolished shack in Joe Slovo
Image: Annelisa Swana

On Thursday last week a 38-year-old man climbed onto the roof of his shack in Joe Slovo township in Port Elizabeth. For a few minutes he sat on the corrugated iron sheets holding his young daughter in his arms.

On the ground around him tensions were high.

A stand-off between his neighbours and the police had taken a violent turn following the demolition earlier that morning of shacks illegally built by families desperate for houses.

The man had refused to have his home torn down.

From the roof he threatened to throw the toddler to the ground.

I will not attempt to understand his thoughts at the time.

Nor can I imagine what went through the little girl’s mind – or that of her mother – who stood with her arms stretched out next to the police on the ground.

Approached by a policeman on the roof, the father got up, turned the little girl upside down, holding her by one leg.

He swung her and after what seemed like a brief moment of hesitation, tossed her.

“It was unlike anything I had seen before,” my colleague, Werner Hills, the photographer who took the pictures which shocked the nation that day, said.

“I was convinced he was not going to do it. When he did, my heart almost stopped,” Hills said.

One of the policemen caught the child, preventing what could have been a deadly tragedy.

Seconds later, the father was arrested.

He faces charges of child abuse and will appear in court again on Monday.

The incident was horrific.

But it did not occur in a vacuum. Here’s the context. In January last year, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality obtained a court order allowing it to evict families who had invaded land near Motherwell.

That decision and the subsequent treatment of the evicted families caused outrage among communities and opposition parties in the city.

In November the ANC put forward a motion in council effectively barring city manager Johann Mettler from obtaining any court order to evict people from illegally occupied land.

The ANC’s motion demanded, among other things, that Mettler must consult and get approval from the majority of council or a representative committee of councillors before evicting people.

Mettler and the coalition government protested, insisting that the motion was illegal and incompetent, and implementing it would simply be impractical.

They maintain that the occupation of land is in itself illegal and that the metro is obliged to act against those who do so.

Nonetheless, the coalition government lost the vote that day as the collective opposition passed the motion.

And then, something peculiar happened.
More and more settlements began to crop up on open land in various parts of the city – from Motherwell to Colchester to Joe Slovo and so on. As a result the metro has had its hands full demolishing shacks which officials say sprout up every week.

While the opposition denies this, the consistent narrative from communities suggests that some councillors have either actively encouraged land occupation or passively enabled it.

Further, it is not unreasonable to believe that the unfolding national conversation about the expropriation of land without compensation has also emboldened those who (rightfully) believe that they ought to have access to decent homes.

Aggravating the situation, of course, are the typically fraught politics in this city.

For example, the city’s human settlements political head, Nqaba Bhanga, believes that behind the rise in land invasions is a sinister political game by the opposition to undermine the coalition government and to create anarchy.

Because of this, he is increasingly combative in his determination to deal with what he referred to as “sharks” invading land.

“There is anarchy happening in our communities and it is because of the irresponsible motion,” he told his portfolio committee in February.

For all we know, he may be correct.

There may indeed be a sinister hand behind this.

However, it is equally true that there is a housing crisis in our city, one that affects thousands of poor families.

And, therefore, the belligerent and tone-deaf language used when dealing with a complex and emotive issue, at such a time as this, is in fact problematic.

It suggests disconnect – real or perceived – from the plight of those who are victims of years of government corruption and inefficiency.

Equally, it does not take a genius to figure out that the stand-off between the metro and its poor communities – accidentally or by design – is a convenient crisis being fully exploited by the opposition in its efforts to delegitimise the coalition government.

Beyond the political spectacle, however, are these cold, hard facts.

Mandela Bay has a housing backlog of at least 85 000.

Every year not enough houses are built.

The budget for the next financial year, for example, allows for only 1 580 houses to be built.

The trend is worrisome.

In fact, last month provincial housing boss Gaster Sharpley told this newspaper that at the current building pace it would take the government 30 years to meet the demand.

Simply put, there are too many people who need houses and not enough money to meet the demand.

Two, the housing waiting lists are largely in shambles. Therefore, law and sentiments aside, the arbitrary occupation of land only serves to worsen an already chaotic system that inflames social unrest rather than brings destitute families closer to getting decent housing.

This is most certainly no political game.

Stoking it any further will only bring disastrous consequences for all, especially the most vulnerable, irrespective of who runs this city.