When the only tool you have is a hammer… (Part I)

…every problem begins to look like a nail.

That saying has been rolling around my head these past few days as I process the news that Itipini—the shantytown community on a garbage dump in South Africa where I worked for two years—has been bulldozed. Why did this happen? In this post and the next, I’m going to offer my best answer to that question. But, first, some background.

First of all, no one wants to live on a garbage dump. That should be an indisputable fact. People live in a place like Itipini because there is no other option: there are no opportunities in their rural village so they move to an urban area like Mthatha to look for some kind of work in the informal economy: fruit stand, pushing grocery carts, etc. Some seem to be doing well enough—a dollar or two a day seems not bad in comparison to rural poverty—that they “put down roots,” improving their shacks enough that it begins to feel something like a home. They have children here. The children may know the name of the village their parents came from and say that they too are “from” that village but for all intents and purposes the family is now resident in Mthatha. It isn’t a great life by any means but it is one that has some predictability to it.

The thing is, the city government doesn’t like a community like Itipini very much. It makes city leaders look bad when the first thing you see driving into Mthatha is a tumble-down cluster of shacks on a hill. So the city leaders adopt an age-old approach: ignore Itipini. When I worked in Itipini, it was all but impossible to get a social worker, a police officer, or a municipal politician to care about Itipini. I remember a woman who had her shack burned down by a drunk young man who accused her of being a witch: neither the fire department nor the police department ever did a single thing about it.

They’re helped in this by the social opprobrium attached to residents of Itipini. Remember, when you say, “I live in Itipini,” you’re saying, “I live at the dump.” Because Itipini is ignored, it’s a place where crime can flourish: the only time the police ever came to Itipini is when they were hunting for an escaped prisoner. So folks in Itipini compensate by a de facto community governance system that keeps a lid on violence and lets people live as best they can. In my limited understanding, it’s not unlike what happens in housing projects in the U.S.: informal governance for an informal community.

Meanwhile, the post-apartheid government has made strides toward building housing for people who live in places like Itipini. These are the neighbourhoods of what I have heard called “Mandela mansions”—what we in the U.S. would call “the projects.” There are three such neighbourhoods in Mthatha and one is often called “Waterfall” because it is close to a dam on the Mthatha River. The housing is often quite good—cinder block, running water nearby, a patch of ground that can support a garden. It looks like this.

But there are numerous problems with these neighbourhoods. First, there simply aren’t enough. Many people who once lived in Itipini have been moved to these new neighbourhoods but many people remain on never-ending waiting lists. Second, these neighbourhoods are on the edge of town (that’s where the open land is). But to work in Mthatha’s informal economy you have to be in the city centre. That can mean a bus fare of a dollar or two each way into town just to keep making that dollar or two a day you were making before. In that situation, it can seem sensible to stay in a place like Itipini, within walking distance of town. Third, the growth of these new neighbourhoods has not been accompanied by a similar expansion of government services. If you need a clinic, a school, a police station, whatever, you have to trek a very long way. The Itipini clinic made the decision to continue to treat people who had once lived in Itipini but had since been moved away. That includes people from Waterfall.

All of this is some context for the events of recent weeks. It helps explain why Itipini is called an “informal settlement”: the government has an “informal” relationship with the people and would prefer they didn’t exist. Itipini detracts from the idea that the government is making progress with its neighbourhoods of Mandela mansions. Technically, the people of Itipini are squatters on municipal land. But since there is really no other place for them to go, the government looks the other way and lets them alone.

The existence of a place like Itipini is a testament to the fact that South Africa’s socio-economic problems are complicated and not easily soluble. For every person that is moved out of Itipini, another person from the rural areas comes to Mthatha looking for work and winds up in Itipini. People in Itipini can’t simply be “sent home” to their rural village because Mthatha is their home. Unless there is economic opportunity in these new neighbourhoods—or jobs in the formal economy—people will continue to want to live close to where the action is.

The situation as I’ve described it is not unique to Itipini, of course. There are one or two other informal settlements in Mthatha (none built on garbage dumps and none quite as large) and there are hundreds more around the country, all created by similar dynamics that cannot simply be solved by building lots of new housing—though lots of new housing would definitely help.

So that’s the context… in the next post, I’ll think about how this context informs the events of the past few weeks and months.

UPDATE: The second post in this series has been posted.

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4 thoughts on “When the only tool you have is a hammer… (Part I)

  1. Pingback: When the only tool you have is a hammer… (Part II) | Mission Minded

  2. Pingback: Itipini BULLDOZED | Mission Minded

  3. Pingback: Stepping away | Mission Minded

  4. Pingback: Returning to Itipini | Mission Minded

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