…every problem begins to look like a nail.
This is the second of two posts looking at why the Itipini community—the shantytown community where I worked for two years—was bulldozed last week. Read the first post if you haven’t already.
There’s one aspect of life in Itipini I left out of the earlier post and that has to do with young men. For a variety of reasons (all of which I discuss at length in my book), young men are problematic actors in society: unemployed, uneducated, and prone to violence and crime. (Those are some harsh generalizations, I know: read the book to learn more.) In fact, when I worked in Itipini it sometimes seemed like young men existed to father children (but not rear them), get drunk, and commit crimes. One of the roles of community leaders in Itipini was to keep a lid on the young men: send them back to the rural areas, try to find them work, or whatever would keep them out of trouble.
That’s some background to the news that in recent weeks and months, tension in Itipini has increased. It’s hard to know exactly why this was happening. Perhaps one or two of the community leaders had moved out and the precarious balance that kept the community on an even keel was disrupted. Perhaps too many new people had moved into the community who didn’t understand the mores of the place. Perhaps young men were proving unable to control. I don’t have any special insight here. You can read Karen’s posts for more on what has been happening.
One result of this is that the municipal government actually made an effort to respond to the needs of people in Itipini. I almost didn’t believe it when I heard it. They came in and registered people for the government housing. It’s hard to see just what this would do, of course, given that many of these people already were on the wait list and there doesn’t seem to be any plans to build new homes. But at least Itipini was on the map.
Despite this intervention, the even keel of the community was so disrupted that people in Waterfall began to get upset and accused people (read: young men) in Itipini of stealing from them. Not long ago, some young men from Itipini killed a woman who lives near Waterfall. The police got involved, though in South Africa this is not always a great thing. (That meant the newspaper covered it.) In any event, it was all too much for folks in Waterfall. They began agitating even more and pretty soon there were notices posted in Itipini that the city was going to clear the squatters and they had to move out. Where? That hardly seemed to matter. The line of thinking seemed to be that if Itipini was gone, the problem would be no more. There’s no thought taken for the number of problems it would create, like where everyone in Itipini would live.
(Here it is time for a little aside: if I were a reporter in Mthatha interested in the demolition of Itipini, I’d be asking this question: who ordered the demolition? This clearly became a feud between Waterfall and Itipini. Since Waterfall is an actual neighbourhood of Mthatha, it has political representation in municipal government, something that Itipini, for all intents and purposes, lacks. [Remember: everyone wishes Itipini wasn’t there.] When it comes down to it, Waterfall is more powerful than Itipini. Its [justifiable] complaints about safety trump any considerations about what will happen now that Itipini has been destroyed. I imagine there is someone higher up the political food chain in Mthatha who took this opportunity to get rid of Itipini, something the city didn’t want anyway, and satisfy folks in Waterfall. In any community, the folks who drive bulldozers are always taking orders from someone else.)
Back to those posters in Itipini. People felt free to ignore them because similar threats have been made in the past but nothing ever happened. But not this time. On Thursday morning, the bulldozers showed up. Apparently, people were not given time to remove their possessions from their homes. They simply had to do their best from the crumpled remains, even as (so I have been told) the tin that made up their walls was bundled up to be sold for scrap.
Now, lots of people are living in a Rotary Hall in another nearby neighbourhood. Many others are, I imagine, living with friends and relatives in other parts of Mthatha, swelling the capacity of already overwhelmed homes. There’s word that the government just wants to send all these folks back “home,” i.e. to their rural village. But many have not been there in years and have little connection there, yet alone a place to live.
And that brings me to the title of this series of posts. There are a lot of difficult, complex factors that combine to produce the urban poverty that results in a place like Itipini. Resolving these problems is not simply a matter of demolishing Itipini and declaring the problem solved. (It is not at all clear, for instance, that demolishing Itipini will reduce crime in Waterfall. Young men will still be young men.) Doing away with places like Itipini—which we all long for—means a better school system, jobs for people who are educated, and so on and so forth. None of those things are easy of course. But it seems like folks in Mthatha’s government got the idea that demolition was all that was needed. So they took blunt instruments—the bulldozer—to complex issues. The result? Devastation.
The people who lived in Itipini are, well, people. True, in Mthatha and the rest of the world they are often essentially invisible; everyone does their best to forget they exist. But they are people, with hopes and dreams and imperfections and foibles just like the rest of us. The basic premise of my book about Itipini is that these are people whose story deserves to be told, just like anyone else. What they definitely do not deserve is to have their homes destroyed as if they are meaningless, forgotten people. Yet that is exactly what has happened.