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It is tempting to dismiss the unrest in the area as one of many service delivery protests, but there is more to this discontent than meets the eye as Bheki Mbanjwa found out.
Durban - In the past seven months three people have been killed in Cato Crest in what have been summarily label-led as housing protests, with the latest victim being 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza killed by police last Monday.
Circumstances surrounding the teenager’s death are the subject of an investigation because police claim they acted in self-defence because they came under attack from protesters, while the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, claims it was a cold-blooded killing by the police.
More disturbing are the murders of Nkululeko Gwala and Thembinkosi Qumbelo, who were gunned down in July and March respectively.
Both were community leaders, Gwala a member of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Qumbelo president of Cato Crest Residential Association.
They had been very vocal in trying to expose what they saw as injustices in the allocation of houses in Cato Crest.
The two murders somehow give credence to claims that there is, or was once, a concerted effort to rid the area of any leaders who are vocal in exposing housing corruption.
The alleged sale of houses in Cato Crest and other areas is cited in the damning Manase report, and is now the subject of an investigation.
Members of Abahlali have asserted the existence of a hit list. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but more telling was the last interview Gwala had with a Daily News journalist just hours before his death.
Gwala told this newspaper how he feared for his life and that he had been warned to leave the place as there were people out to kill him. A few hours later Gwala lay dead after being shot 12 times by unknown assailants. Hours earlier, regional ANC bosses had attended a community meeting where they allegedly made statements about Gwala not being wanted in the area.
Abahlali has long been a thorn in the side of ANC leaders in Cato Crest and other informal settlements.
While this organisation – which now boasts 12 000 members across the country – does not have any aspirations to contest any elections, its increasing popularity continues to be a threat to the ANC.
“We have no interest in being a political party. Ours is to remain a civic organisation and to continue to expose the lies that these politicians are feeding our people. Once you become a political party or when you contest the elections, you then become like them (the politicians),” said Bandile Mdlalose, the secretary-general of Abahlali.
The ANC knows it will not have it easy capturing the middle-class vote in next year’s election and, therefore, strengthening grassroots support in the poorest communities becomes important, especially if it is to meet its target of getting a 70 percent share of the vote in KZN.
Not only has the growing support for Abahlali weakened the ANC in these informal settlements, with many of the members of the movement having been drawn from the ANC, but it has also meant that a fertile ground is created for other organisations as well.
It was, therefore, not surprising to see the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) being among the first on scene after the killing of Nzuza to try and exploit this space.
After all, who could be more receptive to the EFF’s radical message of land expropriation and nationalisation of mines than the disempowered and homeless of Cato Crest?
Land, or the unavailability thereof, has played a central role in the Cato Crest protests, with land grabs having given rise to recent evictions and the resulting protests.
Because the housing developments have to happen in an area already occupied by squatters, this has meant that the squatters have to be moved elsewhere before houses are built for them.
Earlier this year, a group of people began clearing sites in Cato Crest and Sherwood with the intention of building new shacks there. They claimed that they had been removed from the Cato Crest informal settlement to make way for the housing development.
Compounding this problem is that some of the people who were removed from the settlement have been tenants, rather than owners of the shacks that they resided in.
While the informal settlement is far from being a posh estate, the business of “shack farming” – the renting out shacks – has been thriving in Cato Crest. In the process, it has allowed a few shack lords to make a small fortune.
It is the owners and not the tenants who are eligible for houses. The owners were allocated CC numbers (the numbers allocated to those squatters eligible to get houses), while the tenants were left out in the cold.
The CC numbers system – CC stands for Cato Crest, followed by an allocation number – was meant to ensure that houses are only received by those who had been in the area before 1999.
This was to prevent the continued influx of new squatters into the settlement – something it seemed to have failed to do. Some of the “shack lords” have continued to build new shacks to rent out, even after receiving their RDP houses.
All this does is create more problems because the government finds it difficult to move these tenants from the area. Also, it has led to a rush for the limited houses.
A large portion of the residents of Cato Crest are economic migrants who have moved from the likes of the Eastern Cape and other parts of KZN in search of better prospects.
Tribalism has crept in, with allegations that Xhosas are being told that they are not wanted in the area and should rather apply for houses in the Eastern Cape.
The settlement’s proximity to the city centre means being close to the economic opportunities Durban has to offer.
It is within walking distance of the city centre and remains the most economic accommodation for the many low-income earners and job seekers who have become its inhabitants.
This means that being moved to other housing developments far away from the city is not seen as an option by those who want to be closer to their workplaces.
Cato Crest’s proximity to the city offers hope to the many unemployed people living in the settlement. It is these desperate people who are responsible for staging some of the most violent protests.
In Isipingo a library was burnt while in Cato Crest councillors’ offices were torched earlier this year. This is discrediting what is otherwise a legitimate cry for housing.
Mdlalose, however, maintains that Abahlali has nothing to do with the violence that has become a prominent feature in the protests.
“We are a peaceful organisation, but there are attempts to criminalise our struggles. The police should just sit by and watch the show.”
Mdlalose has since been arrested by the police. And with the tensions mounting and no end in sight to the violence and scramble for the limited houses, there could only be more clashes.
* Bheki Mbanjwa is a reporter for the Daily News.