Electricity is currently being installed in the Slovo Park shack settlement, south of Johannesburg. The rollout is well underway and when it is concluded 10 000 residents will have electricity in their homes after waiting, and struggling, since 1994.
This follows a 2016 South Gauteng High Court decision that found the failure of the City of Johannesburg to implement the upgrade of informal settlements programme in Slovo Park to be unlawful, administratively unfair, and in violation of the right to housing guaranteed by section 26 of the Constitution.
The judgment has far-reaching implications for municipalities, as it makes the programme the primary instrument for the state to upgrade and proactively provide houses in shack settlements.
“Shack fires break out at a rate of one every two months and are often fatal. Ambulances refuse to collect the sick from Slovo Park because the roads are not formally demarcated.”
Sibongile Mpanza, who has lived in Slovo Park for more than two decades, told New Frame that “with electrification, things are a little better.”
Dan Moalahi, chairperson of the Slovo Park Community Development Forum, said people no longer have to buy expensive paraffin and candles daily, and that children can play at night without fear of being electrocuted.
Slovo Park is named after struggle stalwart Joe Slovo, who served as general secretary of the South African Communist Party and as a general in Umkhonto we Sizwe. But a name is all the settlement shares with the emancipatory hopes of the struggle icon – the living conditions are grim.
Acting Judge Sanja Strauss noted the South Gauteng High Court that, “They have no access to electricity. Shack fires break out at a rate of one every two months and are often fatal. Ambulances refuse to collect the sick from Slovo Park because the roads are not formally demarcated, do not appear on a map … and as a result individual residents cannot be located.”
In the judgment it was accepted as an undisputed fact that government officials had made empty promises to the residents of Slovo Park, saying they would upgrade the settlement into a township and provide it with essential services.
With assistance from non-governmental organisations, the community drew up a plan to upgrade the settlement and presented it to the City, in terms of the programme.
But after years of protest, and engagement through official channels, the community, with legal counsel from Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, took the City to court as a last resort.
“The decision to unilaterally move the residents flies in the face of established constitutional jurisprudence regarding the need for meaningful engagement in instances where right to adequate housing is concerned.”
Instead of inclusively addressing the development of Slovo Park through the programme, which, the community argued, was the primary policy for this, the City wanted to relocate residents to Unaville and give qualifying households government-subsidised houses.
The reason for this, according to the state, was that the ground in Slovo Park is dolomitic and that large-scale development would be impossible. However, three experts who presented evidence in the case concurred that the dolomite risk was low.
And, in terms of the programme’s guiding policy, “relocation should be the exception and not the rule”, said Strauss.
South African courts, particularly the Constitutional Court, have on different occasions emphasised the importance of meaningful engagement before people can be evicted or relocated. In Slovo Park, there was no consultation with the community.
“The decision to unilaterally move the residents flies in the face of established constitutional jurisprudence regarding the need for meaningful engagement in instances where right to adequate housing is concerned,” read Strauss’s judgment.
“to uproot people and move them where we assume will be better for them is not necessarily just…”
The community argued that building houses for just a few families undermined and overlooked more progressive avenues of fulfilling the constitutional obligation of providing access to adequate housing.
This obligation is also in line with what the programme aims to do, which is to develop shack settlements where they are, with the involvement of the community.
“The intent of the policy is to provide tenure security and a healthy environment to people living in informal settlements,” said Strauss. The judge emphasised that the programme “envisages a holistic development approach with minimum disruption or distortion of existing fragile community networks and support structures, and encourages engagement between local authorities and residents living within informal settlements”.
Professor Marie Huchzermeyer from the Wits School of Architecture and Planning said that “to uproot people and move them where we assume will be better for them is not necessarily just … In fact, there is yet to be a … relocation that is actually to a better location. I only know of relocations that are worse, further out [of the city] … and every time there is resistance from people to move.”
Moalahi told New Frame that the community is not opposed to a relocation, but relocation must not be further out of the city, and must not disrupt the community’s existing social balance.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) published a press statement last month explaning that electrification was just the beginning.
The City will be in contempt of court if it fails to go beyond its electrification campaign.