Lockdown forces ministry to address shack settlements

A lockdown in shacks in their current state is bound to fail. An improvement of material conditions in these places, however, may help residents better comply with regulations.

On 27 March, South Africa dropped all that is not essential work, consumption and play and entered a period of national lockdown. Three weeks later, there are indications that it might have helped reduce the spread of Covid-19.

However, there are reports that in shack and other congested settlements, lockdown regulations have hardly been observed, prompting concern and condemnation. Reports of heavy-handed treatment by the police and members of the South African National Defence Force, and of forceful evictions in some areas, have contributed to a cloud of anxiety over townships and shack settlements. Amid food insecurity, this adds to fears of starvation that may well loom larger than the very real possibility of contracting the coronavirus.

In response to early signs of crisis in shack settlements, the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation has been engaging a network of social movements, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics, human settlements practitioners and science councils. Over the past three weeks, these deliberations have focused on the most urgent interventions needed in shack settlements during the government’s lockdown and the subsequent gradual lifting of its regulations.

NGO officers, academics and researchers are accustomed to speaking for the impoverished, but confined to working from home they have had to navigate the barriers to online communication for shack dwellers. Working under these circumstances, though, has allowed for more direct representation.

Representatives of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and grass-roots network the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (Fedup) have brought vivid and brutally honest reports from the ground into the deliberations. They have also called for such discussions to be institutionalised in order to create a platform for future engagement on these issues. No doubt, further democratisation of such a platform would be needed.

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The discussions and submissions so far have tackled the notion of the de-densification of shack settlements, which the department announced as part of its Covid-19 response, and reports of evictions in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu has spoken further with Abahlali, Fedup and a group of NGOs behind closed doors about de-densification, evictions, lockdown measures and a social compact between them.

Evictions prohibited

While the department has not dropped its plans for de-densification – its spokesperson going so far as to disingenuously frame them as being proposed by NGOs – the revised regulations for the extended lockdown to 30 April, which the government announced on 16 April, nevertheless include a prohibition on evictions: “No person may be evicted from their place of residence, regardless of whether it is a formal or informal residence or a farm dwelling, for the duration of the lockdown.”

This prohibition applies even where a court order has been obtained, increasing residents’ protection against eviction as laid out in the Constitution, which reads: “No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of the court made after considering the relevant circumstances.”

The prohibition is a breakthrough for those who have been in discussions with the department, the shack dwellers’ movements and networks in particular. It means that if de-densification – relocating some of the shacks in a settlement to ease congestion, reportedly to land nearby – is to be advanced during the lockdown, this may only go ahead if a household wants to vacate their shack and have it dismantled. The purpose of such a move would be to make way for improved access to water, sanitation and drainage, and to allow emergency vehicles access to homes.

Any violation of lockdown regulations at Sisulu’s instruction should result in her being suspended. Municipalities conducting such evictions will also be contravening lockdown regulations and the implications of doing so should be the same for mayors and city managers.

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The piecemeal relocation of shacks, whether during lockdown or thereafter, must be voluntary and align with longer-term plans for permanent, in situ upgrading of the home. It can take two forms. One is within the settlement, through a spatial rearrangement to which all the affected households agree. Where this is not possible, relocation to an adjacent or nearby area should be temporary, and with agreement and a commitment from the government on a permanent solution and time frame for the household.

The new government regulations may allay fears of immediate mass de-densification, but the reality remains that a lockdown makes little sense in any shack settlement in South Africa.

Unavoidable contact

Most shacks are occupied by more than one person. Entire households may live in a single room. Not all shacks have a defined yard around them, and where yards are fenced off they often contain multiple households. These may be extended family members or renters. 

For shack settlements, the norm is that taps and toilets are shared. Where water provision is being improved, this is in the form of water tanks. These, too, are accessed communally. This means every household member must leave their shack or yard several times a day. In fetching water and using communal toilets, individuals queue with others and touch the same surfaces.

Moreover, the corrugated iron residents use to build their shacks transmits both heat and cold into the shack. It’s unrealistic to expect people to stay inside in what can be extreme discomfort.

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In many shacks there are no windows, as frames and glass are expensive. This limits natural light and ventilation; it is dark inside most shacks during the day. Using candles for extended periods of time may be unwise as the source of many shack fires is a candle that fell over. The risk is also higher during the lockdown because children are at home.

