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Originally published June 10, 2010 at 10:07 PM | Page modified June 10, 2010 at 10:49 PM

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South Africa's poor complain of evictions as country prepares to host World Cup

Human-rights campaigners say South African authorities have evicted thousands of the poor to Blikkiesdorp and other settlements to present a good visual image of the nation during the World Cup.

The Washington Post

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 reside in the bleak place, which in Afrikaans means "tin-can town."

"The World Cup," said Fisher, 41.

Human-rights campaigners say South African authorities have evicted thousands of the poor to Blikkiesdorp and other settlements to present a good visual image of the nation during the World Cup. Cape Town City Council officials deny the accusations. What is clear is that the complaints have exposed the wide gap between South Africa's rich and poor 16 years after the end of apartheid.

President Jacob Zuma's government said the billions it spent on stadiums and improving infrastructure will usher in jobs, raise the standard of living and showcase South Africa's progress. Many of its poor said the government has misplaced its priorities. They expect their lives to change little from their nation hosting the world's most-watched sporting event. Indeed, they are worse off, they said.

"Why can't they take the money they spent on the stadiums and use it to build houses, not the doll houses we now live in, but proper houses?" said Margaret Bennet, 45, who lives with eight relatives in a one-room 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."

The poor have been victimized in other countries hosting large global sporting events. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 1988 Seoul Olympics, hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. But evictions carry a historical resonance in South Africa. Under white rule, hundreds of thousands of blacks and so-called coloreds, or people of mixed race, were forced 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 lands or occupy empty buildings, even sidewalks.

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.

Nobody, she said, has been "deliberately cleansed" from a neighborhood as a result of the World Cup.

Many disagree. In March, Raquel Rolnik, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, said in a report that cities such as Cape Town had given priority to "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 went to court and won a ruling that made their removal so costly that the local authorities abandoned the plan, but not before several thousand were evicted, activists said.

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"They want to get everybody out of sight of the Western tourists," Flores said. "They don't want the world to know that South Africans are living like this."

More recently, Amnesty International noted growing reports of police harassment of the poor, including expulsions of homeless people and street hawkers near World Cup venues and destruction of "informal housing."

FIFA also contractually demanded a commercial zone solely for its sponsors around venues, raising the ire of street vendors.

In Blikkiesdorp, several thousand people live in one-room shacks. Each houses five to seven people, forcing many to share beds. Four shacks share one toilet and a water faucet.

The camp, residents say, is far from Cape Town's center. Taking a minibus taxi or a train is prohibitively costly. In interviews, many said they could not afford to take their children to school or to a clinic.

"This is a dumping place for people," said Jane Roberts, a resident and activist with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction campaign, a grass-roots group seeking to stop forced removals. "It is like apartheid, only perpetrated by new faces."


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