22 Aug If You Live in the Suburbs, You Have No Right to Complain About “Shack-Dwellers”
In the early 1980s, a community of at least 500 occupied the space where Long Beach Mall now stands. That was until the Apartheid regime removed these inhabitants by force – exiling them to Khayelitsha which is over thirty kilometres away. As many people were already employed within the Fish Hoek area, this meant long commutes on public transport every working day. Ten years later, those who had been forcibly removed planned to return to their original place of residence and were joined by a few thousand people from the Eastern Cape with hopes of employment. The community relocated to a nearby area – now known as Masiphumele, meaning “we will succeed” in Xhosa – which was called “Site 5” at the time.
Today it is estimated that between thirty and forty thousand people live in Masi, all of whom are confined to a space of 0.39 square kilometres which is less than two kilometres wide. According to MasiCorp, a typical Masi household consists of up to five or six members who all reside in the same (often two-roomed) shack. Compare that to the suburb of Capri Village – located roughly one kilometre away – which in 2011 had a recorded population of between 3000 residents, occupying a space of 4.54 square kilometres. For the record, at least 80% of Capri’s residents are white.
To paint a more vivid picture, this powerful image was captured by photographer Johnny Miller as part of his “Unequal Scenes” project which is currently being exhibited in Johannesburg.
By contrast, a 2011 census documented that Masi had a population of up to 90% black folk and only 0.16% white. In my twenty three years of living, I have never set foot in a shack. In fact I am ashamed to admit that prior to writing this article I had never even considered Masi’s history despite having lived in Capri Village, two kilometres away, for just short of a decade. Today 85% of Masi’s residents live in shacks. Due to a lack of infrastructure and ablution facilities, there are always queues to toilets. On top of that, access to running water and electricity is scarce. Fires are extremely common as residents have to rely on open fires for heating, cooking and boiling water. In addition, shacks are not well ventilated and located in close proximity to one another which means that fires spread extremely fast when they occur – resulting in the loss of homes, sustained injuries and even fatalities.
In spite of all this, I managed to stumble across a South African tourism website which is marketing Masi to tourists as the perfect opportunity to do something “good” – and by this I mean the chance to make oneself feel a little better. The website goes on to describe the fragrant aromas of beef smoke in the settlement’s streets and its “cheerful township women.” Somehow I can’t quite picture this scene while headlines like “2 Dead and 4,000 Homeless After Shack Fire” and “Masi’s Clinic Unable to Serve Township’s Needs” are still fresh in my mind. Not to mention, the many challenges that women who live in informal settlements have to face. According to Our Struggle for Safety and Justice in Khayalitsha, 157 sexual crimes against mainly women and girls were reported for every 100,000 people in Khayelitsha in 2012/2013. Higher rates of gender-based violence, LGBTQI+ discrimination and murder are also heavily linked to underserved areas.
Of course one rationalises the illusion that tourism sites of this nature want to create i.e. an element of hope, a small glimmering prospect of change and liberation. But I cannot ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach as I think about the suffering and hardship of real people now being sold to wealthy travellers as, quite literally, something to see or do – an activity – instead of what it really is i.e. a great demonstration of systemic oppression that thousands of people have to survive day in and day out.
While “township tours” and volunteer programmes are popular tourist activities in South Africa, I cringe at the idea of privileged (often white) people paying money to gawk, “ooh” and “ah” at people of colour who are inevitably victims of a racist social system. Let us not forget that shack-dwellers are victims regardless of the media’s mass attempts to portray them as criminals. Activities like township tours are often deeply rooted in the marginalisation of whole communities, and this should not be overlooked. How can we allow white people to continue profiting off of the exile and condemnation of people of colour in this country while not contributing to these communities?
One of the many unrepentant crimes of white folk in South Africa is that we live on land that does not belong to us (though some might argue that “not all whites” can be held accountable for the acts of our predecessors/peers, I cannot agree). Yet we complain when our isolated, privileged spaces are disrupted by the harsh reality. In this case, the harsh reality being the impossibility of escaping the outcomes of enforced segregation and racial divides. While we live blissfully unaware in our wealthy suburbs protected by neighbourhood watch and security services, the majority of our nation does not enjoy the same benefits.
