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In the hours after the devastating fire in Marshalltown on August 31 a spokesperson for Johannesburg’s emergency management services said the city needed to “eradicate” hijacked buildings. Former mayor Herman Mashaba used the occasion to bemoan resistance he encountered when he tried to deal with hijacked buildings during his tenure (2016-19). He described the goings-on at hijacked buildings as “evil”. 

The Sunday Times described hijacked buildings as “hellholes” and demanded that the council clean up the “festering CBD”. The Daily Maverick ran a headline declaring “Joburg’s heart of darkness”. Various politicians and officials blamed human rights lawyers for making it difficult to do what they believed really needed to be done, which is simply to evict people from hijacked buildings.

These kinds of responses are part of an age-old pattern of thinking: a visceral reaction to poor neighbourhoods by those who don’t live in them and a desire to clear them. The pioneer was Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, where old, crowded and poor neighbourhoods were knocked down to make way for smart, airy boulevards. 

This model became popular around the world among planners trying to build “modern” cities. Soon after Johannesburg was established, slum clearance became an obsession and ultimately led to the construction of townships to try to formalise the living space of labour. 

Over the past decades there have been countless examples of bulldozers flattening poor neighbourhoods in Seoul, Delhi, Mumbai, Cairo, Accra, Kinshasa, Harare and many other cities. They have ostensibly been motivated by concern over the welfare of those who live in them, to remove them from harms such as rockfalls, sinkholes, unsanitary conditions and fire risks. 

But the call to eradicate poor neighbourhoods by those who do not live in them has self-serving motivations too. It has been used to reclaim space for use by the middle class, to clear space so powerful financial interests can put it to profitable use, to remove political threats and even — in the case of Seoul — to boost the city’s prospects of hosting the Olympic Games.

Core to the mindset of slum clearance is an identity: people who demand the eradication of poor neighbourhoods think of themselves as modern, progressive, civilised people. To them, slums are backward, regressive and uncivilised — the polar opposite of everything they stand for. 

A study by historians Peter Stallybrass and Allon White shows how in Britain in the 1850s the occupants of slums were portrayed as grotesque and demonic. They explain that “in the slum, the bourgeois spectator surveyed and classified [their] own antithesis”. The label “slum” is pejorative and dehumanising, connoting dirt, disease, chaos, dysfunction, crime, darkness and immorality.

Slums challenge the identity of some of those who don’t live in them. Poor and degraded neighbourhoods are not a good look for people claiming to live in a world-class city. On Monday a KwaZulu-Natal MEC explained his reason for wanting to lead evictions of hijacked buildings in eThekwini: “We are not a banana republic!” His motivation seems to be embarrassment.

Some of those demanding a decisive reckoning for hijacked buildings repeat incessantly that such buildings are full of “illegal immigrants”. This serves to justify their eviction because it weakens the residents’ claims as rightful occupants of the city. It reinforces the idea that they are not “our people”. They are symbolically foreign regardless of their actual immigration status. They are out of place and they are to be expelled from where they do not belong. 

The repetition that these spaces are criminalised also reinforces their expellability; they are portrayed as an outright threat to upstanding citizens. 

Slum clearance is one mindset in circulation. Other kinds of mindset start by recognising the real and diverse lives of those living in these spaces. One report on survivors of last week’s fire described a man who comes from Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, and who has a job as a clerk in a logistics company. He had bought his room and was not paying rent to anyone, and had acquired assets like a television set he was planning to take home, which is of course now lost. 

Another report describes a man from Malawi who works as a spaza shop assistant. He escaped with his life and nothing else, and lost his savings of R2,000. The clothes he was wearing were borrowed. Each was managing to get by from month to month, partly enabled by the location and low cost of the accommodation, such as it was. 

If the state decides to hound people from their homes as a response to this fire and does not accommodate them elsewhere, where is it that such people will live? They are not going to disappear from the landscape of Johannesburg — they will find some accommodation that allows them to get by on the precarious and low income they have. This accommodation, possibly in shack settlements, will also be prone to fire. 

According to the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s 6th Quality of Life survey 2020/21, one in 10 shack dwellers in Gauteng experienced a fire in the year before the survey — more than double the risk for the province as a whole. 

Clearing hijacked buildings would not resolve the problem that large numbers of people earn too little money to be able to afford safe accommodation. The certain way to eradicate slums is to eradicate poverty itself. While we have poverty we should expect and plan for poor neighbourhoods that have less than ideal living environments. 

Some toughness is needed. Law enforcement certainly needs to investigate and prosecute those who are collecting rents in these buildings. They need, also, to deal with crime in general in these places — most residents of these buildings would appreciate that. 

A long-term transition for these buildings is possible, potentially with developers refurbishing them for rental. To the extent the relocation of existing occupants is required, this must be done in such a way that does not trash their lives. Violent evictions are — like fires — avoidable catastrophes for vulnerable people. 

Until such transitions happen we cannot leave the 188 hijacked buildings in limbo simply because they are not meant to be there. On reducing fire risk alone, there is much that could be done right away. The authorities need to work with the inhabitants of these buildings to ensure that fire escapes are functional, firefighting infrastructure is installed and people are trained on what to do in the event of a fire. 

We already know what to do to reduce the danger of these places. The thing stopping us from doing it is our failure to recognise that those who live there are legitimate human beings.

• Ballard is chief researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory.

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