I often wonder what people must think when they view South Africa from the outside looking in. We all have preconceived ideas about how beautiful or wonderful countries other than our own are; or how romantic it might be to live in or visit them.
Many people I encounter on social networking sites are intrigued by the fact that I am South African and ask me about what it is like to live here. I love South Africa, the country is beautiful and the people are, for the most part, hospitable and warm. The fauna and flora are magnificent and we really do have a lot to offer the curious or adventurous traveler in this one tiny country housed at the southernmost tip of the African continent.
But as with most countries, to visit is one thing, to live here can be quite another.
After our successful hosting of the FIFA Soccer World Cup last year, 2010, we have had a myriad of strikes and political chaos ensued. Much of this was pushed to one side during the event, when the eyes of the world were focused on us.
Raising awareness of human rights violations is something I never thought I would have to consider in the new South Africa. We are after all the bright shiny NEW South Africa are we not? Well no, at grassroots level, this is not the case at all, it takes a long time to undo damage. Sixteen years on and we still find communities suffering, some forced into virtual slave labour, others homeless for all intents and purposes and living with the risk of forced removals, victims of high crime rates and subjected all types of abuse.
The term “forced removals” is a term we became familiar with during the apartheid era in South African history when non-white communities were forcibly removed from certain areas to government specified locations.
One would expect that this completely hurtful, destructive and of the cruelest of things that can be done to any community would be a thing of the past. Sadly, it is not.
Forced removals still happen in South Africa and with frightening regularity. Government appears to wash its hands of them because the actual removals are usually performed by security companies employed by local government or municipalities. The people who perform these removals are called the “red ants” largely because they wear red overalls and or t-shirts as work clothes. As far as the “ants” part of the name goes, well most of us know how an army of ants will take away everything and anything in their path; so you may have some notion as to why they are called this, it certainly is no term of endearment.
These removals are seldom reported by the media. These communities have little or no voice and they are being marginalized and mistreated because of it.
It is always the poorest communities who suffer. The people who struggle to uplift themselves because of high unemployment rates and lack of availability of basic housing and amenities which is soul destroying. All of which have been promised to them, in typical well practiced behaviour of most politicians and governments globally.
In the absence of housing and in search of work, people are drawn to the outskirts of the bigger cities and in order to avoid being homeless and on the streets they gather any available materials or seek out deserted buildings where they build makeshift homes or shacks and this is how informal settlements are born. These areas are also called shanty towns and are not unique to Africa.
As more people gather they form small communities. Groups of people who stay close for many reasons, but mostly for company, food, security or common interest. No matter what your opinion of these settlements, they are inhabited by human beings and as they become settled they bring in animals to stave off starvation, usually chickens and rabbits for that purpose and cats to keep vermin at bay and dogs for companionship, protection and security. This is not a new story, the building blocks for urbanisation have probably been following much the same system as this for centuries the world over.
In modern society, these people do not have high cost burglar alarms or security companies to depend on if crimes occur and they most certainly do; the police are unlikely to attend if called and if they do, it could take many hours before they get to the scene of a crime in these areas.
Humans and animals form communities; you can’t have one without the other. These little urban communities dotting the periphery of high income suburbs and urban environments are no less communities than those of the wealthier suburbs; in fact, in many respects they are more communal because they need and rely upon each other in order to survive; they know the true meaning of African Ubuntu.
Photographs in “Forced Removals shatter South African Communities – Parts I & II”, excl. satellite image, used with kind permission of CLAW – Community Led Animal Welfare