Category Archives: Popular Magazine article

Shack Shame

Shack Shame

by Mpumi Zulu

The lives of people who live in informal settlements are often without dignity

According to the national Department of Housing, there are over 2 million shacks of different shapes, colours and sizes in South Africa. The living conditions of people who live in shacks are terrible, because they have no electricity, running water or toilets. These are the basic rights of any South African citizen.

But for about seven million people, like Jane Walaza, life goes on and they make the best of what they have. Jane, 72, has lived in Makawosi Squatter Camp in Germiston for 11 years. She used to work in the plush suburbs of Johannesburg. After retiring she decided not to go back to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape because her children and grandchildren had also moved to Johannesburg.

Jane admits that the choice of staying in a Jo’burg shack was not an easy one because she enjoys rural living. “Unlike where I come from, here my neighbours are right in my face. When they play radio, I have to listen to it too,” she says. She also says the poverty in informal settlements in shocking and upsetting. “We used to plant fruit and vegetables but here poverty seems extreme because the only way to get food is to go to the shops,” she adds.

According to the spokesperson of the Department of Housing, Monwabisi MaClean, many people come to towns and big cities in search of work. The reality is, however, that there are no jobs and little money to afford accommodation.

A shack can be free if you build it yourself in a new informal settlement. But in an established informal settlement you may need to buy a plot or stand for anything between R300 and R800 or rent a shack. Renting a shack may cost R50 to R100 a month.

Renting a backroom in the townships is anything between R200 and R450, while living in a flat in town cost about R800 and R1500 in Johannesburg. A shack is by far the cheapest accommodation, unless you are housed in an RDP house. Although living in a shack is cheap it is also very uncomfortable and even dangerous. In Cape Town alone the total number of shacks destroyed by fire in 2005 was over 8 000, according to the city council.

S’bu Zikode, the president of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement of South Africa, says the conditions are horrible. Zikode, his wife and four children live in the Kennedy Road informal settlement, in Durban. The total number of people in his squatter camp is 7 000 and they all share six toilets and 5 taps that are often blocked, says Zikode.

“People often go to the nearby bush to relieve themselves. This very often makes women and children vulnerable to rape,” he says. “The stinking toilets have worms around them and hungry children often mistake them for rice and eat them,” he adds.

But besides the physical dangers there is the unseen emotional brunt and stigma of living in a place that does not have something as simple as a flushing toilet.

Violet Kotu, 23, from a squatter camp in Kliptown says people can make life tough for them at times. She says at school she was often looked down upon because she was from an informal settlement. “This, at times, would lead me to believe that only losers lived in shacks and that we were not allowed to have opinions or have dreams of being successful one day,” adds Violet who has been living in a shack for the past 12 years.

Violet says when she grew up and began to fall in love, other girls were amazed when she dated a boy who lived in a house. “To them that was very strange. They expected only boys from squatter camps to have an interest in me,” she says.

A social worker for over 20 years Norah Ngobeni says besides being a basic need, shelter is very important as it gives one a sense of belonging, dignity, privacy, stability and pride. “Without these you may feel like you are walking naked on the streets and sometimes you do things that lead people to conclude that you are mentally disturbed,” she says.

Norah says when shack dwellers are amongst themselves they don’t feel like lower humans. The problem only starts when they begin to compare themselves with others. “They begin to feel like they are not part of society and sometimes they feel like they don’t have power like people who have homes,” she says.

There are some people who do take pride in their small homes. Like Pinky Nkonde, 35, who also lives in Makawosi Squatter Camp with her three-month-old baby girl. She tries her best to keep the place clean and tidy and even decorates it. Her neighbours also take care of their homes.

The government, however, says that it would like to get rid of all shacks by 2014. “Since 1994 we’ve built more than 2.1 million RDP houses at a cost of R37 billion. We have a plan to build more,” says Monwabisi. The government plans to provide homes that people who do not need permanent housing can rent. These homes will be built in cities and will cater for different income groups.

But political economist, Pheko Mohau, does not think building new homes is the only solution. “Building RDP houses helps but the government needs to look at the root of the problem, which is unemployment. Without work people won’t be able to pay for services at their new homes and they will be involved in crime,” she says. “Giving people accommodation should go hand in hand with job creation,” she concludes.

What Are Your Rights If You Live in a Shack?

• If you build a shack on land that belongs to the Municipality, you can be removed from the land, but the Municipality must give you notice and also provide you with alternative accommodation.
• The Constitution of South Africa guarantees you the right to have access to housing. It also says the government must pass laws and take steps, within its available resources, to ensure that people have access to land, housing, and security. This is called progressive right.
• Just like any citizen, you have a right to exercise your freedom of expression so you are allowed to stage legal and peaceful marches to express your complaints to municipalities.

USEFUL NUMBERS: S’bu Zikode can be contacted on 083 547 0474.


‘Move: A magazine for women’ is one of the top selling magazines in South Africa. It is sold all over Southern Africa as far north as Kenya. Abahlali have also featured in other mass market magazines like Drum, Huisgenooit, and You in English, Afrikaans and isiZulu as well as popular newspapers like UmAfrika, Isolezwe etc and on popular radio like iGagasi FM, Ukhosi FM etc. Abahlali is a genuinely popular mass based movement with a powerful presence in the lifeworld of its constituency.