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February 06, 2007

STORY: Villarain: an informal settlement in Cape Town

With the Anti-Eviction Campaign, we visited in a small informal settlement called Villarain, a community of 63 tin and wood shacks who were squatting on some school property. Villarain was formed when a group of families who had been living in shacks in people’s backyards were tired of paying rent and decided to band together and create their own community. So they took over a vacant lot and built shacks. Soon, the city council evicted them (even though the land was unused and most settlements are built on city land) and told them that they could use the edge of the school property. But the school got mad and evicted them, and when we met the people of Villarain, they were in court with the City about finding them a place to stay (they identified five possible locations). They had been at the school site for 15 months and received a three-month extension while in court.

In the meantime, the City provided 12 outhouses, which they empty weekly, and two water taps for the 500+ people who live there. An average of 10 people live in each 10x10 shack.

When we arrived, there was a group of women gathered and yelling around one of the shacks. It turns out that a couple built the shack but decided to live elsewhere, so they leased it (with a signed paper) to another family. But when the couple split up, the wife tried to take the shack back. The yelling was between the wife and the community who was protecting the family. Soon, they called the police to settle the dispute (which shocked me since I had just come from Nairobi where the police are so corrupt that they are the last people you’d call). The police sided with the community, and things were settled.

One fun aspect of this experience was the singing. I just love how communities and political gatherings in South Africa are infused with songs! It’s such a great way to build and focus energy. One of the songs they kept singing was telling the mayor to come and see for herself what life was like there…

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