Invade and settle on land: class struggle over housing shortages

6 Jan 2024


This article reflects the implications of people who invade and settle on land. In November 2021 my colleagues at Stellenbosch Transparency, Mike Hyland and Arumugam Pillay, and I did a practice-run of analysing news reports about a vexed issue in our society: land invasions. This took the form of a videoed panel discussion.

We had planned to develop a news analysis service that would be useful to other journalists as well as discerning citizens and readers of the mainstream news, who increasingly were finding news reports superficial. Our intention was to address this perceived need in the media readership market. In line with this Mike and I recently published a video discussion about the reporting of the Usindiso building which burnt down in Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. Subsequently I also published an associated post, ‘News reporting connotations of burning building’, on the Stellenbosch Transparency website. (Consequently, we plan to follow up shortly with a second analysis of the Usindiso building tragedy).

This post is about people who invade and settle on land.  It was meant to be a practice-run. Viewing and listening to it now almost two years later, I thought that it provided useful insights into understanding the intense conflicts in South Africa around the residential usage of land. This reflection took place 24 months ago. Yet, housing shortages and the cost of accessing formal residential accommodation, remain core challenges for the largely black working-class majority. Therefore I  decided to publish the following post. At the end I include a link to a short trailer video. This is for those interested in a sneak preview of the discussion.

The full discussion of approximately one hour is on the Stellenbosch Transparency website, under the page heading ‘videos’.

News sources

The discussion was based on our reading 17 news articles that covered land invasions mainly in the Western Cape province during 2021. These articles were published on the following media platforms.

• Independent on Line
• News 24
• Sowetan Live
• The South African
• Times Live
• eNCA
• Daily Maverick
• Ground Up
• Money Web

At the time, and in preparation for our videoed discussion I prepared an overview of the contents of the news reportage. From this I reflected on the intentions of people who invade and occupy land. This comprises the remainder of this post.

Invade and settle on land as social conflict

People who invade and settle on land are conflicting with mainly municipal but sometimes private landowners.

Stellenbosch tenants who invade and settle on land

Children of evictee from Idas Valley, Stellenbosch, backyard rental shack, 2020. SOURCE: photo circulated by community activists on social media.

The invaders are from existing overcrowded dwellings and people migrating from elsewhere. The defenders against these invasions are the municipal Anti Land Invasions Units (ALIUs) (with respect to municipal land). And the SA Police Services (with respect to private land).

Intensity of conflict

The ALIUs evict many of these settlers by force, such as rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, demolishing their dwellings, often without a court order, or simply threatening force to intimidate them to move (as is the case in Zimbabwe).

In reaction, the settlers resist through a range of options, including protests, petrol bombs, stone and bottle throwing, burning tyres and rubble blockades.

Housing demolished where people invade and settle on land

The only figures provided in the 17 news articles were in respect of the Western Cape.  And more specifically Cape Town. But there is reason to believe that the quantum of housing need and cost of defence against invasions is similar for other provinces and metropolitan municipalities.

The Western Cape housing backlog then stood at 600 000. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the ALIU demolished 25 000 informal units in Cape Town. Nevertheless, in the same period 54 new settlements were established. It was estimated that the cost to police these settlements was in excess of R300 million. The ALIU was said to have prevented a further 1 239 attempted invasions.

Although no figures were available reports indicated that similar situations likely pertain in eThekwini, Ekurhuleni and Greater Johannesburg metropolitan municipalities. And also outside some smaller towns like Grabouw and Plettenberg Bay (Western Cape).

Conflicting narratives about people who invade and settle on land

The spokespeople for the metropolitan municipalities see the land invasions as threatening orderly development in their jurisdictions. This is because they hamper the development of affordable housing projects for the benefit of locals on their waiting lists. They refer to land invasions as a “scourge”, a manifestation of criminal behaviour which includes “shack farming” and “illegal electricity connections”. But officials acknowledge that they are fighting a losing battle to control and stop land invasions. At best, from their statements, there appears to be an impasse between municipal authorities and the invaders.

The news reports generally project the municipal narrative. However, there is also reference to the invaders’ demand for land rather than RDP houses. Additionally, there is reference to occupation of land in Grabouw, Overberg and Plettenberg Bay, justified by descendants of the Khoisan. The latter assert sovereignty over these lands, in terms of the UN Treaties on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

There is some reference in the news reports to structural dynamics driving the invasions.
• Overcrowded formal housing units.
• Eviction of backyard tenants in arrears due to unemployment and furlough (exacerbated by the lockdown imposed in 2020).
• Job losses and a general feeling of hopelessness.
• Shortage of new housing and slow delivery of new units due to:
o In the Western Cape it takes more than four years from project conception to handover.
o Slow delivery is exemplified in the 67 units completed in George’s Pacaltsdorp project between 2018 and 2021.
• The organised (“orchestrated”) aspect of the land invasions and erection of informal shelter.

Conclusion about people who invade and settle on land

The reports show that the conflict between municipalities and invaders is over where communities can build their own housing. Related to this are the questions of the servicing of the land and who will pay for these services.

The metropolitan municipalities’ emphasis on the law of private property and limited housing budgets reflects a broader neoliberal austerity policy adopted nationwide. (I am in the process of writing up posts with videos, of a discussion in 2017, about neo-liberal urbanization and housing policies in South Africa. The first post is already published, and the remaining ones will follow shortly.)

Azania informal settlement, Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, hundreds of shiny tin units erected within a week. SOURCE: aerial map with superimposition in red.

Community demands directly contradict the logic of this policy. This puts a question mark over the fundamental principles of privatisation and commercialisation underlying housing policy.

Contesting land and housing policies

The communities of invaders appear to be significantly organised: they occupy land en-masse overnight, erect temporary shelters rapidly – the most rapid form of housing delivery in the country, act independently of government and have their own supply chain networks to the formal and informal private sector.

There are broader socio-political critiques emerging from the land invasion and settlement movements, namely the inadequacy of the neoliberal system to house the working poor and unemployed in decent, affordable accommodation – Abahlali baseMjondolo articulates this explicitly and it is implied in the land invasion practices of many others. Another critique that has emerged is for land to address the demands of first nation (Khoisan) descendants.

There is a balance of force between the metropolitan municipalities and the land invader movements. While the ALIUs are demolishing many structures (homes) they are unable to contain the extension of informal settlements through land invasions.

We should watch this space for indications of whether this struggle plays itself out by developing higher level demands for the transformation of the housing and urban development delivery system itself.

Paul Hendler, Stellenbosch Transparency, 04 January 2024.

To view a trailer of a video recording of a discussion between Mike Hyland, Arumugam Pillay and Paul Hendler about the implications of land invasions please click on the button below.


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