The Shack Dwellers Movement in South Africa

Hundreds of shack dwellers descended upon the Durban High Court in support of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s court appearance to defend their right to remain on state-owned land in the eThekwini (Durban) municipality. The High Court case follows a Constitutional Court ruling against an interdict obtained by the Kwazulu-Natal Provincial Minister for Human Settlements. The interdict was used by the state to evict shack dwellers in the Marikana Land Occupation settlement in Cato Crest, Durban more than 12 times. In the process people’s shacks were demolished. Activists were shot at resulting in the deaths of Nqobile Nzuza who was just 17 years old, Nkululeko Gwala and Thembinkosi Qumbela. In Sisonke settlement in Lamontville, the same interdict was used to repeatedly evict and demolish shacks over 24 times.

According to Abahlali baseMjondolo:

“These evictions show how cruel our state departments are towards the poor. When evictions are carried out people’s homes are demolished and their possessions are broken and scattered in the mud. The perpetrators are members of the [South African Police Services], the City Police, private security companies and sometimes also structures of the ruling party. People, including the elderly and children become the first victims when they lose every little thing at the hands of those who are supposed to be their protectors”


In June 2014, Abahlali baseMjondolo, together with residents of Cato Crest and Sisonke, took the Provincial Minister for Housing to the Constitutional Court. In court, they argued that the interdict that the Minister had obtained under the false pretence of preventing a land occupation was being used as an eviction order. They argued that the interdict, which was being used repeatedly in Marikana Land Occupation and Sisonke settlement to violently evict people from their homes and off the land, was unlawful and unconstitutional.

As shack dweller movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Housing Assembly continue to build rights awareness on eviction laws with its members, the harder it has become for the state or private land owners to evict people. When the Durban municipality’s Land Invasion Control Unit swarmed across the Marikana Land Occupation settlement in Cato Crest armed with guns and no court order, shack dwellers in the settlement knew exactly what to do. Armed with knowledge of their rights in relation to eviction laws they asked for court papers authorising the eviction. When the Land Invasion Control Unit could not produce court orders and proceeded to tear down shacks, shack dwellers whipped out their mobile phones and began taking photographs and recording videos of the eviction.

Movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo have worked tirelessly using multiple strategies to counter evictions that are taking place. One of the key strategies used has been challenging eviction cases in court with the help of human rights lawyers from non-governmental organisations like the Socio-Economic Rights Institute. This has helped to develop eviction laws to its threshold such that it has become harder for people to be evicted off land.

This by no means brings an end to evictions in South Africa. Instead it has seen the start of the state making use of more “innovative” ways to get around the law. The false eviction order in the form of an interdict is one such attempt. Another attempt was one used by the City of Cape Town to evict people off a settlement also named Marikana Land Occupation. In that eviction attempt which was challenged in court by shack dwellers, with the assistance of Legal Resources Centre, the state argued that a shack was not a home because of the temporary materials used in its construction and therefore the demolition of these can be lawful.

In the Cape Town case, the judge, whilst finding the eviction not unlawful, went on to deliver a landmark judgment defining a home as a structure built for the purpose of occupation in order to make it their home thus making its legality irrelevant. This judgement has now made it impossible for the state to demolish any shacks which have been erected for the purpose of occupying it as a home. In the Constitutional Court challenge that Abahlali participated in, the Constitutional Court found that the Minister’s interdict was inconsistent with the Constitution and therefore invalid. It referred the case back to the High Court to provide judgement on the legality of the evictions.

Whilst the High Court case is still being heard, the municipality has continued evicting people off the land in Cato Crest since the Constitutional Court ruling in June last year. This has raised alarm bells as to whether the state considers itself to be above the law. According to Abahlali baseMjondolo, it is clear to them that “the [Durban] municipality considers itself to be above the law and impoverished black people to be beneath the law”.



Abahlali baseMjondolo activists outside the Durban High Court. Photo by Abahlali baseMjondolo.

As Abahlali baseMjondolo forges ahead in its struggle, its resilience and the inkani (Zulu for “forceful determination”) of shack dwellers is a testament to social movement activism and their daily struggles to secure lives of dignity for poor and marginalised people. Despite attempts being made by the South African state to silence their voices of dissent and criminalise their right to protest, Abahlali baseMjondolo activists still rise up to fight another day.

Saranel Benjamin is program director for War on Want.


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