Duncan Village hyper-ghetto

Over the past weeks, the Mdantsane bypass has been the site of almost weekly blockades by service delivery protesters from Duncan Village.

The latest incidents are a response to Buffalo City Metro’s decision to pull down illegal electricity connections in the isiqiki, or shack areas, where residents complain of increasing discrimination and lack of service delivery.

In the past, few protests have spilt over onto the freeway and disrupted traffic. Now, the busy city-Mdantsane connection is blockaded regularly with burning tyres and stones scattered by shack dwellers.

Why is Duncan Village in flames again, and what are the reasons behind the anger of shack dwellers, in particular?

In 2011 I published Home Spaces, Street Styles, a book exploring the cultural history and politics of this extraordinary Eastern Cape township. Duncan Village is more than a century old and has produced some leading black cultural, intellectual and political figures, not only in the region but the country.

In historical terms, Duncan Village is the Eastern Cape’s equivalent of Harlem, New York. It is a place with a rich and unique social history and it played a particularly significant role in the struggle against apartheid, being the epicentre of both the Defiance campaign in the 1950s and the township struggles of the 1980s.

When the liberation movements were banned in the early 1960s, more political activists were sent to Robben Island from Duncan Village than any other township in South Africa.

It is a place of great significance in the history of African nationalism and as such should be a place of pride and investment by the ruling party.

However, while Harlem, New York, is now in the midst of a major new renaissance with rising property values, new social and cultural projects and is increasingly crime and drug free, Duncan Village is a shadow of its former self. It is violent, crime-ridden and poor.

But more than that it has lost its spirit and urban attitude and has become little more than a depressed, hyper-ghetto of poverty and misery.

It is a great shame and tragedy – one could say a great failing of the ANC – that the post-apartheid years have delivered so little for the residents of this township. Not even the children there seem to know anything much about the history of their own place of residence.

One huge problem currently is rising unemployment. The township was always the main home of the black industrial working class in the city, but today unemployment rates exceed 50% and are especially high among the youth.

In Duncan Village, most households no longer have the dignity of having family members with permanent factory jobs, but depend on a precarious combination of odd jobs and social welfare grants for survival.

Locals say even casual work is disappearing.

With poor education and the difficulty of meaningful participation in the urban economy, the poor have relied very heavily on the state and the city for support to upgrade the schools, infrastructure and residential areas. But the state and the city have done little, despite the area receiving presidential priority for redevelopment in 2001.

At various points the city enlisted local and foreign experts to assist in drawing up new development plans, some of which were dynamic and created new opportunities for the regeneration of the historic township. The starting point of all the plans was the need to move freestanding shack dwellers to open up space for redevelopment.

However, while the city has relocated some households to places like Reeston, it has not created space for residential redevelopment to occur inside Duncan Village itself.

From the point of view of longstanding residents, the only beneficiaries of the post-apartheid period appear to be those who arrived last. They refer to the flood and fire victims who have received new houses in Reeston, while many who have waited 20 years for houses have been ignored.

In my book, I spoke of the rise of “fractured urbanism” where different residential enclaves developed their own social and political identities and strategies, as they fought each other for access to services and resources.

In the current period, this has been taken to a new level, with a deepening divide between the inzalelwane (people who were born there) and those whom they call abantu bofufika (new comers), or “outsiders” – the people of the isiqiki.

The argument the inzalelwane make is the city has only favoured newcomers and left those who actually won freedom through the struggle – the historic residents or inzalelwane – out in the cold.

They claim the time has now come to allocate resources to the proven “struggle families”, “the borners”, and stop scarce state resources flowing into the hands of abantu bofufika, the supposed “newcomers”.

This has created much anger among shack dwellers because many say they, too, have been there for decades, and they originally come from the old neighbourhoods and were just as involved as anyone else in the political struggles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Inzalelwane families state the city must ignore these claims and rebuild the township to favour the “borners”.

The politics in Duncan Village is no longer a politics of basic needs, where those who have the greatest poverty or disadvantage have the strongest claim on state resources.

It is a politics of restitution – which the state favours in rural areas – where those who can claim to have made the greatest contribution to the struggle for freedom have the greatest right to state patronage and resources, seemingly irrespective of the material conditions of their families.

The new politics of restitution is vitriolic and internally divisive, and has created a deepening sense of desperation among the isiqiki dwellers, who already feel completely marginalised in Duncan Village.

They claim they were promised rights to the city and to its citizenship, which are denied them.

So the township which once created an impenetrable united front against the apartheid state and stood together, demanding recognition and development for all its residents is now fragmented and divided into political and residential factions.

These are at each other’s throats for access to the crumbs off BCM’s table – “crumbs” is actually a generous description of what the city and the state has offered in Duncan Village.

Occupying the freeway is an act of desperation performed by squatters from Duncan Village who feel they should not be ignored or left out. They are fighting for basic recognition and inclusion as citizens.

They claim they need some urban services to survive in the city and should not be denied citizenship just because they do not have the jobs to pay the cash that buys basic dignity. They say citizenship should not be something that belongs to the rich or to those who bear the physical wounds of struggle.

In the context of the current conflicts, it is high time the mayor and his team revisit the many Duncan Village redevelopment plans generated over the past 20 years and start to take decisive, direct action to implement meaningful township redevelopment in the inner city region.

Forcing people out onto the fringes of the city to places like Reeston and Scenery Park can never be a substitute for proper city planning and strategies to rebuild historic parts of the city and its neighbourhoods.

The council should also make clear its intentions so as to reduce the tension that now exists in the township.

The city cannot afford to allow Duncan Village to dissolve into chaos. Like Harlem, it has an iconic history and as such needs to be rebuilt by committed city leaders and local residents into something befitting of its social and political significance in the struggle for freedom.

But more than anything, it needs to become a neighbourhood that regains its sense of pride and purpose, which will go a long way towards addressing some of its social, educational and economic challenges that make life so difficult there.

Leslie Bank is director and professor of the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.