Marie Hutchzermeyer cities with slums

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

In the past decade South Africa has witnessed an upsurge in negative labelling of informal settlements in policies and programmes, the removal of informal settlements from strategic positions in the city, and even legislative amendments to facilitate such ‘eradication’ Serious questions emerge:

  • Why were South African politicians and different parts of the state so confident that their negative statements about ‘slums’ or informal settlements and their drives to evict and eradicate were legitimate and beyond question?
  • Why did they find it appropriate to resort to repealed apartheid-era legislation in their legislative amendments, criminalising the formation of informal settlements by desperately poor households and making it easier for municipalities to evict?

Africa clears slums instead of replacing them

There are compelling parallels to be found in other African countries, in massive eviction drives, strong anti-‘slum’ statements, ambitious, costly but utterly unrealistic high-profile ‘slum’ redevelopment pilot projects with high political stakes, and only a weak international response, if any.

These anti-‘slum’ drives, along with their justificatory discourse and their repressive ‘slum’-removal measures, have become typical of post-millennial African urban development .

Informal settlements occupy a contradictory position in urban policy, and indeed in policies promoted by global agencies.

On one hand, there are statements of concern about urban poverty and the need to increase access to water and sanitation and improve the lives of ‘slum’ dwellers. These concerns are captured in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000/2001 and are mirrored in country-level commitments to achieve MDG targets.

On the other hand, there is encouragement to governments, through the World Bank, IMF and related agencies, for cities to strive for global economic competitiveness in order to better function as engines of economic growth.

Implicitly, such encouragement has also stemmed from the UN’s Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, in particular through its involvement in Cities Alliance’s ‘Cities Without Slums’ initiative. UN-Habitat uncritically internalised ‘Cities Without Slums’ as a slogan. The UN attached this slogan to MDG 7 Target 11 ‘to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020’.

The presence of unsightly ‘slums’, of visible poverty and squalor in strategic locations, frustrates states in their efforts to portray an investor-friendly image to the world. This dynamic differentiates MDG 7 Target 11 from the other MDG targets.

MDG 11 contains an un-resolvable contradiction. Improving the lives of ‘slum’ dwellers (rather than removing them from strategic locations in the city) sits at odds with efforts to make the city more investor friendly.

While the implementation of most MDGs has experienced pressure from private interests, for instance in the supply of medicines, the economic stakes of Target 11 are in quite a different league. Private contractors may be vying for lucrative stakes in the implementation of ‘slum-improvement’ or re-development initiatives that are officially aimed at meeting the Target 11. However, stakes in the urban land market are of far greater economic interest.

City authorities, in their attempts to attract and hold on to investors, encourage and protect stakes in the urban land market. Questioning of this approach is discouraged and there is no public and political debate.

In South Africa, preparation for the 2010 Fifa World Cup brought this into stark relief. The urgent expenditure of massive public funds remained unchallenged. The results were world-class soccer precincts and transport improvements, all enhancing economic stakes in the urban land market.

Spin-offs were promised to all, even, unconvincingly, to informal settlement dwellers. The provision of water, sanitation and housing to a fraction of informal settlements in turn received much public political attention.

The N2 Gateway pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa’s flagship ‘slum’ redevelopment exercise from 2004 to 2010, symbolised a tendency to override policy and legislation. So did numerous cases in South Africa’s six largest cities of eviction of informal settlement residents from strategic locations without court orders and without provision of alternative accommodation.

These interventions were accompanies by the outsourcing of informal settlement ‘management’ to private security firms in several municipalities, the enactment of the KwaZulu-Natal Slum Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act of 2007 and proposed amendments in 2006 and 2008 to the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act of 1998. These all amounted to attempts to exclude the poor from South African cities.

This means that urban informality, a concept receiving much attention in post-millennial academic debates led by urban theorists such as Ananya Roy, needs to be reinterpreted. It can no longer be viewed merely as being outside the law. Nor can it be seen as the blurred edge of a continuum with, defying measurement, organising logic or idiom of planning. Informality also needs to be recognised as a field of tension.

While households living in informal settlements often choose an urban life, and many find themselves with no alternative, they are confronted with more than just the physical inadequacies and hardships of informality – the lack of basic services, the unregulated and often overcrowded conditions, the inadequacy and insecurity of the shelter.

Recognising the reality of informal settlements as a field of tension forces us to look beyond these mere physical symptoms, on which initiatives such as the MDGs are focused. Instead, it requires us to grapple with the underlying causes of informality, of the failure to improve people’s lives and of top-down interventions that result in frustrations and protests among informal settlement communities.

It also forces us to depart from a normative framework that labels informal settlements as ‘slums’ and condemns every aspect of these residential setups.

It forces us to recognise the tension between creativity and adversity which shapes and often defines ingenious solutions, and models of human co-existence that are largely lost in the formal city. Opportunities for such forms of urban living and survival are closed down through tightened anti-land invasion measures and ‘slum’ eradication drives.

City authorities often repressively dismiss demands from economically weak households for space within the city. The assumption, as geographer Deborah Potts argues, is usually that such demands stem from poor migrants entering the city in large numbers.

However, according to Potts and others analysing urbanisation trends, the population of many cities in Africa is growing more slowly than is generally assumed. Poverty is to a large extent generated within cities due to shrinking formal employment. In many instances migration has remained circular, binding rural with urban livelihoods on an ongoing basis.

Critics of the development discourse such as Arthur Escobar have long argued that poor people’s responses, alternatives or innovations have been homogenised and problematised. Global usage of the term ‘slum’ since 2000 forms part of this homogenisation and problematisation, and in turn justifies blanket eradication of poor people’s footholds in the city.

South Africa experienced an about-turn at presidential level with a new target (as of 2010) to improve the lives of 400 000 households by 2014 through in situ upgrading of informal settlements.

A National Upgrading Support Programme is now faced with the difficult task of chiseling away at the deeply entrenched problematisation and homogenisation, which has long informed largely flawed re-housing programmes. It has also blocked any attempts at investigating the feasibility of in situ upgrading – the improvement of living conditions in informal settlements with minimum disruption to the inhabitant’s lives – even where this is demanded on the ground.

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