‘This was my dining room’, said Happy, as she stood on platform of broken tiles; all that remained after her house had been demolished in March this year. VusiMuzi informal settlement – where Happy had lived for 23 years – had been the site of an attempted re-blocking exercise by the City of Ekurhuleni.
Reblocking changes the structure a settlement by moving the size, shape or location of peoples’ homes, in order to create space for roads and services. Shack Dwellers International have argued that the process can both improve people’s living conditions and increase community cohesion. In Vusimuzi, however, the community has been left divided.
A 23-year-old resident, who wished to remain nameless, recalled the first time that he heard about reblocking: ‘The councillor came here and he just promised the good things: He promised to connect electricity, he promised flushing toilets, he promised nice streets.’
Residents in Vusimuzi were initially enthusiastic: some had been living in the area for over two decades, when they had bought their sites from a local Induna, explained Rebecca Malahlela, a committee member of Abahlali baseMjondolo Tembisa. Since arriving in the area, they had not seen any service delivery. When Rebecca’s daughters completed their Matric homework, their lamps were fueled by informal electricity connections. ‘I want my kids to have a bright future’ Rebecca explained, ‘but the government has failed us’. Whilst residents watched hyper-modern buildings and infrastructure spring up around the city they were, in Happy’s words, ‘left using candles and fire’.
Early support for reblocking fractured, however, as the project progressed. The City insists that they held meetings before any demolitions, and that community members were both informed and willing to move. The residents I spoke to, however, claim that representatives from the city refused to listen to their ideas for the redesign and moved ahead without due consultation. As the young man I talked with explained, ‘they should have listened to the community… the community leaders were saying we know this place for a long time and we don’t want to be moved like this’. The original layout of the settlement and ideas for its future reconfiguration, he alleged, were overridden by the city’s own plans for redevelopment. The demolitions, he claimed, began without warning.
It was late March when ‘contractors’ arrived to demolish Happy’s house. ‘They did not have a name. They just came: the people with the overalls’. Happy claims that she had no time to save her possessions or her materials: her five-room house was destroyed, along with her furniture. ‘What could I do?’, she asked, ‘I am an old woman. I was just standing and looking. If you are alone and the people, they are a crowd, you have no power to say ‘no’’. For the next week, during torrential rain, Happy lived in a tent provided by her local church.
‘I still feel the pain’, Happy explained. ‘I had a nice garden here. I had a beautiful home and I was proud of my home and now I am living like this’. As she spoke, she gestured to the two rooms that she had patched together from the zinc that was donated by her employer and the boards she purchased herself.
Community resistance in Vusimuzi ultimately brought reblocking to a standstill. The street that Happy’s house was demolished to create lies incomplete. But she has not be allowed to rebuild. Now, her neighbour parks his car where her yard used to be. The toilet that she dug for herself lies on the other side of partially formed street. Her neighbours use it without her permission: she struggles to keep it secure and clean.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the disruption, others had built in the gaps between existing housing. Reblocking is supposed to create new spaces of order. But Happy argues that her settlement was ordered before. Now, with the plots disrupted and new densification occurring, life is less dignified and less safe. Today, the noises of everyday life and the flames of accidental fires are free to jump between people’s homes. Happy, however, feels that she has lost the freedom she worked so hard to build: ‘I am 59 years old. I am tired. I don’t know who can help me to fix the pain I can feel. It is only God now’.