“Janjots”: how traffic james became a fundamental part of life in Dhaka

A 2012 traffic jam in Dhaka. Image: Getty.

Traffic jams – or “janjot”, as locals call them – are a fundamental part of life in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Sometimes the slowness of the traffic can give you a sense of claustrophobia, as you’re trapped between vehicles that have become immovable objects. It’s easy to see why there is a growing ride-sharing business for motorbikes, which can weave their way through the traffic more quickly. Upmarket apartment blocks even advertise helipad access, to help rich citizens deal with Dhaka’s traffic problem.

Although slowness can feel like the norm there, when acceleration becomes possible, it can be deadly. Dhaka’s notoriously overworked and underpaid bus drivers race each other to pick up passengers, and earn on commission. Reports of corruption in Bangladesh’s transport sector suggest that poorly regulated private companies use bribery to obtain licences for unqualified and inexperienced drivers.

And so when two teenagers were killed by a speeding bus in July 2018, school children and college students took to the streets to do what – in their view – the government should have been doing all along: check the age and licences of drivers, and raise awareness of the dangers faced by citizens. The students set up blockades, and the traffic crawled through the streets at an even slower pace than usual.

At first, the government seemed willing to cooperate with the student demands. But there was mistrust on all sides: the government was concerned that a broader conspiracy was unfolding to undermine the regime, while students believed that links between government and the bus companies would frustrate their demands.

Social media shut down

As the protests continued for more than a week, the situation in Dhaka deteriorated. Conflict broke out: police clashed with protesters, and protesters with pro-government groups. Several journalists reported being attacked and harrassed while filming in the streets. And a digital fog descended over the city, as the government blocked mobile internet access, making it harder to share images and information on social media.

Internationally renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam took to the street of his city to capture the protests. He shared videos to social media, and criticised the governent’s handling of the protests in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Days later, government personnel arrived at his apartment to arrest him for spreading “false” and “provocative” information. Appearing in court the following day, the photographer said he was beaten in custody. In his latest hearing, on 11 September, he was reportedly denied bail.

Speed and politics

Control over movement through the city has long been an obsession for governments the world over. Goods, vehicles and people must be able to move quickly, to promote business and development. But they must also be controlled and monitored, and in this sense the state becomes a system of brakes, imposing checkpoints, border controls, speed ramps, traffic lights and speed limits.

French philosopher Paul Virilio noted how politicians and bureaucrats agonise about the tipping point where they could lose control of the city, when the streets could be occupied, when the people put a break on circulation or when disorderly circulation results in chaos.

Virilio suggested that the development and design of Paris in the 19th century was orchestrated to ensure that streets could be policed as efficiently as possible - wide boulevards were intended to prevent blockades. Transparency was another obsession, making the city visible, with innovations such as street lighting (Paris, after all, is the city of lights).

Transparency makes city residents more secure – and offers up the urban landscape for surveillance by police and militaries. In recent years, such activities have intensified. From the police car on the street, to CCTV cameras on buildings, to the drones in the sky, new vehicles and technologies have become vital in recording and deterring certain behaviour.

Yet in societies equipped with smart phones, surveillance is no longer the practice of the state alone. As civilians block the streets in revolt, they can simultaneously circulate information and imagery to inform their compatriots about events. In Dhaka, and across Bangladesh, controlling the movement of information has become as critical to the state’s authority as the movement of people, goods or vehicles through the city.

Artists and photographers have the ability to circulate images and information in ways that can change how people see the world - and evade the control of the state. As a result, the government has become increasingly paranoid about the rise of “digital Bangladesh”, introducing new laws which critics say can be used to silence opposition.

Now it seems the government has resorted to a strategy of deterrence. Locking up Alam sends a message: if this can happen to a well regarded, internationally renowned photographer, it can happen to you. But at a time when civilians can share information and take to the streets faster than ever before, the imprisonment of Alam does little more than add to the government’s image as a vindictive state, desperate to maintain control.

The Conversation

Mark Lacy, Senior lecturer, Politics, Philosophy, and Religon, Lancaster University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 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.