TRANSFORMATION 78 (2012) ISSN 0258-7696 133
Marie Huchzermeyer (2011) Cities with
‘Slums’: from informal settlement eradication
to a right to the city in Africa. Cape Town:
University of Cape Town Press.
Marie Huchzermeyer’s new book Cities with ‘Slums’ provides an overview
of informal settlement eradication in African cities. As in her previous
comparative work (Huchzermeyer 2004), South African cities assume center
stage. After nearly two decades of silence on the subject, this text is at the
forefront of an emerging consensus around the systematic nature of forced
removals in the post-apartheid period. Whereas late apartheid studies
assessed removals as central to a coherent accumulation strategy (eg Maré
1980, Platzky and Walker 1985, Savage 1986), it has only been in the last five
years that post-apartheid analysts have begun to reach a comparable
conclusion. After briefly considering a handful of key works from the 1970s
and 1980s, this review situates Huchzermeyer’s new work, the first book-
length treatment of post-apartheid evictions, in the context of the developing
literature on the latest round of evictions and relocations.
The first comprehensive study of apartheid-era forced removals was
published in 1971 by English-born Franciscan priest Cosmas Desmond. The
result of six months worth of visits to threatened settlements across South
Africa, The Discarded People drew national attention to systematic
relocations for the first time, despite its nearly immediate banning inside the
country. Desmond’s aim in writing the book was to ‘penetrate the cloak of
secrecy’ surrounding removals (Desmond 1971:6), as he was convinced that
South African whites would organise against apartheid urban policy if they
knew what was occurring at the time. As he would contend over a decade
later, ‘The resettlement policy is the cornerstone of the whole edifice of
apartheid’ (Desmond 1985:xviii).
While early influx control was intended to achieve complete separation
between whites and non-whites, a high modernist project of ‘tidy[ing] the
map’ (Desmond 1971:13), by the 1950s the Nationalist Party shifted gears.
This second phase was, according to Desmond, an attempt to reproduce
cheap African labour reserves, in its initial phase paralleling what Marx
called primitive accumulation: ‘The labour-tenant system is being abolished
in one district after another, and the people are faced with the alternatives
of working full-time for the White farmer (if he wants their labour) or being
sent to resettlement camps without any land’ (1971:218). This process would
later be described by two researchers from the Surplus People Project in
strikingly similar terms, with relocations to bantustans serving as the central
means through which ‘thousands of people have been locked into farm
labour or contract work’ (Platzky and Walker 1985:33).
These rural evictions constitute the single largest category of forced
removals under apartheid, and when combined with urban removals in
accordance with the Group Areas Act, this was the fate of a fifth of the South
African population by 1985 (1985:7). Like Desmond before them, the Surplus
People Project would maintain that removals served to meet the labour needs
of the white economy, emphasizing the mining, agricultural, and industrial
sectors in particular (1985:16). While neither of these authors is reductively
economistic, discussing both racialist and security rationales, the emphasis
in both studies remains on the formation of an agrarian proletariat and the
coerced peripheralisation of the absolute surplus population. Rural relocation
sites were, in the words of Desmond, ‘simply dumping grounds for old
people, women and children whose labour is not needed for the White
By the late 1980s, the apartheid government was no longer able to
maintain control over urban influx control. Last ditch attempts to regulate the
black urban population – most notoriously the destruction of Crossroads in
1986 – began to falter, and the 1990s were marked by the proliferation (and
de novo formation) of peri-urban shack settlements in every major
metropolitan area. Thus Mandela’s 1994 promise of a million houses
constituted a key component of the Reconstruction and Development
Programme (RDP). Low-cost subsidised structures are commonly called
‘RDP houses’ to this day, despite the abandonment of most tenets of the
Review of Cities with ‘Slums’
These developmental efforts notwithstanding, the housing backlog has
continued to skyrocket annually, and more than 15 years after the transition,
nearly a quarter of the residents in South Africa’s nine largest cities remain
without formalised shelter (Misselhorn 2009). Even while total government
expenditure on housing delivery has more than doubled over the past half
decade, the number of homes delivered remains roughly constant, oscillating
between 220 000 and 270 000 annually (Tissington 2011:31-33). Despite the
fact that more than 2.6 million subsidised units have been delivered since
1994, the number of informal settlements has increased from roughly 300 to
more than 2,700 in the same period (2011: 32, 36).
