Hope Meets Expectation

SeaM member SJ Cooper-Knock researches urban inclusion. This blog is drawn from her recent work on the everyday lives of informal settlement residents in South Africa. She is currently based in Durban.  

As I walked into Solomon Mahlangu settlement, Sne was driving posts back into the ground to rebuild the walls that the Land Invasion Unit had torn down. Still visible on one of the remaining boards was a sprayed number, the ubiquitous sign across eThekwini that the municipality had registered the dwelling, ahead of upgrading. Sne’s home bore testament to contradictions of the South African state, which carries with it the promise of provision and violence.

When they had arrived in the settlement three years ago, residents of Solomon Mahlangu had hoped for provision: for the fulfilment of the rights forged in the transition. Now, they expected violence.

Earlier this year, Sandile Biyela was killed as he was running from police who were dispersing a protest. The police claim that he tripped on live wires whilst fleeing the area. Residents claim that he was shot with live ammunition.

Tensions between the police and residents remain. After the last round of attempted evictions, residents took to the nearby road to protest, stopping the traffic. News reports claimed that the residents used petrol bombs to stop the cars. Residents claim that they used burning tyres. This tactic is seen as both pragmatic and symbolic: Tyres create an impermeable barrier in front of protestors and allude to the notion of a struggle betrayed.

Following the protest, the police allegedly entered the settlement looking for five men who they accused of spearheading the protest. One female resident – who wished to remain nameless – claimed ‘we were just running and hiding everywhere…They said they were going to kill us like Marikana. They said they could kill us in five minutes.’

All too often, the media has tended to focus on ‘violent protests’ in South Africa. The implicit suggestion here is that protests start conversations between citizens and the state. And in South Africa, they do so violently. But protests do not start new conversations: they are responses in an ongoing exchange. Often, they only emerge when people are, in the words of one resident, ‘Tired. Very tired’. Many of these responses are not violent. Where violence does exist, it usually mirrors that which the protestors have experienced in earlier interjections from state or society.

Residents in Solomon Mahlangu say that they now face demolitions on a regular basis. ‘Where are we going to go?’ Sne asked, standing on broken boards and splintered poles.’We have to stay’. But whilst Sne had moved in with hope, he remained with resignation. Like other residents in the settlement, he no longer believed that the state would offer protection or provision. ‘We have no hope’, said Gumede, an older resident. His money, phone, and USB connectors had been stolen in the latest eviction attempt, he claimed. Now, he had to rebuild with nothing.

As I left, Sne continued to hammer in the poles to support his new wall, which would be built from the debris of building materials that now surrounded his home. Last night, he had slept under a nearby bridge. Tomorrow, he feared, the cycle could begin again.

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