The Simmons Voice: Shack-dwellers can’t find a simple answer

Shack-dwellers can’t find a simple answer

Michelle Geoffroy
Issue date: 9/17/09

DURBAN, South Africa-Chickens, dogs and barefoot children play in the streets. The roads are little more than dirt pathways, embedded with a mosaic of broken glass glinting sharply in the afternoon sun.

The streets are lined with a colorful collage of trash-potato chip bags, candy wrappers, empty pints of Smirnoff vodka and packets of cigarettes. The smell of rancid milk and rotting garbage stings the nose, though whether from the trash on the road or the vast landfill up the hill, one cannot be sure.

This is the Kennedy Road squatter camp, an “informal settlement,” as South Africans call them, outside the city of Durban. Here, 10,000 people live in 6,000 shacks practically piled on top of one another, sharing just five water pumps and five toilets for the entire settlement.

Visitors driving along the nation’s highways are greeted by dozens of settlements like this one. Seas of shacks line the road for miles, made of whatever material the residents could scavenge-usually scraps of wood or corrugated metal. The tin roofs are held down with cement blocks, tires, or rocks.

Tourists are often confused by the discrepancies they see between the large, modern cities and the poorer areas rarely visited by outsiders. One such visitor on a “township tour” asks her guide: “Why do the shantytowns still exist?”

There is no simple answer.

It is nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid, the hierarchical system of racial domination that characterized South Africa for more than 40 years under the rule of the National Party.

Under apartheid, non-white South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes by the Group Areas Act. The act sectioned off separate living areas for each racial group: white, “colored” (mixed-race), Asian and black. Those who were removed were sent to vacant plots of undeveloped land outside the cities, often with nothing but cramped latrines to mark their assigned house lots.

Whole communities are built from scratch. Many people can not afford homes on their bare-subsistence wages, or for some, no wages. They build shacks instead.

The South African Constitution guarantees the right to access adequate housing, but the government has been slow to make good on its promise. To date, the government has built approximately 3 million houses, but the waiting list is many millions long. Some people die before their number is called.

The crisis is only getting worse. Shantytowns are growing, fed by immigration from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mozambique. There are also many South Africans moving in from rural areas, where they lack access to jobs and services, into the townships.

Once they get here, however, there are few jobs to be found. As much as 40 percent of the population in South Africa is unemployed, according to some estimates.

The employment situation is exacerbated by lack of education, which is itself difficult to obtain. Parents must pay fees for their children to go to school, which includes the cost of uniforms and books, as well as transportation. If parents are unemployed, however, they cannot pay these fees. Without an education, the children will have the same problems as their parents in finding work.

One of the benefits of the Kennedy Road settlement, however, is its proximity to the many factories and industrial plants in Durban, as well as middle class neighborhoods, which provide domestic employment. As a result, many residents say they do not want to move.

Both the temporary camps and the houses the government is building are far from the places where settlement residents work and go to school.

Should citizens decide to move, they would have to pay additional transportation costs out of their already overburdened wallets and many are not be able to afford to do so. They will lose their jobs. Their children will have to drop out of school. Or, as Zodwa Nsibande, a volunteer for the ‘shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, says, they would sell the new houses and move back into the settlement.

Abahlali is a movement that began in Durban, South Africa in 2005. It started with a road blockade organized to protest the sale of a nearby piece of land to a local industry that was once promised to build houses for the shack-dwellers.

The movement quickly grew to include tens of thousands of people from more than 30 settlements countrywide.

The government’s current solution to the housing crisis is to move residents of these settlements into temporary camps until houses can be erected. But, according to Nsibande, there is no indication of how long “temporary” might be.

Besides, Nsibande says, these “internment camps,” as she calls them, are worse than the settlements themselves. The temporary housing consists of tin shacks. “We don’t want to be moved from one shack to another,” she says. Her voice rises as she adds that in one camp residents went a whole month without clean water.

Moreover, the houses the government provides are hardly what one could call “adequate,” says Nsibande’s brother and fellow Abahlali volunteer, Thabiso. The law allows settlement residents to hire their own inspectors to examine the government housing, he says. In one case, the inspector kicked a wall and the entire wall collapsed-it was made of dirt.

One of Nsibande’s Abahlali colleagues, Siabonga Dlamini, says that size is also a problem. He points to a large green shack with a wooden porch on the hillside beneath him. That shack, he says, probably has five or six rooms and most likely houses 10 people. But the government houses are only two rooms, no matter how many people are in the family.

“If you are going to take us out of here,” says Thabiso Nsibande, “put us in a house. A house that you would be happy with if you were brought to that house.”

As it stands, South Africa is in the midst of a major housing crisis. While the government is trying to help, Zodwa Nsibande and her fellow Abahlali members say they are frustrated with the way the problem has been handled.

“We want them to develop us where we are,” says Nsibande, explaining that there are vacant places the municipality of Durban could buy and develop. She does not know why the city refuses to do so.

What settlement residents do not want, she says, is to be dictated to by the government, because they have not experienced this situation. What residents want is to be listened to.

In the meantime, groups like Abahlali are working hard to make their voices heard. Abahlali, which has branches in 34 settlements throughout South Africa, recently challenged legislation which would justify the eviction of all settlement residents under the KwaZulu Natal Slums Act.

Though they lost the case in the KwaZulu Natal provincial court, they have not lost hope. They have appealed the ruling and are now awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa.

Since the constitution guarantees the right of access to adequate housing, Abahlali and the Kennedy Road residents are hopeful their case will be listened to