After an initial dearth of analysis, the past few years have been marked
by a resurgence of literature on South African shack settlements. Above all,
it has been organised resistance to forced removals by those facing them
that has been responsible for the new wave of studies. As its name suggests,
the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) has been at the forefront
of organising against evictions in the Cape Flats, as well as militant protests
against the privatisation of municipal services. In addition to winning a
moratorium on evictions in its first year of existence, AEC helped organise
a 21-month occupation against horrid conditions in the Blikkiesdorp transit
camp (Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers 2011). Likewise, AEC led the
campaign against the forced relocation of 20,000 Joe Slovo residents to Delft
in order to make way for the N2 Gateway housing project. While the project
initially promised to rehouse the evicted shack dwellers, less than a quarter
of the promised homes were actually constructed, and most of these were
out of evictees’ price range in any case (Tissington and Vartak 2009).
Instead, former residents were removed to a transit camp 15 km further from
Durban-based Abahlali baseMjondolo has done similar work, most notably
winning a 2009 Constitutional Court-mandated revision of the KwaZulu-
Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007,
legislation which described informal settlements as a ‘hindrance to housing
delivery’ and facilitated their eradication (Huchzermeyer 2011:203). Just two
weeks prior to the court ruling however, armed attackers, suggested by some
observers to be tied to a local ANC branch (Huchzermeyer 2011, Chance
2010, Neocosmos 2011), drove Abahlali from their headquarters in the
Kennedy Road shack settlement, destroying their main office and even
burning down the homes of some of their members. The debates surrounding
the 2009 attack, as well as those related to a falling out among participants
in the 2006 Social Movements Indaba, have found their way into much
scholarly work on informal settlements in South Africa. The result is that it
has become practically de rigeur to reference Abahlali press statements in
research on urban evictions, even when such work has little to do with the
dynamics of these social movements.
A new consensus is beginning to form around the contention that state-
ordered forced removals are back. While the political economy of housing
was a key component of Patrick Bond’s work on the transition (2000a, 2000b),
it was not until Marie Huchzermeyer released Unlawful Occupation (2004)
that we were presented with a comprehensive account of the failure of
informal settlement policy in the first decade of the post-apartheid period.
After thoroughly reviewing both liberal and Marxist debates on informal
housing, she engages in a rigorous comparative analysis of South African
and Brazilian informal settlement policy, holding up the latter case as the
ideal. Whereas the South African case is characterised by lack of consultation,
eradication, and above all, a definition of informal housing as temporary, the
Brazilian state recognizes favelas as here to stay, engaging residents and
shaping policy accordingly. While Brazilian policy is certainly an improvement
over South Africa’s consistent relocations, Huchzermeyer’s analysis
emphasises rhetoric at the expense of policy as implemented. Multiple
sections of Rio de Janeiro are already scheduled for eviction prior to the 2016
Olympics, and the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions
(COHRE) recently expressed concern about the likelihood of evictions in the
run-up to the 2014 World Cup (COHRE 2010). Most recently, thousands of
unlawful occupiers in the Pinheirinho settlement on the outskirts of São
Paulo were evicted in accordance with an interdict granted by the state
judiciary, despite having occupied this land for over eight years. As in South
Africa, the legal enshrinement of progressive housing rights has meant little
in the midst of a construction boom.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this emergent literature on
informal settlement eradication is that excepting Huchzermeyer, virtually
none of its contributors are trained as urbanists. Certainly there is a sizeable
South African urban studies literature on both anti-eviction social movements
and inner city evictions, but work on peri-urban removals is dominated by
non-urbanists. At the forefront is political theorist and longtime Abahlali
affiliate Richard Pithouse, whose 2008 report for COHRE stands as the only
attempt to actually quantify the scale of removals, though he admits that a
precise calculation is nearly impossible. He claims that ‘it can now be
Review of Cities with ‘Slums’
confidently asserted that at least 10,000 people have been left homeless each
year and that at least 5,000 people have been forcibly removed each year
giving a total of 15,000 people subject to forced eviction each year’ (Pithouse
Relying entirely on a single article by Pithouse (2006), labour sociologist
Ercüment Çelik argues that a new regime of forced removals was initiated in
2001 (Çelik 2010:168), the same year identified by Pithouse in the COHRE
report (Pithouse 2008:108). While for Pithouse these removals were part of
a ‘security driven eradication agenda’ (2008:145) tied to the UN Millennium
Development Goals, Çelik attributes relocations to real estate interests (Çelik
2010:169). Similarly, political theorist Nigel Gibson likens evictions to a
‘gentrification scheme’, arguing that the ‘urban real-estate market has
magnified the threat to shack dwellers’ (Gibson 2011:152, 188). Both of these
analysts thus implicitly assimilate forced removals to a model derived from
a ground rent-centred theory of gentrification.
