Cape Tin

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.

You can read a lot about Blikkiesdorp in the international press — it’s received quite a bit of coverage in the run up to the World Cup, when reporters began to wonder if it was more than just coincidental that many shack dwellers were being relocated from highly visible areas like the stretch along the N2, or the vicinities of the country’s glistening new stadia.

But anti-eviction movements have been active in South Africa since long before World Cup fever took over the country. One, the Durban-based Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for “shack dwellers”) has been called one of South Africa’s most powerful civil society organizations — and originated in eviction actions largely unrelated to the world soccer extravaganza.

Local media, students, and NGOs with their ears to the ground longer than foreign correspondents help provide more context. While Christopher Werth’s video for the Center for Investigative Reporting provides good context (his video on the overcrowded “bad buildings” of inner city Johannesburg is also worth a look), a well-shot short documentary by Rhodes University’s journalism school delves not only into the Joe Slovo evictions, but into the story of Blikkiesdorp residents who had been evicted from rapidly gentrifying inner city neighborhoods like Woodstock, where a local landlord had put many out on the street in order to move in wealthy foreigners looking to snap up scenic Cape Town real estate.

“Tin Town”, a documentary produced by a New York film nonprofit for local housing activists, focuses on the story of the original Symphony Way squatters, who were forced to abandon their hand-crafted shanties and move to Blikkiesdorp:


The oft-repeated “concentration camp” claim is hyperbole (residents are, at least, free to come and go as they choose), but Blikkiesdorp residents have more than their fair share of legitimate complaints. The concentration of poverty in the area has resulted in dramatic crime rates, and the police patrol Blikkiesdorp with apartheid-era armored personnel carriers. And illegal or not, squatter settlements like Joe Slovo were often convenient to schools and work. Blikkiesdorp residents are confused as to why the urban poor can’t live closer to the city center, to take advantage of public transit, while more affluent, car-owning residents are directed to the camp’s location, some 20km from Cape Town’s CBD.

It might have something to do with the sand that’s constantly blowing around the camp’s site, making it an even more improbable site for a settlement. Residents fear their chances of hiding from the grains — not to mention surviving the winter — within the thin walls of their corrugated tin homes. Many point out that the quality of this housing is worse than than the brick bungalows the government built in the black townships under apartheid.

But the apartheid government was able to limit urban growth through the Group Areas Act, which restricted where one could live by race, and by the creation of rural black “homelands”. The instantaneous repeal of those restrictions, and the new government’s promise to provide housing for every South African, both raised expectations and created an unprecedented demand on government resources.

The current government argues that the housing provided at Blikkiesdorp is not only temporary — and that better construction is on the way — but surpasses the minimum requirements for such shelter. Both those things may be true, but with long waiting lists for housing and with “above average” tin shacks providing as little shelter as the shanties that many Blikkiesdorp residents formerly called home, these are rationalizations that provide little solace.

So while South Africa’s authorities once interpreted UN-HABITAT recommendations to improve the conditions of slum housing as cause for their wholesale replacement, there is a new movement to upgrade city services for the remaining informal settlements, like Joe Slovo, which would not only keep its remaining residents close to jobs, but avoid the trauma of eviction. Traffic on the N2 might have to endure the sight of shantytowns permanently. Still, few protections against evictions exist in gentrifying neighborhoods closer to the center of Cape Town, and the residents of Blikkiesdorp — current and future — appear to remain in flux.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Monday June 21 2010at 09:06 pm , filed under Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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