Culture Of Amnesia?

As townships around the province (and country) flare up in what have been called ‘service delivery riots’, ANC leaders, political commentators, and journalists have lashed out at ‘the violence’ and ‘impatience’ of protesters, claiming that they represent only a minority of residents, led by populist factions and individuals, and that ‘a culture of entitlement’ is at play in these demonstrations. Rather than demanding ‘more handouts’, the argument goes, people need to start taking responsibility for their own lives and stop expecting government to deliver ‘everything free to them’ (see article by Jovial Rantao in last Friday’s Star). Wading through archives about Orange Farm and informal settlements in Johannesburg from the late 1980s over the last week, I came across a United Democratic Front (UDF) memorandum on urban land and housing policies that was presented to Hernus Kriel, apartheid Minister of Planning & Provincial Affairs, on 16 August 1990. I was amazed at how quickly and easily people seem to forget – to forget our histories and our dreams. Below are a few extracts…

“The UDF recently issued a call for those who are landless and without proper homes to settle on unused land. This has been referred to more generally as ‘land invasions’, and has been greeted with dismay by, inter alia, private landowners, municipalities, and provincial and central government. This call by the UDF merely reflects a process that has been underway in communities throughout South Africa, where tens of thousands of landless people have taken the initiative to provide their own shelter on whatever land they can find.”

“The existence of millions of shacks in the urban areas of South Africa is a consequence of the policies of apartheid applied to black people over many decades. Apartheid policies destroyed people’s houses and uprooted existing communities. Apartheid policies created the housing backlog by prohibiting the construction of houses for black people in ‘white’ urban areas for nearly thirty years. Apartheid policies confined black people to townships on a small percentage of urban land, causing widespread overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions. The UDF believes that all human beings have a basic right to shelter. It is inhumane to destroy a person’s shelter without providing suitable alternative accommodation. Until government is in a position to provide land, and decent, affordable housing for all, no shacks should be demolished. This includes shacks in both urban and rural areas.”

“The UDF objects in principle to forced removals. In addition, on purely practical grounds, at a time of a national housing shortage, it makes no sense to demolish existing housing stock. The UDF calls on the government to announce that communities still under threat of forced removal… are entitled to remain permanently where they are.”

“The UDF recognises that in recent years, more land has been made available for low-income housing. However, virtually all this land is located in places totally unsuitable for the integration of low-income communities into the cities and towns. Some new low-income areas, e.g. Orange Farm and Rietfontein, are far from work, economic opportunities, shops, schools and community facilities. The poor are being burdened once again with high transport costs. The UDF calls for land to be released near places of work and economic opportunity, rather than on the extreme margins of the urban areas.”

“The UDF rejects the current government’s policies of privatisation of housing, which fail to cater for the housing needs of 80% of the black population in South Africa. The UDF believes that all the people of South Africa deserve more than third-class housing in the form of site and service schemes. The UDF believes strongly that the state has a centrally important role to play in the provision of land, services and houses for all South Africans.”

“There can be no justification for the continuation of landlessness and homelessness, for the lack of clean water, electricity, water-borne sewerage and other basic facilities, and the government must move rapidly to rectify the situation. Constitutional negotiations and a political settlement in South Africa will be rendered useless if urban areas continue to be inaccessible to the poor and the homeless.”

As I read through the seven page document, it struck me that it could, with a few minor changes, serve as a memorandum of a community or movement today against the current ANC government, many leaders of which were leaders of the UDF back in 1990. It is tragic that the squatter communities that forced the apartheid government to develop its strategies of ‘orderly urbanisation’ and ‘controlled squatting’ in the late 1980s are among the very settlements that are today facing the heavy hand of the ANC government as they rise up to demand the lives that they believed they were fighting for in the struggle against apartheid. What the UDF was fighting against not so long ago was precisely the formalisation of informal conditions of living that the above apartheid policies were designed to entrench, and that the ANC government today seems to be pursuing. But this deserves a blog on its own… soon…

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5 Comments

  1. A question also needs to be asked: why, within a year of Mandela announcing (at the ANC’s election victory party in 1994) that the RDP was “not negotiable”, was the RDP abandoned?

    The RDP encouraged people to take repsonsibility for their own lives, with the support of the government, civil society bodies etc. Why the sudden switch to Thatcherist “you’re on your own” attitudes?

  2. more than just the re-membering of struggles out of a monochromatic past, i’m enjoying your celebration of the laaitjies, the klip gooiers whose only motives are their ‘hell to the no’ (with credit to a graff artist in my neighbourhood) while comrades seasoned with positions negotiate their third ways with the no. tx

  3. hi steve

    yes, GEAR soon became ‘non-negotiable’, a clearly neo-liberal macro-economic policy framework. but i think that we make a mistake when we celebrate the RDP as a panacea. i think that the RDP, while partly redistributive, is committed to the same export-orientated, market-led growth that GEAR prioritises. nevertheless, i do agree that we need to ask and understand why the ANC has shifted from some of its historical commitments. i hope that future posts speak to this question.

    and tx nic

  4. The thing about the RDP (at least in the ANC policy document I read before the 1994 elections) was that it encouraged action by civil society. It encouraged people to act for themselves in building a new and free society, instead of waiting for “services” to be “delivered” by the government (or not, as the case may be). It had just a whiff ofg populism.

  5. mmm… the interesting thing is that this discourse of ‘self-reliance’ and people ‘doing it for themselves’ is present in current policies, however, encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurialism amongst the poor.


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