The Social Value of Land Must Come First

Monday, 1 September, 2008 - 08:57

We all know that in Durban, as in cities around the country, the question of housing is the biggest source of conflict between poor people's organisations and the state.

There has been considerable discussion after the announcement that the eThekwini Municipality is considering expropriating land from Tongaat-Hulett to finally move ahead with the long promised Cornubia development.

We all know that in Durban, as in cities around the country, the question of housing is the biggest source of conflict between poor people's organisations and the state.

There have been thousands of protests since 2005, with many of them resulting in serious police violence.

In Durban, police violence against people protesting for houses has been an international scandal, with stiff letters of protest being issued to the city from the Geneva-based and United Nations-linked Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

We are also all aware that the desperation for houses in Durban has resulted in all kinds of dubious electoral practices, with politicians in both Phoenix and Chatsworth issuing unlawful promises that party members will be rewarded with houses.

In some instances, this has taken regrettable racialised overtones. It is also the case that in Durban, as in other cities, the housing crisis was a key factor in the xenophobic violence that so shamed our country in May.

Clearly, the proposed Cornubia development is an important step forward. It will deliver houses at scale and near to jobs, schools and clinics rather than in the out-of-town developments that shack dwellers' movements now derisively refer to as "rural human dumping grounds".


This new development certainly doesn't have the capacity to resolve the housing crisis in the city, but it could be a significant step forward, for which the municipality must be commended.

But while the shift to well-located, low-cost housing developments has been widely welcomed, there has been some concern about the proposal to expropriate land from Tongaat-Hulett.

This concern is misplaced. Tongaat-Hulett is the largest land owner in the city and it has profited massively from the development of gated communities, office parks and the Gateway shopping mall on the old sugar cane lands.

Its vast land holdings are a direct hangover from the colonial era, in which people were forced off their land and others brought from India to work on the sugar cane in near-slavery conditions.

The company's debt to this society is massive, and expropriation for the purpose of building low-cost housing is an important and necessary way to have some of that debt repaid.

We should see expropriation as an entirely justified tax on a history of oppression.

We need to recognise that the interests of the poor simply have to be put before the interests of the biggest land owner in the city if we are to build a democratic, sustainable, peaceful and just city.

Moreover, well-located land is a finite commodity.

Every time there is another elite development, such as a golf course or a gated community, the prospect for the poor to be well housed diminishes.

In cities such as Sao Paulo and Bombay, it has long been recognised that the fundamental cause of urban squalor is the concentration of land ownership. People in these cities have campaigned for the collective social value of land to be put before the private commercial value of land.

Poor people's organisations, academics, NGOs and religious organisations have worked together to assert that the social value of land should come first. It is time to build a similar consensus in Durban and other South African cities.

The real area of concern with regard to the Cornubia project is that shack dwellers have been excluded from all planning for the project, and from all discussion after the announcement. We need to be mindful of the catastrophic failure of the N2 Gateway project in Cape Town that has led to clashes between protesters and police - and expensive court battles.


The N2 Gateway project failed because shack dwellers, for whom the project was planned and to whom it was promised, were excluded from participation in the planning of the project.

In the end, the project was designed in such a way that shack dwellers simply could not afford to live there, with the result that the state had to resort to apartheid-style forced removals. If there is no democratic planning with regard to Cornubia, it will fail as badly as the N2 Gateway Project has failed.

Some planning experts in Durban continue to believe that they must promise houses to a passive population.

However, experience around the world shows that effective development is based on community organisations working collaboratively with the state.

The disastrous failure of the N2 Gateway Project in Cape Town is now used as an infamous example of the costs of top-down planning in universities around the world.

Durban needs to learn from the failure of Cape Town's big housing project and to begin the Cornubia project on a democratic footing from the beginning.

After serious failures with regard to the bus company and the uShaka theme park, Durban really needs to get this project right.

If we do, we can pioneer a new and better way of working that will take us an important step closer towards resolving the housing crisis in Durban.

It will also inspire progress elsewhere in the country and indeed make the eThekwini Municipality one worthy of emulating.

- This article was first published in The Mercury and republished with permission from the author.

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