Overcoming mistrust

Dr Lutz van Dijk, Masiphumelele

Despite ongoing and possible escalating protests and violence in Masi, it is more important than ever to continue with a dialogue between the City and Masi leaders and to understand the history of it all, written by somebody working almost daily the past 15 years in the community:

On February 23, a delegation of 22 Masi leaders was invited to meet Mayco member for human settlements, Xanthea Limberg, and her team for the first time. Also for the first time, transport was provided by the City to get to this evening meeting in town. A good start.

During the meeting, many controversial points were touched on, but most important, Ms Limberg promised to visit Masi shortly and especially the most neglected area of the Masi Wetlands informal settlement where regularly horrible fires and other disasters happen. A good plan.

Then the visit to Masi was postponed as Ms Limberg had to attend somewhere else. But a new date was set for Saturday March 18. Before this could happen, the previous weekend some desperate residents, some of whom have had their shacks destroyed a number of times or been chased away as backyarders, started to invade an open piece of land, a part of the City owned erf 5131.

This land had been bought by the City, still under ANC government in 2004, from SANParks for Masi housing but never developed.

The following night, a group of protesters who demanded the stopping of all shack demolitions and that erf 5131 finally be given to the people of Masi, clashed with police and violence escalated at the entrance and on Kommetjie Road a day before the Cape Town Cycle Tour. Police arrested 17 protesters.

In a surprise move, Ms Limberg announced that she would come even earlier on Monday evening, March 13, at 6pm, to speak at the community hall. Leaders and residents from all parts of Masi, probably more than a thousand, queued to get into the hall. But at 6.30pm the gates were still locked.

It was announced that the keys were with ward councillor Felicity Purchase. Just before 7pm, she arrived, together with the City delegation.

The start of the meeting was again almost an hour delayed as angry leaders and residents demanded that Ms Purchase should leave the meeting as she – as one speaker put it – “has betrayed the community too often”. It was only thanks to the chair of the evening, community leader Tshepo Moletsane, that finally, her presence was accepted on condition she not speak but listen.

The long list of broken promises towards the poorest of the poor in Masi are, indeed, a real issue.

How many times the past years has the so-called “Masiphumelele Development Plan” been announced by the City as the way forward and never been published? How many times has land been promised to the totally overcrowded community of more than 40 000 residents, going back to previous Mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo, then Helen Zille and now Patricia de Lille?

How many times have professional plans to address the disaster-prone area of the Masi Wetlands informal settlement have been ignored? Most recently even the directive of the Department of Environmental Affairs for the City to “clean up the Masi Wetlands sustainably” has lapsed after the
City appealed against

The conditions in the overcrowded hall posed a challenge throughout the meeting: a malfunctioning loud hailer and limited translations certainly added to some misunderstandings.

But finally, more than two hours after the official start of the meeting, Ms Limberg, was able to speak. She actually made two important points which at one stage led to the only applause for her of the day, but they were not understood by all and certainly
not responded properly to:

1) Ms Limberg offered to address the most important land issue around erf 5131 with urgency and do an EIA within six months (instead of three years). Erf 5131 actually is a piece of land which was given by SANParks years ago to Mayor Mfeketo to develop for housing in Masi, the same area which a few hundred residents have begun to invade the previous weekend.

It is the time now not to escalate the conflict, but to agree on a plan of decent development together instead of having soon another troubled informal settlement.

2) She said that there is a matrix for development and basic services for the Masi Wetlands informal settlement which (if understood correctly) replaces the failed promise of the “Masiphumelele Greater Framework Plan”. We had hoped she would also bring enough copies of this matrix for the Masi leadership to study and respond. But this can still happen. Crucial is to keep in mind that 85 percent of the Masi Wetlands informal settlement is not wetlands (against all “research” the City has paid for), but reed beds (as confirmed by then director of SANParks, Paddy Gordon) which can be upgraded for safe basic services and access roads to change a ratio of one toilet/water tap from at present 1: 70 families to 1 : 4 families.

After the past three huge fires since 2014 in the area everybody even from the City will confirm that such a professional upgrading is much cheaper than so-called distaster relief again and again (let alone the human tragedies).

After the latest protest during the night before the Cycle Tour on a number of local community Facebook sites openly racist statements were voiced like: “These people want to live like that ! Do not improve Masi otherwise even more Blacks are coming!”

This is not only racist and instigating more violence, but it is also factually wrong. Wherever development happens, space is watched carefully by those who finally have something to look after. Under the conditions of most areas in the Masi Wetlands there is nothing to look after beyond your own
poor unsafe shack.
And we know from countries all over the world, like Brazil or India, that influx from the rural areas to the cities only slows down when in both areas basic human dignity is achieved.

The only way forward is to invest further in a unified Masi leadership. Only if the City has strong partners in Masi who are respected by most residents,
progress can be achieved. What was visible only to insiders during the meeting was that none of those who were chosen by Ms Purchase as “her Masi leaders” stood up and defended her. A tough, but strong lesson. Although in South Africa many languages are spoken , there is no peaceful alternative to dialogue as challenging as it might be.

The only unacceptable alternative are new rounds of violence from both sides which will be bad for all who live in this valley, especially for the children and youth who witness that their parents inside and outside of Masi have given up hope. Please do not give up again before a meaningful dialogue even has begun.