In preparation for World Cup, the poor in Cape Town are being relocated

Poor families say preparations for the international athletic spectacle have forced their eviction so the world will see only a prosperous image of the nation.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

DELFT, SOUTH AFRICA -- Shirley Fisher says she was evicted from a hostel near a stadium where soccer's biggest stars train. Natasha Flores says she was driven out of squatters' quarters near a new $450 million stadium in one of Cape Town's busiest tourist areas.

Both ended up in Blikkiesdorp, a settlement of corrugated-iron shacks ringed by a concrete fence, home to hundreds of evicted families. Many residents say there is only one reason they wound up in this bleak place, which in Afrikaans means "tin-can town."

"The World Cup," said Fisher, 41, without hesitation.

Human rights campaigners say South African authorities have forcibly moved thousands of the impoverished to Blikkiesdorp and other settlements to present a good image of the nation during the World Cup, which begins Friday. Cape Town city council officials deny the allegations. What is clear is that the complaints have exposed the wide gap between South Africa's rich and poor residents 16 years after the end of apartheid.

President Jacob Zuma's government argues that the billions it has spent on building stadiums and improving infrastructure will create jobs, raise the standard of living and showcase South Africa's progress. Many of the poor, though, say the government has misplaced its priorities. They expect their lives to change little as a result of their nation holding the world's most-watched sporting event. In fact, they will be worse off, they say.

"Why can't they take the money they spent on the stadiums and use it to build houses, not the dollhouses we now live in, but proper houses?" demanded Margaret Bennet, 45, who lives with eight relatives in a shack the size of a walk-in closet. "The World Cup may be important for the high-powered people, but it means nothing for us on the streets."

"We are living in a concentration camp," said Padru Morris, 47, another resident.

The impoverished have been victimized in other countries that have held global sporting events. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. But unlike anywhere else in the world, evictions have a historical significance in South Africa. Under white rule, hundreds of thousands of blacks and so-called coloreds, or people of mixed race, were forcibly removed from their homes to racially separate the society.

One of the most famous upheavals unfolded in Cape Town's District Six. More than 60,000 people were uprooted after the government declared it a whites-only area in 1966. After the historic all-race elections in 1994, the ruling African National Congress promised to build a house for every poor family to redress the injustices of apartheid. But today, cities such as Cape Town face acute housing shortages, pushing the poor to squat on public land or occupy empty buildings, even sidewalks.

Wary of their tortured history, Cape Town officials describe Blikkiesdorp -- erected two years ago for people illegally occupying buildings -- as "a temporary relocation area" until proper housing can be built. "We acknowledge that Blikkiesdorp is not a perfect solution, but it is what we can do with the existing resources," said Kylie Hatton, a city council spokeswoman. But nobody, she said, has been "deliberately cleansed" from a neighborhood because of the World Cup.

Many disagree. In March, Raquel Rolnik, the U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, said in a report that cities such as Cape Town had prioritized "beautification over the needs of local residents." Affordable-housing projects were placed on the back burner as stadium projects fell behind schedule. Soccer's world governing body, FIFA, had done little to address the housing concerns, she said.

About 20,000 dwellers from the Joe Slovo settlement, a sprawling slum near Cape Town's newly upgraded airport, had been targeted for eviction to make way for rental housing for the World Cup. But the residents won a court ruling that made their removal so costly that the local authorities abandoned the plan, but not before several thousand people were evicted, activists said.

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