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Tropical Paradise and the Divide

by Samora Chapman and Caelin Roodt / 12.11.2013

The ridge that rises above the Durban city is green and lush. The suburbs, laid out, are clean, ordered and affluent. Mansions look out over the city, through shady palms to the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond. It is paradise. Or so it appears.

On the other side of the ridge, to the West… the slums begin. Cato Crest is the corridor where the first and third world meet.

In the slums, black sewage runs between shacks so closely packed that there is scarcely room to breathe. The smell of shit and burning rubbish fills the air. Huge rats, fires, floods, death and disease are familiar strangers, always dropping in to pay their visits. The lot of the poor and dispossessed.

KwaZulu-Natal proudly boasts to have delivered the highest number of government housing units in the country this year. So why is this community protesting? Why are they rising up, blockading roads and burning tyres?


Deceiving the Poor

As explained to us by Abahlali base-Mjondolo activists, there are three major issues causing unrest in Cato Crest and other Durban slums: Corruption within the housing delivery programme; merciless and violent evictions coupled with shack demolitions along with police brutality and violent suppression.

It is no secret that the building and allocation of government housing in Durban is corrupt on every level. The Manase Report exposed massive corruption within the housing department. People on the ground are fully aware that their leaders do not have their best interests at heart.

“ANC comrades are selling the houses for a price of R10 000 upwards,” an angry resident tells us. “These houses are supposed to be free or subsidised for the people. They sell three out of every 10 houses built. The only way to get a home is to have political ‘connections’, or find big money.”

Slum clearances are a key part of the city’s Integrated Development Plan. There is no space in Cato Crest. Every scrap of land is occupied and contested. In order to build houses, shacks must be torn down.


The evictions have often been violent, and the city has ignored court interdicts from Abahlali baseMjondolo to stop the demolition of shacks. Activists that speak out against corruption and injustice have been killed.

As we navigate a windy dirt road into Cato Crest, a new set of divisions become evident. There are three distinct types of housing in the township. To one side of the road there is a neatly spaced row of government houses – formal concrete block structures with electricity, running water and sanitation.

On the opposite side is a sea of shacks, built out of corrugated iron and scrap wood. The shack dwellers share public taps, they shit in holes in the ground and have no electricity and share only a few sources of running water.

Then there are the ‘Transit Camps’, which are temporary camps with communal toilets, taps and electricity. When shacks are demolished, the displaced people are put in transit camps. Some people have been in transit camps for five years and are still awaiting their government-subsidised house. Others rebuild their shacks and carry on with life.

Transit Camp


This year the struggle erupted into protest… with frequent marches, barricading of roads and burning of tyres. Two council offices and a community hall have been torched.

Local community leaders have joined forces with Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), who are now at the forefront of the struggle. AbM is a shack dwellers movement that formed in 2005 to amalgamate the struggle for adequate housing and sanitation with the fight against government corruption.

Abahlali baseMjondolo proclaim to be the biggest organization in the country made up of, and representing, the militant poor. They are a pressure group, autonomous from politically organizations, and all leaders are unsalaried. Forget Juju and the EFF, Abahlali baseMjondolo might just be the biggest threat to the ANC in post-apartheid South Africa.

Their slogan is: No Land, No House, No Vote.

These are their demands, as laid out in a memorandum handed over on 16 September to Ravi Pillay, KZN MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works:

1. A call for an inquest into corruption within the housing delivery project.
2. A demand for public access to the housing list.
3. An investigation into the assassinations of activists Thembinkosi Qumbela (March 2013) and Nkhululeko Gwala (June 2013).

AbM has approached the Durban High Court on multiple occasions and has acquired interim court interdicts to prevent the Durban Municipality from demolishing shacks. The city has continued with evictions and demolition nonetheless.

According to AbM, the uprising is being quelled by all means necessary: death threats, unlawful arrests and police brutality. Many unaligned shack dwellers have also fallen victim to the violence. Collateral damage, wrong place, wrong time, the poor man’s burden.

Read Part 3 here. Read Part 1 here.

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*All images © Samora Chapman and Caelin Roodt.

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