In search of rest

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. 

Like many South Africans, James Nthau struggled to make ends meet. In recent years, his wage had been eroded by escalating rent and rising food prices. When he was laid off in February, life quickly became untenable. ‘The owner of the house where I lived chased me and my family away’, he recalled.‘That is when I built my shack here’.

Mr Nthau explains that he was the first to form the settlement that residents have named Phumula Mqashi, meaning rest from rent.* But whilst residents no longer pay rent, rest has proved elusive. Over the last seven months residents say that they have faced 23 attempted evictions. The last of these had happened just hours before I arrived.

The police have claimed that these evictions are legal and devoid of excess force. Residents insist that evictions are counted in scorch marks on the earth and scars on their bodies. On each occasion, they claim, the Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department arrive armed with rubber bullets, tear gas, and crowbars; tearing down structures on the site and burning them as they go.

‘We don’t want to fight with them’, insisted one man, who wished to remain nameless, ‘We just need somewhere to stay. But here they burn all of our things – even the children’s uniforms – they come with no warning. We only see them when they are very close. They don’t give us chance to run away’.

Sitting in the room he had rebuilt that morning, Mr Nthau showed me a singed face cloth. It was the only thing he had managed to save from the last eviction. Perched on a sofa donated by a local resident, he recalled a recent encounter. ‘The police came’, he said, ‘They hit me with their crowbar. They kicked me like a ball. They sprayed me with tear gas’. Weeks later, Mr Nthau claimed, he still could not sit comfortably: his ribs and legs ached with bruises and he had lost the hearing in one ear.

‘They can see that we are not educated, so they think we do not know our rights’, Mr Nthau reflected. But whilst he knew his rights as a citizen, sometimes knowledge is not power. Although Mr Nthau had tried to take action against the police in the past, he had been repeatedly turned away.

Mr Nthau’s experience was echoed by others I spoke with: many were scared to approach the police at all but those who did found that they ‘were not taken seriously’, in the words of one resident.

In the wake of the latest eviction, however, resolve and desperation had grown in equal measure. As I left, residents were making plans with representatives of Abahlali baseMjondolo to visit the police station again. Collectively, this time. Together, perhaps, knowledge could become power.

  • Translated by occupiers as ‘rest from rent’, the literal translation of Phumula Mqashi is ‘rest tenant’.

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