Even though there has been a drive to provide electricity over the years, many shack settlements remain without power. With no lights and no fans to force air out and dispel heat on warm days, people cannot remain in a shack for too long.

These homes have little space to store food. Some households with power may have a fridge, but most do not. It is also difficult to secure shacks and food supplies against rodents. And on warm days, it is impossible to keep food fresh. For these and economic reasons, requests to refrain from excessive hoarding in advance of the lockdown will have come across as a hollow joke to most shack dwellers.

Positive urban attributes

Lockdown is also impractical in relation to the positive urban attributes of shack settlements, which planned urban areas tend to lack.

Shack settlements are often dubbed “mixed use” by urban planners, with economic activity intertwined with residences. Hairdressing, sewing, shoe cobbling, cooking, shisa nyamas or braais, vegetable stalls, general stores and the trade in second-hand clothing form part of the informal fabric of settlements.

They also form the economic base, ensuring that income earned outside the area circulates within the settlement at an intensity that enables survival. But many traders and service providers live from hand to mouth, working every day of the week. They cannot afford to be confined to their homes and miss even one day of work.

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Some shack settlements are compact and dense. While spatial arrangements here may not be optimal, the use of space is nevertheless efficient. Density enables an attribute that is generally considered desirable in urban studies – that of encounters between people.

A sense of community with social ties and a multitude of organisations, mixed use and density, and the extent to which this supports precarious livelihoods, is what has long driven urban lobbyists to call for existing settlements to be upgraded rather than relocating residents to temporary areas and structures. Organised residents have overwhelmingly supported this idea and attempts from above to enforce relocation are often bitterly contested from below.

Upgrading and innovation

The Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme, introduced into the South African Housing Code in 2004, acknowledges these points and requires relocation to be a last resort. It assumes the developmental deficits in shack settlements can be addressed without too much disruption.

Upgrading existing settlements includes legalising land occupations. It also ensures minimal spatial rearrangement. This may be necessary for day-to-day circulation and access to services at a household level, while addressing disaster mitigation such as flooding and landslides. The improvement of homes may involve multi-storey structures to allow for private living spaces for residents of the same shack.

The Covid-19 pandemic would pose less of a challenge had this programme been implemented timeously and at scale. The provision of basic services that would make frequent hand-washing possible is long envisaged and overdue. Staying indoors would be more manageable if upgrading had progressed to a point where households were permitted to build in brick. The department is now also confronted with the urgency to identify barriers to implementation of existing policy and to help unlock upgrading projects.

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Consolidating shacks into permanent, more liveable structures is already under way in many settlements, often triggered by the formal provision of electricity. This must be supported by fast-tracking upgrading plans. For dense settlements, the rollout of structural frames and prefabricated modules that allow shacks to extend upwards might need permission before the approval of formal plans. Therefore, planning and approval mechanisms require urgent attention.

NGOs have long promoted incremental improvements such as solar panels for lighting, solar-powered fridges, metal lockers for food storage, insulation sheeting and measures to improve ventilation to improve day-to-day living conditions in shacks. Accelerating the provision of these would go a long way towards enabling self-isolation when needed.

However, the human settlements sector has never before been confronted with a situation in which the livelihoods of most inhabitants of shack settlements are suspended. Long-term reliance on the charitable delivery of food parcels is neither empowering nor dignified. This will also be difficult to sustain at the real scale at which it is needed as weeks of lockdown roll into months of partial restrictions. The relaxation of lockdown regulations for spaza shops and vegetable vendors, while essential, prioritises some livelihoods over others. This places additional pressure on community leaders to resolve conflicts as they arise.

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The sector has also never been confronted with such a sudden requirement to make physical distancing possible in shack settlements. It has to rely, to a large extent, on the ingenuity that has made settlements work in the face of socioeconomic inequality and prolonged shortcomings in governance. Innovative localised space management, such as the use of public facilities and open spaces on a rotational basis, may prevent overcrowding or the formation of long queues. But such measures rely heavily on local leadership and community volunteers, who are already engaged in awareness campaigns, sanitising shared facilities and the distribution of food parcels.

Across these old and new challenges, Covid-19 calls for the strengthening of governance structures at all levels under principles of urgency, integrity, transparency, openness and solidarity, all resonating with the Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994. This applies as much to evolving national platforms of engagement as to intergovernmental, provincial and municipal structures, project-level task teams or steering committees, and the systems and structures that need to be put in place to support and capacitate community-based initiatives.

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