The fight to make slum dwellers visible

Tayiona Sanangurai is the national coordinator for the Young Voices Network in Zimbabwe and campaigns for the rights of slum dwellers. spoke with him at The Africities Summit 2015 about his work, evictions, and the need to show policy makers the reality of life in slums.

UA: From your base in Harare, what are the major issues you work on with slum dwellers?

TS: We work in slum communities. As you know, in 2005 the government forcibly evicted people without notice, without due cause. Since then there has been a tsunami of forced evictions and insecure tenure. These communities have experienced forced evictions more than four times in their lifetimes, and they also live under constant threat of eviction because their tenure arrangements are not as secure as you want them to be.

…Because of their experience of different forms of eviction you find that they do not have access to economic opportunities or education facilities or health facilities. Most of the slum dwellers have low levels of literacy. You can find maybe approximately five percent have actually achieved tertiary [education]; maybe 10 percent have completed their A-levels.

UA: This month, there have been evictions?

TS: This month there was a threat of eviction in one community near to the [Harare] airport road. The president was commissioning the opening of that road. It was under construction. In the middle of doing that commissioning he then looked across the road and saw a slum community, and said what are those people doing there? They need to be removed. The minister responsible said they would be removed in 14 days.

UA: Have they been removed?

TS: To date, I’m not sure what is [happening] on the ground. But this reflects, generally, on how decisions are made on how communities are moved. There is no rule of law; there is no due process. There is total disregard of human rights and no regard at all to the international guidelines on how you evict a community, or remove a community and allocate them.

UA: Do you think the concerns of slum dwellers can be represented properly here in the wealthy part of Johannesburg [Sandton City] in a space that’s quite academic in way? It’s not like taking people out onto the ground and saying ‘hey, this is what’s happening.’

TS: I think the challenge is that you’ll find that policy makers are uncomfortable to actually visit slum communities. In their mind they want them to be invisible. They want them to not exist. Even if you invite them to a community they do not show up. They decide to send their juniors because they want to maintain, I think, a certain level of deniability.

…People coming here — it’s comfortable for the policy makers. Slum dwellers make their presentations. It’s still, like you said, in an academic manner. They’re not actually experiencing what this person is going through…

So what we did in my organization is we did an installation theatre. We realized that policy makers don’t come to the community so we [decided to] bring the community to the policymakers. We asked for permission to…we went into the city park and rebuilt different structures from the slum community (like a bottle store, child-headed family, washing area, hairdressing area) in the park and invited policymakers to come and join us for a launch of a booklet. To them, they were coming to a launch of a booklet. They did not realize we had rebuilt the structures. [To] the young people who did it we said ‘just act out your normal day in a community’…the policymakers came and we told them to just take a tour of the community, and they were shocked.

…The challenge is that we were then arrested by the police…We knew that if we told them we were going to build structures they [would] say no. So we got a clearance letter for an installation theatre. They said, you did not tell us you wanted to build structures. We explained to them, that’s what installation theatre is if you google it, we did not lie to you…they then released us.

UA: In discussions about slums, there is one camp that says we need to eradicate slums while another camp says slums are part of urban life in African cities. If we’re looking at Harare or Johannesburg in 20 to 30 years what would you want to see with the informal settlements that exist now?

TS: I think those who say slums are part and parcel of urban life are not actually admitting that slums are a symptom of an existent failure in planning. So they change the narrative so that it suits them. With proper planning and consultation it is actually possible to take the slums out of people, as the famous statement was: take the slums out of people; do not take people out of the slums. It is possible to upgrade: everybody wants to have an adequate standard of living, adequate housing, everybody desires that. It’s a human right to have that. There is only need for political will and a slight change in our priorities. There is also a need to consult people who live in slums because they’re a great intellectual resource that actually exists.

Brendon Bosworth is the editor of

Photo: Tayiona Sanangurai. Credit: Brendon Bosworth

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One Response to “The fight to make slum dwellers visible”

  1. Moreblessing Gwavuya

    I know Tayiona in person he is a real champion of housing rights, thump up Tayi you are doing a great job


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