By Joel Bolnick
On the weekend of Freedom Day, a battle over electricity turned violent after women from the Victoria Mxenge housing project tried to stop illegal connections being made by people from nearby Ramaphosa informal settlement, Cape Town.
Separated from Victoria Mxenge by a narrow servitude road, fringed by piles of garbage, Ramaphosa came into being about two years ago at the height of the land expropriation debate in the National Assembly. The settlement, on marginal land unsuitable for development purposes, has been growing ever since. It is a mosaic of zinc sheets and wood, plywood and corrugated iron. Its occupants live without basic services: no water, no roads, inadequate sanitation and no electricity.
Some residents from Ramaphosa have been tapping into one of Victoria Mxenge’s electricity boxes for many months. This has been tacitly and pragmatically accepted by the women leadership in the small formal housing estate, recognizing that their neighbours in the informal settlement were in desperate need of lighting for convenience and for safety. They also accepted the fact that in the absence of arbitration and regulation by the state, they stood to come out second-best in any violent confrontation.
But things changed dramatically over Easter weekend and then again this Freedom Day weekend. The nationwide Covid-19 lockdown had confined many idle young men to their settlements, if not to their houses, and strangled the informal economy. Youth in Ramaphosa settlement began to vandalize the formal houses, stealing doors and window frames in broad daylight. The surge in demand for electricity saw them tap into additional electrical boxes in Victoria Mxenge.
When requests for intermediation by the local councilor proved fruitless and demands for the restoration of the earlier tacit agreement were rebuffed by the Ramaphosa community, the Victoria Mxenge members removed the illegal wiring themselves. The Ramaphosa youth responded by barricading the single entrance into the Victoria Mxenge housing estate and laying siege to the community. Incidents of stone-throwing and the firing of weapons followed.
Repeated efforts to get the police to intervene, including calls to JP Smith, mayoral committee member responsible for safety and security, finally elicited a response from the police, who came in a convoy, broke through the barricade, withstood a fusillade of rocks and stones, and arrested three residents of the Ramaphosa settlement.
This predictably ramped up the tension and not long after the police had left, without leaving any presence whatsoever, the barricades were back and word got out that the Ramaphosa community were waiting for nightfall to launch an attack on Victoria Mxenge.
Since 23 April the women have been spending their nights guarding and patrolling their homes. On Saturday, the attack was launched and repelled, but not before all the electricity boxes had been petrol-bombed, several houses damaged and nine people injured. The stand-off continues. The army is nowhere to be seen and only after the latest round of violence has one police vehicle been stationed in the Victoria Mxenge housing estate.
Victoria Mxenge is no ordinary community. It is an icon of participatory development, community self-reliance and the power of women. Built 25 years ago by the women who still run its communal property association and hold the community together, Victoria Mxenge, the human settlement, comes from the struggles, the labour and the savings of the women of Victoria Mxenge, who planned and built it and have raised their families here. It has inspired a generation of women slum-dwellers across the world to organize themselves and contribute materially and conceptually to their own development destiny.
In the first decade of democracy in South Africa, Victoria Mxenge was a regular destination for influential politicians who wanted to honour and be seen with the women who had built their own homes, including President Nelson Mandela and President Bill Clinton.
Nowadays this venerable neighbourhood shows signs of wear and tear, but its resilience remains. More diverse, more open, more human in its scale than most state-subsidized housing developments, it is also more vibrant, more throbbing with life than the geometrical grid of middle class neighbourhoods that it first aspired to copy and then was turned away from by its own harmonious incoherence and openness. Everywhere in Victoria Mxenge there are tell-tale signs of its own origins in the informal settlements that surround it.
The residents of Ramaphosa informal settlement do not see it that way. They see a community that has roads, houses and services while they have not. And it is a community in their immediate vicinity that has all the hallmarks of an easy target.
When the residents of Victoria Mxenge look at Ramaphosa, they stare into their own past for they too emerged from stagnant puddles, rutted streets and rabbit warrens of ordered chaos.
What differentiated Victoria Mxenge from the millions of state-sponsored low-income homeowners, was that they built their own houses. They planned the layout of the plots and the public spaces and streets. They dug the trenches for the infrastructure and they made the bricks and door frames and window frames with their own hands. The design and finished product are not without their flaws, as any urban planner or municipal official will be quick to tell you, but Victoria Mxenge has a coherence born of the incoherence from which it emerged. It is a coherence that points to a better urban future.
And when the residents of Victoria Mxenge look at Ramaphosa, they also stare into the future. Some of their own children, tired of living in overcrowded rooms in their familial homes, were the first to occupy the Ramaphosa land. Now outnumbered, overshadowed and out-manoeuvred by droves of new residents they are perhaps in the most precarious situation of all, with a vanishing foothold in formality and an insecure one in the informal areas to which they have had to retreat.
In a constitutional democracy such as ours, the very least the people of Victoria Mxenge (and Ramaphosa) should expect is that the institutions of the state will intercede to keep the peace, as they no doubt would do if such violence were to break out in the leafy suburbs of Newlands or Camps Bay.
With the national lockdown, when 73,000 soldiers are on the streets, the very least the people of Victoria Mxenge should expect is that the army would guard the untarred strip of servitude road that barely divides the two communities. And that they would stay there until peace returned, so that in this time of Covid-19, women in their sixties would not have to gather in groups and stay awake all night to protect the homes they built with their own sweat, blood and tears.
Joel Bolnick is founder and former Managing Director of CORC and Shack Dwellers International (SDI)
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