Voices

When the poor are forced to move: two relocations teach us important lessons

2016-08-05 12:07

Section 26 of the South African Constitution protects everyone’s rights of access to adequate housing. The provision of alternative accommodation, if people would become homeless as a result of an eviction, is one of the key principles to develop in the case law. 

Much of the case law has developed in relation to inner-city buildings. As a result, less attention is being paid to what is required of the state regarding informal settlement relocation. In cases where relocation does take place, there is little policy guidance about the relocation process, negatively affecting the lives of informal settlement residents. 

Take the cases of Mongezi Qhawe and Jeremiah Lehae. 

Mongezi Qhawe* lives in the Marie Louise informal settlement located 15 kilometres to the west of the Johannesburg CBD. About 200 residents live there. They are mostly unemployed and dependent on informal livelihood strategies for their survival. Most of the residents make a living from reclaiming scrap material from a dump site near the settlement. 

Mongezi moved to the property in 1989 after he was retrenched from his job at a mining company called “Shaft Sinkers’. His job entailed travelling between mines erecting mine shafts. He was accommodated at the various hostels attached to the mines where he worked. Initially, he stayed at the Rand Leases mining hostel, which is adjacent to Marie Louise. 

However, when the hostel rent became unaffordable to him, he took to sleeping in the concrete pipes strewn around the property, together with some other residents. They became known as the “Pipe Dwellers”. The settlement grew quickly in the mid-1990s with many new entrants looking for recycling opportunities. 

In the course of their stay at Marie Louise, the residents endured two unlawful evictions and a protracted legal process with the City of Johannesburg and the private landowner, Rand Leases, meant to secure alternative accommodation. 

In 2015, the residents were relocated to another informal settlement nearby in compliance with a court order that required the City of Johannesburg to offer alternative accommodation. 

Jeremiah Lehae* moved to Taylor Road informal settlement, in Honeydew, Johannesburg, as a young man in the 1990s. 

Jeremiah came to live with his father who lived on the property as a farmer-worker, harvesting apricots and peaches and looking after the owner’s poultry. 

Now an urban area, much of Honeydew was farmland when the residents started living there in the 1980s. The only formal structures on the property were two old and derelict animal pens. Over the years residents constructed about 10 shacks next to the formal buildings. Their settlement had no electricity or running water. 

In 2009, a property company that bought the piece of land instituted eviction proceedings against the residents. After a prolonged legal battle, a relocation order was issued in February 2014. The order required the City of Johannesburg to provide residents with access to stands and basic water and sanitation services at an alternative site. 

In January 2015 the residents were relocated to two relocation sites; some to a mixed housing project in Fleurhof and others to an informal settlement in Ruimsig. 

On Friday, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa launched its third set of community practice notes which focus on these two informal settlement relocations (download these at www.seri-sa.org).

They highlight community struggles for access to adequate housing, the court processes that people used to defend themselves against unlawful eviction and how people experience the relocations that follow court processes regarding the provision of alternative accommodation. 

When it comes to informal settlements, South Africa’s housing policy, in the upgrading of informal settlements programme of the national housing code, requires that in situ upgrading be prioritised and that relocation should be an option of last resort. 

But policy provides little direction about the relocation process. The community practice notes offer important lessons for the relocation and temporary alternative accommodation programmes that the city of Johannesburg, and other municipalities in the country, should develop for the relocation of informal settlements. 

In the absence of a temporary alternative accommodation programme, the relocations at Marie Lousie and Taylor Road were haphazard. The City’s planning was insufficient, frequently changing the dates of relocation, with residents having to pack and unpack their belongings an take time off work, or searching for work, on several different occasions. A reasonable relocation plan should be developed in consultation with affected residents. 

Although these are the only homes that people have, the City’s position is that they are temporary. As a result, the stands and the structures are small and density is high. Residents cannot open shops to improve their livelihoods. The lack of affordable formal housing means that these temporary structures are peoples’ only homes while they wait, often years, for permanent housing that they can afford. In the meantime, they are not permitted to make any improvement themselves. 

The courts played an important role in protecting the housing rights of Mongezi Qhawe, Jeremiah Lehae and the other residents of the Marie Louise and Taylor Road informal settlements. However, more must be done if peoples’ lives are to improve especially the development of policy guidance on informal settlement relocations and the delivery of affordable, formal housing at scale. 

*Not their real names. 

»Ed Molopi is a community advocacy officer and researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and Irene de Vos is a senior legal researcher and in-house counsel. 

November 18 2018