Land invasion is not a uniquely South African problem. In 2003, the UN-Habitat global report on Human Settlements said one billion people were slum dwellers. Then, it was one in six people. The following year, 2004, the World Social Forum said, as a result, many poor and homeless people in urban areas relied on illegal occupation of land to be able to have shelter. Poverty, unemployment, location of land, quest for own space is said to be reasons behind land invasions.
Surprisingly, courts all over the world have been sympathetic to these land invaders. This is possible because there is another wave of land grab that is going on in the world. The World Bank has noticed a wave of private investors, including large banks, investment funds and agribusiness corporations who are buying tens of millions of hectares of land in Asia, Africa and Latin America for food and fuel production. So there seems to be a contest of land grabbing between the rich and the poor, with the rich using their financial muscle to land grab and the poor armed with only their conviction of their right to land. The recent Cape Town High Court case of Tafelberg land, which was effectively taken away from rich buyers and reserved for affordable social housing is a case in point. For countries with a legacy of colonialism and apartheid, the land grab by the rich signals how deaf owners of capital are to social injustice.
One of the most publicised incidents of land invasions in South Africa happened in July 2001 in a place called Bredell in the East Rand of Johannesburg. The confluence of government, civic organisations, media, international investors and the drop of the rand by 23 cents (coincidental or not) brought the incident great agency and inevitably, and took it to the top of the country’s emergency agenda. The local government went to court, got a court order and evicted people with all its drama and seemingly brutal police victimisation. Almost all civic organisations called it a criminalisation of the poor. This was five years after apartheid – black people needed land in the cities, and there was a general feeling that they didn’t deserve to not be accommodated and or victimised in that manner in a new South Africa.
Since that dramatic incident so early in our democracy, the only thing that can be said without a doubt about land invasion is that it continues. Effectively, our government has seen 20 years of land invasions, some more dramatic than others, and there seems to have been no lessons learnt. There are still knee-jerk and reactionary responses to the issue, and there is still no clear long-term plan.
In response to the land invasions in 2001, no different to how the Western Cape Provincial government is responding in 2020, the then Minister of Housing adopted a no-tolerance approach, blaming political opportunism and rogue leaders, misleading the most vulnerable and promising them what did not belong to them.
And yet still, year after year, with thousands of communities that have mushroomed at the periphery of urban centres in disorganised chaos that ultimately resembles life and a rhythm, there remains one obvious and clear truth about land invasion in urban areas – it continues.
As the last 20 years have shown, no boots and guns can withstand people’s sheer will and desperation to put up their shelters closer to economic opportunities. Police have never and will never be a secret weapon to prevent or provide a solution to land invasions. Policing as a solution to land invasions has always been described as draconian, further marginalising the poor in their quest to have land where they are closer to making a living.
For South Africa, land invasion of course has symbolic history in the apartheid days. Like most struggles in South Africa and the strategies employed, land invasions became part of the tools of defiance against the Group Areas Act and Black Communities Act that condemned black people into homelands and the outskirts of urban centres in vulnerable spaces that were barren and easily flooded when it rained. Land invasion became an apartheid defiance mechanism meant to render the country ungovernable. Land invasions were in part alternative means to reclaim the people’s land in areas we once owned.
With the abolishing of the racist Group Areas and Black Communities Acts, the doors of urban centres were wide open and black people came rushing in. In 1996, Johannesburg alone had two million people, while Gauteng had 7.3 million. Today, the number has quadrupled to almost six million in Johannesburg, and Gauteng has 15.5 million people. With socio-economic realities still largely in the hands of the minority and land redistribution having been pitifully slow, the desperation for land by the poor to put up shelter in urban areas and be closer to opportunities becomes clear.
Land invasions have therefore been defined as an alternative tactic of the poor and powerless to access land and build a semblance of a home. Land invasion is a consequence of desperation and homelessness in areas that were sliced and diced with no black people in mind.
Given our knowledge that land invasion is not new, is a tool of the desperate, and is unlikely to stop, why have we not been able to solve a problem that we know for so many years? Why have we insisted on the same tools: go to court for an order, then send the police to evict? That strategy has not worked, if can be called a strategy at all.
World Social Forum blames the high level of homelessness and slum dwelling on lack of planning and lack of policies for slum dwellers and the homeless.
When apartheid laws were finally repealed, there was a higher rate of re-entry of black citizens into predominantly white areas (those who could afford it) and broader urban centres for the poor. But the repealed laws were not replaced with regulations and policies that understood what would happen when the doors of cities were opened. Today, the World Bank says 26% of the South African population has moved from rural areas to urban areas. That’s a quarter of the population moving from the entire country into roughly five cities that are well developed enough to offer real economic opportunities.
People needed space and more land as they re-entered the areas they were legally not allowed to enter for decades. This has then led to mushrooming of free-standing informal settlements mostly out of invasion of land by the poor.
As with any Land invasions since the early 90s, there will always be opportunistic people. Whenever there are land invasions, those who are renting behind houses as backyard dwellers and those in congested informal settlements will join the new invaders in search for more space and more land. These people are usually not as desperate because they have some form of dwelling and are usually coming from far away from the new invasions.
So how do we solve the problem of Land invasion so that we can have sustainable land use underpinned by social justice and adequate access to land for all who need it.
Firstly, social justice is the foundation of any stable and coherent state and as long as there is no felt presence of a modicum of social justice, especially in areas like Cape Town, the glue that holds communities together will not be there. The extremes in Cities where the poor, predominantly black, have no land and the rich, predominantly white have vast amounts of land inside cities will always create these bubbles of protests and invasion and ultimately worse. So a clear plan with timelines on how the land destitute will be assisted within cities and how those with vast amounts of land will make some sacrifices is the only long term solutions to stop land invasions.
Secondly, the gulf between the poor and their government needs to close. Research shows that in communities where people don’t really know what their elected officials are doing will always hold public officials in low regard and would likely protest regularly in search of plans and programmes for their needs. In Cape Town, for example, there is just no trust between the poor and their local government.
Of course, for the opportunist who may want to foment the pain and desperation of the people, this means land in economically viable hotspots must be fenced and guarded. Land that lay fallow for many years without a clear plan for it or unfulfilled promises on its development is vulnerable.
Ultimately, all the people upon whose backs these cities have been built, deserve the piece of that success. We need to give the people who have worked the land their slice of the land. This must be coordinated, planned, balanced with conservation and other land needs – but people must be given land.
Land cannot be reproduced, is a gift of nature, and no wealth is worth excluding millions of citizens from their natural right to land.
Yonela Diko is the spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu. You can follow him on Twitter on @yonela_diko.