When the images of forceful evictions (a word that has become the trigger to a familiar loaded gun) in the Nomzamo informal settlement in Strand emerged, shock and outrage trended on social networks. Soon we heard news of more evictions in Alexandra in Johannesburg and in the Eastern Cape. It was an uncomfortably familiar sight, far too similar to the infamous evictions in Sophiatown and more in the apartheid era. Everyone had someone to blame. But what if no one person is to blame? What if, despite our celebrations of how far we have come in 20 years, South Africa is still a landscape ripe for evictions?
When a traumatising story emerges on our democratic radar, I often turn to theory to help make sense of it. It is not often that I can say this, but for once political theory fits the experienced reality. Theory could predict evictions of people framed as “illegal squatters”.
I am a politics student as well as a journalist and I am currently immersed in contemporary political theory for my June exams. And I was not stunned that these evictions could take place. The likelihood of them occurring exists very clearly in our political landscape, just as it did during apartheid. Same game, different faces sitting in Parliament and wearing police uniforms.
I won’t get bogged down in the theoretical terms, but here is some food for thought. Law, justice and human rights operate on the assumption that all people have the resources to exist within these frameworks; people who cannot afford anything but to live on the periphery have to exist outside the law.
How does the state react or control this part of society who straddles the lines of legality? The state cannot ignore people living on the periphery for fear that they will continue to break the law, but they cannot treat them in the same way they would the rest of society who exist within the law. The answer appears to be that there are different modes of governance for different sectors of society, namely those in the city and the poor on the periphery. Rights and law are already ambiguous in the latter and it is not a huge step to forceful and violent evictions.
The poor have their own mode of rule by the state and even their own codes of ethics, if you will. It is easier to simply regard them as pockets of crime than to recognise their political agency. (Yes, I say political agency here even though we have come to measure degrees of democracy by how good a government’s service delivery record is.) The new stories of the eviction of so-called illegal squatters are just the tip of the iceberg of what is actually happening. One political theorist, Michael Neocosmos, calls this sector of society the uncivil society because of the way people are acted upon, violently and uncivilly.
It is a shockingly familiar picture to the different modes of governance that existed based on race during apartheid. Black people were forced into the poor peripheries and often criminalised based on their skin colour. Evictions of black people were accepted because, based on the law and justice system of the time, it was legitimate. Today, evictions of people because they are black would be illegitimate. However, evictions of people because they are “illegal squatters” are legitimate. As I said, same game, different faces but we can somehow stomach it. If we can’t, we throw our arms in the air and call people in the poor peripheries victims of human rights abuses.
Just as before, people in the poor peripheries are criminalised in order to justify forceful evictions. “Illegal squatters” are removed from land that is not theirs. Justified. A more implicit form was evictions which took place in Grahamstown East in March this year when the government graciously offered to build houses for a handful of residents... on top of the homes they had already built with their own pension funds. When the mayor was questioned about whether the residents could keep their homes, he simply said, “No, they should not be here anyway. We will build legal homes for you.”
Once again, legal systems and the policies that government operates within are based on the assumption that all people have the money to exist within these laws.
The moral panic that follows often calls for a more militarised police response against the “pockets of crime”. However, we are then very quick to the call foul play of human rights when we see images of a woman crawling under barbed wire with a baby on her back. It is a dilemma for people who exist outside the poor peripheries. There is no one person to blame, it is our landscape. It is ripe for eviction.
Emily Corke is in her third year of studying journalism and politics at Rhodes University. She is the news features editor for the student newspaper The Oppidan Press, a reporter for Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown and an Eyewitness News correspondent.