Did you know that 12 million people live in extreme poverty in South Africa? The latest statistics confirm that over 20% of South Africans live in extreme poverty and cannot afford the cost of basic nutrition. Many survive on less than R19 a day, or R800 per month. For most of South Africans living in sparsely populated suburbs, rent alone is more than triple this figure. But we needn’t knit-pick at statistics to be able to recognise the enormous privilege that we are granted as white people in this country. Let’s be honest, there are very few white people who live in informal settlements.
With all this in mind, I suppose it’s not so difficult to understand my reservations when I came across a petition on behalf of the “Capri Neighbourhood” calling for the removal of “illegal” squatters on Blackhill. The petition states: “We the undersigned residents of the surrounding areas in the Fish Hoek District request that action be taken against the increasing number of squatters occupying illegally built shacks on Blackhill.” Upon reading this petition I noticed how quickly it spiralled into a demo of paranoid suburban-dwellers moaning about their safety and drawing parallels between criminals and shack-dwellers. (Just take a look at the comment section).
What marks a person as being suspicious, I wonder? Reading this sentence made me think of my very racist neighbour who calls her security company whenever a black person walks down our street, and insists on complaining about “all these blacks” to me at every given opportunity. I’m not saying that everyone in Capri is as paranoid as my neighbour but I will say this: many well-off white folk maintain beliefs that are deeply rooted in racism without even knowing it. Not acknowledging how one’s own racial privilege and the dire disenfranchisement of marginalised people is interconnected is one of the many ways that we perpetuate patterns of oppression even if it’s unintentional.
You see, if you have a house with a gate and CCTV security then I am going to assume that you are privileged enough to never have had to live in a shack. Chances are, you probably never will. Although illegal structures may be an inconvenience to you and might hamper the crime-free neighbourhood you are trying to preserve, it’s extremely problematic to view this cause as a “problem to be fixed” while forgetting that human lives are involved.
What is the solution? I’m not sure. This petition does not detail any course of action other than the forcible removal of people which is exactly what led to this chaos in the first place (albeit a few decades back). Furthermore, referring to people as “squatters” is dehumanising to the say the least. Then again, this petition does not seem too concerned with approaching the situation from an ethical or empathetic viewpoint which might be concerned with the outcomes of this initiative for the people involved (that is the “shack-dwellers”).
Should we be more concerned with the devaluation of Capri properties than the livelihoods of people who have nowhere else to go? I certainly hope not. It seems to me that we have forgotten the lack of opportunities and the futility that impoverished South Africans face. When you are destitute, there are not many opportunities readily available to you in terms of accommodation. I highly doubt that if the choice was presented to them, any person would choose to be displaced and faced with a lack of basic facilities. This situation is circumstantial – it is a last resort. To treat it with such a blatant lack of sensitivity re-enforces the oppressive patterns that keep existing inequalities in place.
Furthermore, we cannot simply jump to the conclusion that all “shack-dwellers” are criminals or guilty of burglary (let alone the potential of fatally shooting anyone). Though it can also be noted that crimes of this nature cannot be viewed separate to poverty or the struggle for basic survival. When you do not have your most fundamental hierarchy of needs met, theft might be the only plausible option to survive.
It’s easy for privileged white folk to turn a blind eye to the parts of Cape Town that we do not wish to acknowledge but they will still be there. Though we employ “maids”, “garden boys” and nannies to pander to all our needs, and never think about where they come from each morning when they arrive or where they travel to every evening when they depart. But every time we do this, we are saying that we do not care and that their suffering is someone else’s problem.
MUST READ: A Day in the Life of a South African Maid.
We cannot live blissfully unaware in our bubble of false safety and naivety because it benefits us and addressing these realities is too emotionally taxing. Our indifference towards racial inequality and our lack of accountability for it reaffirms its existences and our insurmountable privilege. So if you are thinking of signing this petition, I ask that you reconsider. Your family is not the only family entitled to safety. White people in this country cannot continue to live blindly sheltered from the mass devastation that lives on our doorstep because we are not separate from it. We don’t deserve to be. To be blind to our privilege is to be blind to human suffering and our part in it.