Ignore the nay-sayers: the Olympics has changed Rio for the better

Fireworks over Rio's Olympic Stadium, with the Mangueira favela in the foreground. Image: Getty.

Beatriz Garcia is conducting academic research in Rio de Janeiro partly funded by an International Olympic Committee Advanced Research Grant. Here's her view of the games and their legacy.

No sooner had the 2016 Olympic Games finished than commentators were lamenting their negative impacts on the host city, Rio de Janeiro. Many have concluded that a sustainable Olympic legacy is either uncertain, or downright impossible.

But while these tales of doom and gloom make for dramatic headlines, the reality is not so grim.

The international press have always been pessimistic about Brazil’s ability to stage the Olympics. Before the games began, a steady flow of articles critiqued the preparations, condemned forced evictions and cast doubt on whether vital infrastructure would be delivered on schedule. Admittedly, in the context of the ongoing economic crisis and political turmoil, there was – and still is – good cause for concern. But it is important not to get fixed on controversies as the only source of truth.

Once the games started, the city was given a short break and the focus moved to the wonders of sport – and obsessive medal counting. But after many were swept up in the thrill of the games themselves, it didn’t take long for the criticisms to return.

In contrast with this bleak picture, my own research on Rio throughout the games fortnight, building on a framework that interrogates the cultural dimensions of this as well as eight previous host cities since Sydney 2000, reveal a different dimension of the Olympic city this summer.

The art of progress

The people I spoke to were frustrated that uplifting stories about the urban, social and cultural changes taking place in Rio were not being picked up by journalists. This was especially clear in Rio’s favelas, where I conducted the bulk of my research. These informal slum-like settlements span across the city’s hills and have attracted worldwide attention for their poor living conditions and the high crime rates, associated with drug dealing.

While internal gang wars have resulted in targeted violence for decades, favela residents insist they are also part of strong and optimistic communities. Those outside of gang rivalries say that they feel safe and well supported within their neighbourhood, and that culture and creativity has always been a source of empowerment.

DJ Zezinho speaks to a Russian TV crew about his work as community DJ in Rocinha. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

In particular, cultural activists working in the favelas, such as DJ Zezinho and Obi Wan, told me that they were fed up with being asked to talk about everything that is wrong in Rio. They said that their community life is thriving and opportunities are opening up for residents like Obi Wan, who got a grant to study at a private school and is now running a popular youth hostel and favela tours.

Artists (both home-bred and adopted) are also bringing about positive changes to their neighbourhoods. The International Olympic Committee’s first artist-in-residence – photographer and street artist JR – has taken a prominent role in a number of projects at the Olympic Games.

JR’s InsideOut. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

His work ranges from the monumental Giants to portraits of Olympic participants (InsideOut), to small, community-focused interventions – such as a cultural centre, Casa Amarela, based in one of Rio’s oldest favelas.

What’s more, the first favela-based libraries are opening up, and the new Olympic metro line will improve accessibility to Rio’s most prominent favela, Rocinha. Residents are hopeful that this will finally make it plain that favelas are truly a part of Rio – they weren’t even recognised on official maps until 2013.

Local entrepreneur Obi Wan speaks in front of Rocinha graffiti sensation Wark, whose work is spread throughout Rio and internationally. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

Of course, locals' reactions to the Olympics aren’t all positive. One Rocinha resident pointed out: “We are not allowed to use the metro until after the games – at the moment, only Olympic competition ticket holders can.” But in the wake of extensive drug lord removals and pacification – a controversial but transformative effort to fight crime in the favelas, which was accelerated as the Olympics were looming – no one denies that the big event has helped advance important social causes and address essential public infrastructure needs.

It’s not just residents of the favelas who are feeling some benefits from hosting the games. Despite Rio’s reputation for being a city of great inequality, it does actually have a substantial middle class. Between 60 per cent and 75 per cent of its population live in four large districts: the historic, downtown Centro, the flashy Zona Sul, the largely low-income, residential Zona Norte and the suburbs of the west side.

The latter includes Barra da Tijuca – the site of the main Olympic Park, which is rapidly developing as new, more wealthy communities move in. The Olympic Games have given Rio’s middle-class residents – particularly those in Centro and Zona Norte – a chance to participate in the debate around the kind of city Rio is, and could be.

No-go to must-go

Both city and Olympic officials have made much of the claim that 63 per cent of the population now have access to public transport (up from 18 per cent, seven years ago). But an equally important (and, culturally, more significant) Olympic legacy for Rio is the rediscovery of its public spaces, as areas for people to meet and mingle.

The Olympic Boulevard in Porto Maravilhas was the most popular site for collective (unticketed) celebration during the games. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

Just as Barcelona rediscovered its port during the 1992 Olympics, Rio has reconnected with the long-derelict Porto Maravilhas. The Porto borders downtown Centro, an area which bustles with office workers from all across the city during the week.

But up until recently, Centro lacked public meeting spaces, and was considered an unsafe, no-go area in the evenings and on weekends. This has changed dramatically for the duration of the Olympic Games (and carrying on into the Paralympics). Porto Maravilhas has been rebranded as the Boulevard Olimpico – and suddenly, it’s the place to be.

A dedicated Olympic “live site”, where fans can watch the action on big screens, the Boulevard Olimpico owes its success to the ingenious combination of a diverse cultural offering (including the new Museum of Tomorrow and the revamped Museum of Art in Rio) with business displays and entertainment.

Huge works from Kobra has encouraged other artists to work in the area. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

What’s more, the thoughtful way the space has been used sparked a flurry of street artists (five so far, and counting) to take over old warehouse walls and produce enormous graffiti artworks.

And this is only the second time – after Vancouver’s Winter Olympics in 2010 – that an Olympic Cauldron was placed outside the sports venue, giving those without tickets the chance to experience one the most recognisable Olympic icons first hand.

The eco-friendly Olympic Cauldron has become one of Rio’s favourite sites for selfies. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

So, Cariocas have flocked in their thousands to the Boulevard Olympico. They have fully embraced this new part of their city: there will be no white elephants here. The port has passed from no-go to must-go area in a matter of months and, given its position as meeting point for daily commuters, it is set to become one of the most lively and diverse public places in the city.

A lasting legacy

The Parque Madureira, in the northern part of the city, is another example of urban regeneration leaving a positive legacy for the local community. Located in a densely populated, low-income area, which is dominated by factory infrastructure, this new park has brought greenery, sporting facilities and new cultural life to a neighbourhood of more than 350,000 people.

The largest set of Olympic rings are placed at Madureira park, in low-income Zona Norte. Image: Beatriz Garcia/author provided.

Rio is a big city. With Olympic activities dotted across the four main districts, hardcore sports fans have been forced to spend a considerable part of their day in transit. Because of this, visitors have been exposed to the many sides of Rio, beyond the sandy beaches in Copacabana and the dirty streets in the slums.

Above all else, the games have showcased the generous spirit of the Carioca. While in Rio, I witnessed the locals' thrill at discovering new spaces to gather, exercise and party; their enjoyment and surprise at mixing with people from other districts – often, for the first time, given the city’s longstanding north-south economic divide, and their refusal to be confined by stereotypes and condemned to repeat the same social and cultural mistakes.

There are hard times ahead; the country still faces an ongoing recession and political turmoil. But the Olympic Games have opened up new public spaces, giving everyone the chance to generate positive collective memories – with the Paralympics yet to come. Rather than taking on a defeatist, “can’t-do” attitude, there is much to be gained by paying attention to what’s gone right in Rio.The Conversation

Beatriz Garcia is head of research and cultural policy at the Institute of Cultural Capital, University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.