It seems to have become widespread practice for municipal or local government in South Africa to forcibly remove many informal settlements from areas where they are situated on the outskirts of larger urban centers and have existed for many years. Some of the people living in these communities are elderly, in their sixties, and have lived in and around these areas in their own communities all their lives. Why remove a community that is so established then? Why indeed!
The all to frequent and seemingly plausible rationale provided by many local governments to justify the forced removals is that they are housed on unstable or unsuitable land, but we seldom if ever are provided with evidence to substantiate these claims. Making such broad claims exonerates the claimants in almost any eventuality, semantically at least, morally is another matter entirely. This particular reason is used with such alarming regularity that one is inclined to think it is scripted. If the land is so horribly unstable then the evidence must be, well, evident. Surely!
Many of these forced relocation’s have and do occur in the Gauteng province of South Africa and claims that the land is unstable to high dolomite content are not entirely untrue as many areas in and around Johannesburg do have large quantities of dolomite in the ground and as such they are at risk of sinkholes occurring. I will not go into that at this time but know that such claims are not entirely untrue.
Yet some actions surrounding such claims have raised questions as to the actual motivation behind these forced removals. Are they truly humanitarian or are they economic?
For example, one such forced removal attempt was made on a community called Themb’Elihle (Pron. Tem-beh-lee-sh-leh), situated near the town of Lenasia in Gauteng not far from Johannesburg. This took place back in 2002 and it climaxed around November that same year when the residents of this informal settlement vehemently and repeatedly protested their removal. A few short months after these incidents a new shopping mall was being built only a few hundred meters from the site of the informal settlement. The building of this mall was well underway by mid 2005 and at that time most of the 45,000 square meters of space had already been let to shops in anticipation of its opening. Surely if the land in the area was too unstable to house the shacks of an informal settlement, then building an enormous brick and concrete shopping mall would be a highly dangerous undertaking?
In the face of all this, no amount of proof could ever justify the gross violations of human and animal rights that take place during and in the wake of these removals.
People have their homes unceremoniously destroyed. The animals that form a fundamentally important part of these communities are seemingly not regarded at all by those people who perform the removals. No attempts are made by them to protect the animals or even treat them humanely, no financial allocations are made by local governments to facilitate the humane removal of these creatures and it is NGO’s and charities that step in and assist the animals and people of these communities in their hour of need.
Shacks are bulldozed over and around hiding animals; others run terrified into the fields around where the community was housed. Owners who rely on their pets for protection and companionship, in a world where it is often the only security, love or comfort they have, are forced to desert them, a crime itself as the animal rights laws state abandonment is a criminal offense.
Elderly people and children are often the most negatively affected as they have the least control or say in what happens in the community and their lives. Children are displaced from schools, most of which are overcrowded and so they have no assurance they will find place in schools near the new area they are being moved to. Parents who earn minimum or below minimum wages, if at all, are forced to fund new school uniforms. The elderly have no means to replace any lost possessions as income is rare amongst them.
The workers, bread winners or providers of the community are relocated miles from their work places often making travel to and from them virtually impossible. The few possessions they have are simply crushed and shattered if they could not be salvaged or rescued before the bulldozers come in. Some houses are destroyed while their owners are away and possession are even burned when they are told they will not be transported to the new locations.
How can anyone decide what is of value or importance to another person, how can another persons’ possessions be completely disregarded, especially when they have so little as it is?
The shattered remains of their homes are then unceremoniously loaded onto flat bed carriers, taken to the new location and dumped. The owners then have to rifle through this to find what is theirs in the hope of rebuilding their homes.
When I asked an animal rescue group why the owners’ pets and other animals in a particular area could not be returned to them once they have settled in the new location I was advised that the new area is alongside a busy main road and the municipality has said that strictly no animals will be allowed. Yet it seems that this may not always be the case, the people performing the removals seem to make up their own rules as the go along. Illiteracy amongst many of the people in the communities often lead to misunderstanding too.
Without any doubt we know too that animals will be brought into the community again. Show me a community that survives without animals either for companionship, protection or food; none, as far back as we know people have always lived with and depended upon animals. A community without their family, neighbours and friends; without their pets and their livestock is shattered and likely starving. It can no longer be a community in any real sense of the word.
Where is that African Ubuntu we hear spoken of with so much pride? Where is the compassion for your fellow man that politicians speak of to get electoral votes? Where are the houses, the basic amenities; such as water, sanitation and electricity? Where are the human rights you fought so bravely for twenty and thirty years ago? What are you doing with our taxes? We see very little evidence of it being used in social infrastructure and yet you get fatter and drive fancier cars than ever before!
Stand up, own up! You pass the buck, apportion blame to anything and anyone other than yourselves and yet after sixteen years of democracy all I see is a nation abusing its poor. This is where it starts. You shatter communities, break the spirits of your people, oppress them with apparent imposed poverty, then what….? I’ll tell you what! You are left with broken people and country divided.
Are we then not right back where we started?
Photographs in “Forced Removals shatter South African Communities – Parts I & II”, excl. satellite image, used with kind permission of CLAW – Community Led Animal Welfare