Despite the continuity between the periods during and after apartheid
suggested in much of this literature on removals (Çelik 2010, Gibson 2011,
Huchzermeyer 2011, Pithouse 2008), all accounts suggest that the rationale
behind state-ordered removals has shifted from one centred on the
reproduction of labour reserves to one focused on real estate profits and
counter-insurgency. At the same time, despite recent generalisations about
gentrification as a ‘global urban strategy’ (Smith 2002, Atkinson and Bridge
2005), there is little empirical evidence to suggest that the primary rationale
behind post-apartheid peri-urban removals involves maximally extracting
profit from ground rent, nor have service delivery protests proven more than
a thorn in the government’s side. Certainly one could make the case where
public-private partnerships or social housing institutions are involved, as
in the case of N2 Gateway with Thubelisha Homes or more recently, the
eviction of dozens of renters from a subsidised housing complex in Durban
by Sohco. Still, maximising profits strictu sensu is too simple an explanation
in this case, and it fails to explain widely publicised forced removals in less
centrally located sites such as Ekurhuleni, the Cape Flats, and Cato Manor.
What interest then does the South African state have in forcibly removing
shack dwellers? This is precisely where Huchzermeyer, convener of the
Housing Programme at Wits, enters the fray with her new book Cities with
‘Slums’, the first monograph on informal settlement eradication in African
cities since the 1980s. Her answer ties in with an emergent literature on the
drive to render South African cities ‘world class’ (Gibson 2011, McDonald
2007, Samara 2011), focusing in particular on visibility as the key variable
determining which informal settlements are targeted for eradication (cf
Huchzermeyer 2006:45, Pithouse 2006). Underlying all of this is the
phenomenon of ‘Dubaisation’, as Huchzermeyer calls it, the pressure on
municipal governments to attract global investment and thereby maintain
their city’s position in the hierarchy of interurban competition.
Urban competitiveness remains inextricably intertwined with what she
terms the ‘target-setting approach,’ with both ‘focus[ing] the state squarely
on symptoms rather than causes’ (2011:248). Rhetorical policy shifts
notwithstanding, in every case she details, the state remains obsessed with
an ordered city rendered legible to foreign investors through the concealment
and peripheralisation of shack settlements. In practice this means riffing on
Engels’ classic discussion of the bourgeois solution to the housing question:
Official urban planning in African cities deals with informal settlements
either by stamping them out and replacing them, at best relocating their
inhabitants to formally planned, regulated and taxed environments, or
by applying the exception of in situ upgrading – the recognition and
permanent incorporation of informally developed neighbourhoods into
the city. Policies for urban competitiveness have shunned applying this
exception. Instead they wish away any signs of informality ever having
existed. (Huchzermeyer 2011:69)
This notion of in situ upgrading as exceptional forms a key part of
Huchzermeyer’s larger critique of entrenched high modernism in African city
planning. Of course we might expect aversion to upgrading in certain cases.
For example, it comes as no surprise that roughly 20 per cent of all
Zimbabweans were affected by Operation Murambatsvina (2011:102), or that
forced peripheralisation accompanied the restoration of the Abuja master
plan, itself reminiscent of Brasília and Naypyidaw. However, her examples
from South Africa and Kenya demonstrate that a top-down approach to
housing delivery is hegemonic even in purportedly ‘progressive’ cases.
South Africa witnessed an explicit rhetorical shift toward in situ upgrading
in both its new national housing programme Breaking New Ground (BNG)
and in the introduction of a new National Housing Code in 2004, but in
practice, the state pursued an informal settlement eradication drive. Even
BNG’s flagship N2 Gateway Project fell into this trap, with Minister of
Housing Lindiwe Sisulu providing at least seven reasons why in situ
upgrading was not feasible after all (2011:151).
Review of Cities with ‘Slums’
A similar sidelining of upgrading solutions occurred in the implementation
of KENSUP’s pilot project in Kibera. Despite UN-HABITAT involvement,
the Kenyan Housing Ministry eschewed upgrading altogether, favoring
eradication and forced relocation instead. Huchzermeyer provides additional
examples from South Africa, detailing similar processes in KwaZulu-Natal
and Gauteng. In all of these cases, in situ upgrading remains perceived by
the state as a threat to urban competitiveness. Making this point in a
Lefebvrean idiom, Huchzermeyer argues for a ‘rights-based approach,’
calling for ‘firstly, the right to long-term habitation of the city and to spatial
centrality; secondly, a right to voice or participation, through access to
central decision-making; and thirdly, a right to [Lefebvre’s] oeuvre,’ a city
made by those who use it (ibid:245).
