Beyond Safety : The Plight Of Backyarders In Manenberg

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It is frequently acknowledged that urban residents living in dire poverty are socially excluded and are in need of more interventions from Government, but the plight of the Backyard Dwellers in Cape Town is often entirely forgotten. They are neither heard nor seen by the broader Cape Town populace or even by the powers that be. After a fight that started around 1998 it  is only in 2013 that the government  has drafted a policy document that recognises backyard dwellers and the policy seems to acknowledge the difficulties that they are faced with.  These difficulties include continuous infringement of backyarders’ rights, illegal evictions, constantly negotiating access to services through landlords (which can be revoked at any time) and sharing infrastructure designed for a single household, leading to problems of over-consumption (e.g. high electricity bills, low water pressure and sewerage blockages).

Housing policies that focus on upgrading and/or eradicating informal settlements have historically overlooked backyard dwellings. The Manenberg government rental stock upgrading  gives an insightful evidence , that even today the housing policies fail to accommodate backyarders. When will the city acknowledge the existence of backyarders and in turn recognise them as part of the city fabric? Till when will they backyarders wait to be included in housing policies such as the upgrading taking place in Manenberg?

After a long period of neglect and poor maintenance the Metropolitan Municipality of Cape Town has begun to upgrade its rental stock in areas of  the city commonly known as the ‘Cape Flats.’ The upgrade includes plumbing overhauls, painting, windows and door refitting, and rewiring of electrical circuits.

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Despite the fact that the community of Manenberg has laid complaints to the city about the poor quality of the upgrading, lack of community consultation and the inability of the upgrading exercise to employ local labor to absorb the high unemployment rate in the area. Melanie Manuel, a leader of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) and Backyarders Network in Cape Town, during a recent public meeting held (on the 19th September 2013) in the Manenberg ‘peoples center emphasised her concerns towards the lack of safety during the upgrading.  She says “even though the city has provided temporary housing to its tenants during the period of the upgrading, it has failed to house backyarders in the process, nonetheless they have been left vulnerable to danger”.

 

The community’s concern is the scaffolds that have been placed around the shacks of the backyarders. Residents feel that the contractor’s choice to leave heavy construction equipment nearby while there are people residing on site has left children and the elderly more vulnerable to danger. In some instances the scaffolding has been put on top of the shacks causing damage and leaks to the shacks, seemingly without considering these shacks that are being damaged is somebody’s home and that the household has invested on the structure both emotionally and financially to protect them from vulnerabilities such as the wet weather of Cape Town.  “Not only have the backyarders been left without sanitation, electricity and water but the contractors are continuously damaging their homes,” Manuel said.  She further complained about the amount of dust that is produced during the construction saying that with the high TB rate in Manenberg several backyarders’ health has been compromised during the upgrade.

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She says it has taken too long for them as backyarders to be recognised by the government and after all the fights; she believes that the government should have made an effort to temporarily house the backyarders. “Seemingly the city said that it would only provide temporary housing to its tenants and because backyarders do not pay rent to the city, therefore they are not its concern”.  This approach, she says, demonstrates that the city has not fully recognised the backyarders and will undoubtedly not protect them against the possible increase in rent after the upgrade; their landlords will take advantage of the upgraded structure to increase the rent. She further argued that the upgrading was not strategically planned because  the city has recently started discussing a long term plan to house backyarders she thus believes that the two plans should have been executed simultaneously.

The community of backyarders in Manenburg did an enumeration exercise in 2011 and as a result of this exercise organisations in the housing sector of the MDCS  searched for approaches to improve the living conditions of the backyarders. The first approach is to upgrade the structures,  put in services such as water, sanitation and electricity  , and give temporary tenure to backyarders to avoid high rents.  the second approach is to demolish some of the existing flats and build new flats that will accommodate more people.  Read more on http://sasdialliance.org.za/we-want-to-do-what-we-can-with-what-we-have-where-we-are/