Expropriation from the poor

Reblocking of informal settlements can be development in reverse, argues Jared Sacks

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Photo of shacks
Jared Sacks argues that the reblocking of informal settlements can undo years of community self-development. Archive photo of the Shooting Range in Imizamo Yethu which the City of Cape Town planned to reblock. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

“Reblocking” is the latest craze among urban planning and development experts. It is sold as the first step towards upgrading informal settlements. But it often means reversing years of community self-development.

According to Shack Dwellers International (SDI), the non-governmental organisation which first developed the process, reblocking has significant benefits because it causes “minimal disruption” to the lives of residents.

The avowed advantages of reblocking include: creating space for roads and walkways between shacks so that water, electricity and sewage can be provided; hinder shack fires from spreading; allow passage for emergency vehicles; and most importantly, increase community involvement in the development of the settlement.

SDI therefore presents reblocking as a bottom-up development scheme that rearranges informal homes into a more ordered and institutionally legible formation. Reblocking, for SDI, is only possible in partnership with community-based organisations which get community buy-in.

Why, then, has it recently become so contentious in shack settlements across the country?

Reblocking as expropriation from the poor

At first glance, Estineni looks just like any other shack settlement in the Ekurhuleni municipality, where years of carefully organised land occupations in sprawling ex-urban townships have developed fenced in plots of land that – despite unhealthy living conditions – remain large enough to accommodate extended families and sometimes even a small garden.

If you are stuck in inhuman conditions, you might as well build a life for yourself and your family. This is what Gogo Happy Ndebele has tried to do with her home: over the years extending it to six rooms to accommodate her grandchildren. She also put in proper tiling, installed her own flush toilet, and planted a garden with grass and flowers. It took years of hard work to make her shack feel more like a home.

However, since January, hundreds of shack dwellers in Estineni settlement in Vusimuzi (Tembisa), including Ndebele, have been up in arms in response to their ward councillor’s reblocking of the settlement.

If you speak to Noxolo Shabalala, a community leader with the shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, you will hear accusations of corruption: people paying off the local councillor to obtain a newly demarcated site within what was once another family’s backyard.

Whether the accusations of corruption are true or not, it is clear is that in this case reblocking means the further densification of Estineni. Ndebele’s home is just one example.

I was shown another family whose home was destroyed to make way for three additional families on their small plot of land. How is this justified by government planners? Reblocking is necessary to make way for roads, for services and other essential community needs, they argue.

Yet, if you dig a bit deeper, it becomes clear that many of these families are coming from outside Estineni. In other words, the municipality is using reblocking as an opportunity to place families without land into an already overcrowded shack settlement. These families are being dumped into Estineni with promises of electricity, water and eventually formal houses.

Development in reverse

Ndebele’s home was one of the nicer informal structures you might come across in a shack settlement. Built with longevity in mind, photographs show that it was beautifully decorated on the inside with nice furniture, ceramic tiled floors and self-connected electricity – just the kind of home improvement one would expect after 23 years living there.

I was curious about the flush toilet since the municipality had previously claimed that, without in-situ upgrading, it was impossible to install plumbing in the settlement. Apparently, some families had come together to install their own sewage system – which just goes to show how much can be done without waiting endlessly for government.

After police and demolition crews arrived on the 12 March, Ndebele’s home was completely demolished and her flush toilet uprooted to make way for another family. At the age of 59, she spent seven days sleeping outside in the rain until she was able to put together enough money to rebuild.

This is what government development often looks like to the poor: development in reverse; “progress” that takes them back to the days of apartheid.

Reblocking undermines community

NGOs such as SDI, which advocate for consultation with shack dwellers during the development process, will likely single out Estineni as a textbook case of top-down development – of what can go wrong if reblocking does not take place in consultation with the community. No doubt, this is part of the problem. In theory, a lot of destruction and pain could have been avoided if the municipality had just followed SDI’s ideal process.

However, the municipality along with the local ward councillor, Hendrick Selwana, insist that they did consult the community. In November, the local ward councillor convinced residents in Estineni to verbally agree to the reblocking process.

Resident Themba Nxumalo, who was then a member of the ward committee’s task team on upgrading the settlement, paints an interesting picture of how things went wrong. The consultation process, he told me, seemed genuine at first – that is, until the councillor told the task team to hide from the community the fact that they had no map of the reblocking plans. Eventually the councillor removed Nxumalo from the committee for asking too many questions.

This points to a much larger problem to which SDI remains complicit. Reblocking is not quite the organic process it is made out to be.

It is an attempt to systematise neighbourhoods making them more legible and easy for authorities to control; this works to also subvert popular forms of democratic governance. In classic city planning theory, this is the old critique of Robert Moses, whose redevelopment initiatives in New York sought to destroy community-led forms of self-development.

Of course, Moses’ plans were much larger and more disruptive. However, despite claims to being bottom-up, reblocking tends towards top-down planning with a grassroots face.

Abahlali argues, for instance, that its benefits should not be assumed and imposed on any community. Community leader Melidah Ngcobo told me that in the case of Estineni, “rebolocking was not needed”. The community had already connected electricity themselves (a process they call izinyoka, or snakes), installed their own plumbing network, and had planned their own roads for emergency vehicle access. All they wanted was for these services to be upgraded.

“Shack dwellers aren’t listened to”, Ngcobo said. “They say we are undereducated; we don’t know anything about civilisation”. In other words, when planners push their “expertise” they make a mockery of the residents’ own grassroots knowledge.

Community control

If communities have actual power over the development process – if they are more than just clients – then they may conclude that reblocking is not right for them.

They may decide that the reason their roads and pathways zigzag through the settlement instead of going straight through, is to ensure that outsiders (including criminals and police) cannot take control over the settlement from the local population.

When reblocking reaches its full potential, you see shack settlements formalised into camps that begin to look a lot like the infamous Blikkiesdorp in Cape Town. Built on a formal grid by the City of Cape Town, this transit camp has been under the control of gangsters and an Anti-Land Invasion Unit acting as shack lords. The community struggles to defend itself from being overrun by crime, in part, because their local knowledge of the terrain is hijacked by outsiders. Residents have no physical control over who drives into their space and who traverses their walkways.

In other words, there is a real difference between participation of communities in development and their ownership of its conceptualisation. The way SDI conceives of the reblocking process, even in instances it deems “successful”, is as a tool which government and NGOs should use to obtain community buy-in, not something the residents must come up with themselves.

This may not always be forced development at the barrel of the gun, but it remains a top down process nonetheless. This is why Human Settlements departments across the country prefer to work with NGOs like SDI over that of legitimate and independent community organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Resistance as participation

Under such circumstances, genuine community engagement takes the form of resistance rather than merely dialogue and accommodation. For residents, the first step of their participation was their insistence that they are the “professors of their own poverty”. The second step was their self-mobilisation and civil disobedience. Creating their own committee independent of political parties, they then resisted the reblocking process, sending police and demolition crews packing.

As a new branch of Abahlali baseMjondolo, they’ve been able to connect with other settlements in Germiston as well as KwaZulu-Natal who have to struggle under similar conditions. Because this is a more horizontal rather than top-down process, they are finally insisting that they be the masters of their own future.

Jared Sacks is a PhD student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University

Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp

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