While this call may seem relatively non-controversial, she points out that
city officials view all three aspects of the right to the city as impediments to
profit realisation. Her strongest use of this framework appears in the context
of a long overdue critique of the NGO Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and
its most prominent academic cheerleader Arjun Appadurai. As she
demonstrates in case after South African case, from Victoria Mxenge to N2
Gateway to the KZN Slums Act, SDI’s authoritarian leadership tries to secure
subsidies for its constituency and win over municipalities without any
linkages whatsoever to actually existing social movements. The result is a
well-funded NGO explicitly opposed to extra-parliamentary forms of
opposition without any successful record of settlement upgrading.
At the same time, Huchzermeyer’s deployment of the rhetoric of rights
against the target-setting agenda remains insufficient. As she demonstrates
in much of her text, the South African state has been perfectly adept at
pursuing its eradication agenda despite a legal framework that is comparatively
friendly to squatters’ rights. The right to housing enshrined in the 1996
Constitution has done little to safeguard against removals since the demise
of apartheid. In practice then, the language of rights is inadequate for
advocating the decommodification of land, especially when many of the
gains Huchzermeyer does cite have been won through circumvention of
legal frameworks, not through them, most notably in the case of land
invasions. If the South African state has continually remade the urban world
in the image of competitiveness, and if the rights she envisions explicitly
contradict this goal, a clear disjuncture exists between Constitutional rights
and the right to the city. Without clearly distinguishing juridical from ethical
conceptions of rights, she appears to assume a direct path from the one to
the other, even if this is not her intention. The connection between strategies
of litigation (2011:ch 8) and direct action (2011:250) thus remains unspecified,
rendering the relationship between rights talk and decommodification unclear.
Returning to target-setting, Huchzermeyer argues that the multilateral
organisation Cities Alliance, which includes both UN-HABITAT and the
World Bank, has been the most effective promulgator of this gospel. In 1999,
the group launched ‘Cities without Slums,’ a slogan adopted less than a year
later by the UN in its Millenium Development Goals. The policy consequences
have been disastrous, with informal settlements defined by most African
states as inherently temporary dwellings to be eradicated, rather than as
admittedly insufficient improvisations in the face of an unresolved housing
question. Hence the normative thrust of the book’s title: Cities with ‘Slums’.
In the South African case, the target-setting approach is most clearly
observable in statements by former Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu: ‘Thus,
in line with our commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals
we join the rest of the developing world and reiterate our commitment to
progressively eradicate slums in the ten year period ending in 2014’ (quoted
in Huchzermeyer 2011:118). In her ‘war against shacks,’ Sisulu presided over
the passage of the Slums Act of 2007 in KZN, a bill reminiscent of the 1951
Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act which criminalised land invasion. As
Huchzermeyer points out, ‘the penalty for unlawful occupation in the KZN
Slums Act by far exceeds that of the notorious 1951 PISA’ (2011:119). Far
from exceptional, she argues, similar language has found its way into
proposed legislation across the country. Despite a Constitutional Court
ruling striking down a key section of the KZN Slums Act in 2009, Limpopo’s
legislature is now set to ratify a nearly identical bill with the blessing of
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-
Mashabane, the former MEC for Housing in that province. More prominently,
Jacob Zuma used this language at Polokwane, which was immediately picked
up by Gauteng housing officials, who subsequently referred to the eradication
of informal settlements as the ‘Polokwane mandate.’
This emergent policy objective then indicates the onset of a new wave of
forced removals. If we recall Pithouse and Çelik’s periodisations as discussed
above, we can observe that the timing of evictions and relocations since 2001
corresponds with the rise of the importation of the target-setting approach
to South Africa. With success defined entirely in terms of the release of
standardised capital subsidies and RDP housing delivery – what
Huchzermeyer calls ‘rigid, reductionist focus on delivery targets’ (2011:136)
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– shacks are rendered inherently undesirable, as representing the failure, or
at least incompleteness, of the state’s modernist housing project.
Formalisation then does not imply the in situ upgrading of not-yet-formal
shacks, but rather a step toward the demolition of these structures. This is
the logic whereby existing communities are destroyed in the name of
relocating them to dispersed ‘formal’ structures – usually prefabricated tin
rooms – in peripherally located transit camps. Hardly a solution, we know
quite well where this leads: ‘they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same
economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them
in the next place also’ (Engels 1935 :77).
The book’s limits are most evident in its lack of any concrete data on the
scope and scale of removals, though this is admittedly difficult to obtain.
Still, some of Huchzermeyer’s claims might be more adequately substantiated
by statistics, including her assertion ‘that most informal settlements are
categorised as being unsuitable for in situ upgrading’ (2011:191). Without
such national level data, it remains nearly impossible to assess how
representative flagship projects are of less publicised eradications. At the
same time, the framework provided in Cities with ‘Slums’ is extremely
generative for tying relatively remote removals to similar drives in major
metropolitan areas, and subsequent empirical work will benefit immensely
from her analysis.
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