Category Archives: The Economist

The view from the shacks

The Economist

April 8, 2006
U.S. Edition
The view from the shacks

Miserable but not quite hopeless

A GOOD place to view South Africa’s economic development from another angle is the Foreman Road shantytown in the middle of Durban. Here, perhaps a thousand makeshift shacks, thrown together with whatever came to hand—pieces of wood, corrugated iron, bits of cardboard—cling precariously to the muddy side of a steep hill. They are home to 7,000 people.

The number of people living in shantytowns has grown hugely in the past few years. In a relatively prosperous city such as Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal, shacks are now crammed onto almost every bit of vacant land. Unlike townships such as Soweto, which were designated areas for blacks to live in under apartheid, the shantytowns are spontaneous settlements set up by people fleeing the poverty and lack of opportunity in rural South Africa. With the decline of the old industries such as mining and agriculture, the shack-dwellers come to the big cities in search of jobs.

The rapid, unplanned influx into the shantytowns has caused living conditions to deteriorate. In Foreman Road, residents say there are just five toilets between 7,000 of them, and only four water standpipes provided by the local council. There is no electricity, so the main hazard in Foreman Road is fire, caused by accidents with paraffin lamps. Residents suffer a lot of health problems, mainly stomach and respiratory ailments. Last year the accumulated grievances of the shack-dwellers erupted into protests throughout the country, with clashes between residents and police.

In Foreman Road, people feel betrayed by the ANC and ignored by the local leaders. They say they were promised proper low-cost housing five years ago, but nothing has happened, so last year they organised themselves into a Shack-Dwellers Movement. Their leader, S’bu Zikode, says that they have been waiting patiently, “but our leaders have betrayed us. Our children will die from fires and disease. We are living like wild animals.”

The ANC has accused the shack-dwellers of being politically motivated. Yet they have endured their dreadful living conditions precisely because they are all working hard to move from the “second economy” to the “first economy”, as Mr Mbeki wants. The shacks may be putrid and dangerous, but they are also much in demand. When one becomes vacant, a family will scrape together up to 500 rand to buy it and get the chance of a job and perhaps even a decent education.

Eighteen-year-old Philani, for instance, has lived in Foreman Road for seven years and has gained his matric exam. He is applying for jobs in sales and marketing. Philani and his peers are just the sort of entrepreneurial people the ANC needs to encourage. Instead, they feel that they are being turned away.