South Africa

The New Denialism

In 2005, early in her in her first term as Minister of Housing, Lindiwe Sisulu announced that the state had resolved to ‘eradicate slums’ by 2014. This was a time when the technocratic ideal had more credibility than it does now and officials and politicians often spoke, with genuine conviction, as if it were an established fact that this aspiration would translate into reality. It was not unusual for people trying to engage the state around questions of urban land and housing to be rebuffed as troublemakers, either ignorant or malicious, on the grounds that it was an established fact that there would be no more shacks by 2014.

As we head towards the end of 2014 there are considerably more people living in shacks than there were in 2005, in 1994 or at any point in our history. The gulf between the state’s aspirations to shape society and what actually happens in society has also been starkly illustrated at the more local level. Sisulu’s flagship housing project, the N2 Gateway project in Cape Town, resulted in acute conflict and remains in various kinds of crisis to this day.

One of the lessons to be learnt from the denialism around the nature and scale of the urban crisis that characterised Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency is that although the state is certainly a powerful actor, it has often been profoundly wrong about its capacity to understand and to shape social reality.

But Sisulu’s first term as the Minister of Housing is not only remembered for her failure to grasp either the scale of the demand for urban land and housing or the limits of the state’s response. There was also a marked authoritarianism to her approach. She did not oppose the escalating and consistently unlawful violence with which municipalities across the country were attempting to contain the physical manifestation of the urban crisis via land occupations.

Sisulu also offered her full support to the failed attempt, first proposed in the Polokwane Resolutions, and then taken forward in the KwaZulu-Natal parliament in the form of the Slums Act in 2007, to roll back some of the limited rights that had been conceded in the early years of democracy to people occupying land without the consent of the state or private land owners. At the same time she also earned some notoriety for her unilateral, and clearly unlawful, declaration in 2007 that residents of the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town would be permanently removed from the (entirely mythical) ‘housing list’ for opposing forced removal. She was also silent in the face of the violence marshalled through party structures against shack dwellers who had had the temerity to organise around issues of urban land and housing independently of the ANC in both Durban and on the East Rand in 2009 and 2010.

Her second term as Minister, in a portfolio now termed Human Settlements, has been marked by a similar silence in response to the even more brazen forms of repression, including assassination, now visited on people organised outside of the ANC in shack settlements in Durban. But there have been some important shifts in her position. One is that like her predecessor Tokyo Sexwale, she no longer speaks as if the ‘eradication of slums’ is imminent. In this regard the state has developed a more realistic understanding of the situation it confronts. Another shift is Sisulu’s opposition to unlawful evictions in Cape Town. This is, given her on-going silence in response to violent and unlawful evictions elsewhere in the country, clearly an expedient rather than a principled position. But in a context where land occupations are routinely misrepresented through the lens of criminality or political conspiracy her framing of her opposition to eviction in Cape Town in the language of justice may open some space in elite publics to politicise the contestation over urban land, something that is relentlessly expelled from the terrain of the political by a variety of elite actors.

But it is Sisulu’s recent declaration that the state intends to do away with the provision of free housing and that people under forty will no longer be eligible for public housing that has been particularly controversial. Both aspects of this comment position her in direct contradiction to the law and the policies to which the government is, at least in principle, committed. This is nothing new. When it comes to its response to the urban land occupation the state routinely speaks and acts in direct contradiction to both law and policy. What is significant here is the indication that the state, increasingly short of cash, intends to step back from some of its commitments to sustain some forms of public welfare.

Sisulu is presenting the state’s public housing programme as if it were a temporary state response to apartheid, which now that things have been normalised, can be abandoned. Both parts of this equation are seriously problematic. The ANC, in a posture that these days is simply farcical given that it is Putin rather than Lenin that restores the sparkle to Zuma’s eyes in tough times, likes to pretend to itself that it is a revolutionary organisation. But public housing, far from being some kind of unique and temporary South African exception to the general status quo, is a standard part of even basic social democratic programmes.

Countries in the South like Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela all have public housing programmes of various kinds. These programmes all have serious flaws, but the fact that they exist and that other states are committed to public housing as a principle, should not be denied. In Venezuela the public housing programme includes housing that is entirely free for entirely impoverished people. There are also governments in the South that have actively sought to legalise land occupations and support the improvement of conditions in shack settlements.

Sisulu’s assertion that people under forty “have lost nothing [to apartheid]" is one of the most extraordinary statements to have escaped from the mouth of a cabinet minister since 1994. The pretence that apartheid’s consequences came to an end in 1994 is the sort of denialism that is so out of touch with reality - and in a way that works to naturalise inequalities inherited from a long history of brutal oppression that turned race into class - that it’s almost obscene to even engage it as if it were a serious proposition.

In a situation in which millions of people cannot access housing through the market the state should recognise the social value of land occupations, offer all the support that it can to improve conditions in shack settlements and develop the best and most extensive public housing programme possible.

But if the state continues to see most land occupations as criminal and to curtail its own public housing programme, it will place millions of people in a situation that is just not viable. The inevitable consequence of the state committing itself to an urban agenda that simply has no place for millions of people will be a radical escalation of the already intense conflict in our cities. To put it plainly guns will become even more central to how our cities are governed. Sisulu’s comments amount to a declaration of war.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.