Homeless:  Residents of an informal settlement in Philippi meet  after their homes were torn down by city officials.     Picture: ELVIS KA NYELENZI
Homeless: Residents of an informal settlement in Philippi meet after their homes were torn down by city officials. Picture: ELVIS KA NYELENZI

It is a Friday afternoon and dark pillars of smoke are rising from a small stretch of wetland over the messy construction of MyCiti bus lanes along Stock Road in Philippi, where there is an expanse of formal housing, backyard shacks and compact informal settlements.

Xolani Tyanda and other residents of one of these informal settlements in the area known as Marikana that occupy about 40ha of Philippi are burning the rubbish that has accumulated around their homes during the week.

Like many other informal settlement residents in Cape Town and SA, Tyanda has lived under constant threat of eviction and, on numerous occasions, has resisted forced removal from his home.

His struggle is not over. The owners of the land on which the Marikana community live have applied to the High Court in Cape Town to have the residents evicted.

Evictions of poor people in Cape Town continue apace. According to researchers at Ndifuna Ukwazi, however, the state is selling public land that could be used to house the poor to private property developers.

Evictions of poor people in Cape Town continue apace.

Beauty Lunyawo has lived in Marikana for almost three years. Her home is a short walk from the train station where, early each morning, she starts her commute to Constantia where she is employed as a domestic worker.

Given the distance Marikana residents live from most formal employment opportunities, most do not manage to find employment and must create their own informal employment opportunities in the settlement or subsist on meagre government grants.

The future of this dusty stretch of the Cape Flats will, however, have far-reaching implications for poor people’s access to urban land in property markets that exclude them. On February 8, Tyanda, Lunyawo and the other residents of Marikana will appear in the high court to oppose their eviction.

The settlement started in 2012 on a corner of undeveloped, unfenced and overgrown land on Sheffield Road. A group of initial occupiers went to work, clearing parts of the property, until then, a crime hot spot and erecting corrugated zinc shacks fenced in with makeshift plywood partitions.

Soon after building their homes, however, the occupiers were removed forcefully. The City of Cape Town justified these initial evictions through the bizarre logic that unoccupied dwellings could not be considered homes and were beyond the protection of the country’s robust eviction legislation and jurisprudence.

They were, therefore, torn down and demolished.

Realising the injustice and having nowhere to go, the occupiers resisted the evictions. They organised themselves and, relying on their collective strength, protested against the forced removals.

It was at this time that they named the settlement Marikana for the 44 people massacred in the North West in 2012. It requires painful pause to acknowledge that the residents saw the actions of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit officers who were destroying their homes so clearly reflected in the tragedy of Marikana.

The occupiers brought a legal challenge against the City of Cape Town, which led to the cessation of the illegal demolitions. The settlement has since grown dramatically, now stretching across 10 properties and home to almost 50,000 people who have managed to resist further attempts to remove them.

Buckets Of Water

The residents have been denied adequate basic services because they are living on privately owned land. There are barely enough water points and toilets throughout Marikana.

Residents make regular visits to the road reserves on either end of the settlement to fill 20l buckets of water from the few stand pipes that have been erected, or to relieve themselves in one of the concrete chemical toilets there.

Only a handful of these toilets remain in working condition and none is in any dignified condition. This has become especially difficult for Lunyawo and other women in the settlement who need to use these toilets frequently as there are no alternatives.

The absence of adequate municipal services means that a population the size of Knysna has been left substantially to its own devices. Some of the residents, like Tyanda, burn their rubbish. Others use it to make a living, picking through it to salvage what can be recycled. Most of it is left in the few pockets of open space left in the settlement, gathering in places where children play and the community meets.

The government’s refusal to intervene on occupied private land to provide much-needed services to the people living there has left the residents of Marikana and other informal settlements across the country, in alarming living conditions.

The city itself has conceded that the provision of alternative accommodation for the residents of Marikana is almost impossible. Cape Town is in the grips of a housing crisis in which alternatives simply aren’t available – the city predicts the current rate of housing provision will not meet housing needs for the next 70 years.

Crucially, if an eviction were to take place, the residents would be rendered homeless and the settlement’s social fabric would be severely disrupted. Two of Lunyawo’s three children, like many others in the community, attend a nearby school. Many residents attend churches that have been established in the settlement.

SA’s chronic housing crisis and the largely uninterrupted patterns of land ownership have provoked calls for the expropriation of land for the use of the landless and economically excluded. However, little attention is paid to the novel ways in which some poor communities have already begun to test the limits of the state’s responsibilities in this regard.

The Marikana residents are one such example: they will go a step further than resisting their eviction and suggest to the court that the city must at the very least consider expropriating the land in which they are living.

If this argument is accepted, it would set a legal precedent and be life-changing for the residents of Marikana.

If the city ultimately expropriates this large tract of urban land that is not being used or inhabited by its owners, it could help thousands gain access to nearby economic opportunities and social and transport infrastructure.

Such a move would also represent a proactive intervention on the part of the city into a housing crisis that is hurtling towards levels that are intolerable. It would also allow the city to install the infrastructure and services that are the residents’ by right.

The problem of homelessness in SA is a direct consequence of apartheid urban planning that excluded and, just as was attempted with the residents of Marikana, forcibly removed black people from urban areas.

More rigorous state intervention in urban property regimes propped up by inherited spatial legacies and unchallenged market forces are now required to undo SA’s "apartheid cities".

In the absence of adequate proactive attempts from the state to transform SA’s cities, poor communities are enlisting the courts in their struggle.

If the high court rules in favour of the Marikana residents and orders the state to consider expropriation, it will represent an unprecedented victory for the victims of Cape Town’s housing crisis against one of the most exclusive property regimes in the world.

It will also signal a fundamental shift in poor people’s struggles for access to well-located, serviced urban land and its attendant social and economic benefits and may set in place a legal strategy that can be utilised in these struggles.

Crossing over Sheffield Road, Tyanda avoids the ubiquitous Toyota Avanza taxis that are referred to as cockroaches by residents of Marikana. Moving from the rubbish burning in the wetland and back into the maze of pathways between Marikana’s shacks, Tyanda murmurs that it should be obvious to anyone that "this is no way to live".

• Webster is a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA and Molopi is the institute’s research and advocacy officer

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