Notes on Housing, Inequality and Violence in Post-Apartheid South Africa


One night a few weeks before the 2010 World Cup, 33-year-old Terrance Mbuleo lay bleeding under a street lamp, on a narrow strip of dirt separating thousands of shacks from a handful of brick houses.

That afternoon, men set shacks ablaze and slashed wires that diverted electricity from their houses, subsidized by the South African government, to a sprawling network of tin-and-cardboard dwellings called Protea South, a shantytown about a 45-minute drive from Johannesburg. Like the estimated 2.1 million South Africans who live in slums, Protea South’s residents lack basic services such as electricity and clean water. But they knew how to take electricity from the houses, leaving the homeowners to foot the bill for thousands of people.

After the men disappeared back into their homes, a group of shack dwellers set fire to the transformer that stood between the houses and the shacks.

They did it to send a message: if everyone can’t have electricity, then no one will.

The embers of the transformer fire were still glowing red in the blue dusk of that Sunday in late May, when a smaller group of homeowners left their houses and stood across from the street lamp where Mbuleo would die. They seemed to be planning something. People watched from inside their shacks, nervous about what the men would do.

And then, as Mbuleo began to walk across the path to a small, makeshift store that sold basic goods like cigarettes and soap to the shack dwellers, one of the homeowners pulled a gun from his pocket.

It was then, at a time when the South African government was desperate to prove to the international community that South Africa had both the infrastructural and civil capability to host the world’s largest sporting event, that Mbuleo fell to the ground.

He was dead because his community was forced to fight each other for the most basic of services.

While South Africa’s impressive economic growth has pushed some out of poverty, and brought homes, shopping malls and middle-class tastes—like wine-tasting festivals and swimming pools—to formerly impoverished black townships, millions of people are being left behind. Today, over 2.1 million South Africans live in shacks. They live in cramped, sprawling slums without basic services, like electricity or clean water. South Africa recently surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world, with 1.6 percent of the population earning a quarter of all personal income. Life expectancy is 52, the lowest it has been since 1970.

Only 41 percent of the population has a job.

In Protea South, and many other communities across South Africa, there is often a very thin line between the haves and the have-nots—a narrow patch of dirt separates the poor from the houses of the emerging black middle class, houses with wrought iron and brick gates that safeguard satellite dishes and brand-new cars. When the poor live pressed against the middle class and a government hesitates to implement policies that promote equality, the turning of ordinary men into vigilantes and innocents into murder victims seems explicable, but no less tragic. What happened in Protea South, and to Terrance Mbuleo and his family, is just one example of a recent spate of violence between the poor and the middle class—and sometimes, the South African government.

“They are the working class,” one resident told me as he stood near the spot where Mbuelo died, across the path from a brick house. A teenager leaned against the house’s gate, nodding his head to the music on his iPod. “They have houses. We have nothing.”

By the 1950s, control of how and where blacks—and other South Africans of color—lived formed the linchpin of apartheid ideology. The Group Areas Act of 1950 and 1966 made it illegal for blacks to live in cities, and by the end of the 1950s the regime had begun demolishing black neighborhoods and forcibly relocating blacks to rural “homelands,” situated on uncultivable, desolate land, that were often far away from urban areas. By the end of the 1960s, the government slowed housing construction in many black townships or stopped it altogether, while simultaneously enforcing anti-squatting laws, thus forcing thousands of displaced blacks to find refuge in the homelands.

But the regime had to allow some blacks to live near the cities, which depended on cheap, black labor. Many of the homelands were close enough for their inhabitants to commute daily to the cities, but black men also lived in mining hostels or slums outside of the cities while they worked to support their families in the homelands. Massive shack towns bloomed in townships outside cities like Johannesburg, Capetown, and Durban.

Homeownership in the townships was a rarity: by the 1980s, at the height of resistance to apartheid, banks and other lending institutions regularly practiced redlining in the townships, where residents participated in rent strikes and violence occurred on a daily basis.

Once apartheid finally fell in 1994, the new government, led by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, had inherited a staggering housing crisis. Over 10 million South Africans lived in shacks. Housing was at the top of the new nation’s agenda. The party campaigned on the slogan “Houses for All,” and promised to build one million houses in its first five years.

In October that year, Joe Slovo, formerly the leader of the South African Communist Party and the new democracy’s first Housing Minister, traveled to Botshabelo, a former “homeland,” to make official the first non-discriminatory housing policy in South African history.

Botshabelo, which means “place of refuge” in the Sotho language, was established as a homeland in 1979. The government gave each relocated family a 15×30 meter plot of ground, a tent, three days worth of food and told the families to build a shack as quickly as they could. The tents would be needed for the other families who were arriving on a daily basis. Infectious diseases ran rampant in the desolate homelands, and infant mortality was high. During a typhoid outbreak in Botshabelo in July 1980, researchers found 258 adult graves in the homeland cemetery and 269 children’s graves.

By 1985, over 148,000 migrant workers and their families lived in Botshabelo. Workers commuted daily to Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of South Africa, about 55 kilometers away. For six years, Straun Roberston, a South African photographer and writer, traveled with the aid group Operation Hunger through rural South Africa. His subsequent book, titled The Cold Choice: Pictures of a South African Reality, paints a brutal and accurate picture of Botshabelo, which he saw with the daughter-in-law of a former ANC leader, Dr. J.S. Moroka:  “She guided us over the hills to Botshabelo. I was aghast as each new fold of ground disclosed more and more of it. Tin shanties and sod huts, each with its brown tin outhouse, stretched on and on. Every ridge showed us yet another vista. In the bleak grey light under the low clouds, with rain veils sweeping across it, the township seemed to go on forever. Mrs. Moroka told us that 80 per cent of the people were unemployed, living on remittances from working relatives or on government pensions which are too low for subsistence…Ine [Moroka] said: ‘This whole place is an obscenity.”

At the ceremony, surrounded by activists, ANC leaders and citizens, Slovo outlined South Africa’s new housing policy. It was important that the document was going to be signed near the shacks of Botshabelo and not in one of South Africa’s “many fine conference centers with a golf course attached,” Slovo said.

“We were determined that the most significant gathering of people involved in the South African housing process should take place in an area which makes clear the size and importance of the task we face. Botshabelo allows us to see and to experience the disastrous legacy of apartheid’s botched attempt to manipulate housing and the people. Botshabelo tells us about shortages—not only of housing but of work and of many of the social amenities which form the basis of community life.”

Long before Slovo signed the Housing Accord, various activist groups, trade unions and financial and construction groups had been working on crafting a sustainable housing policy for the country. They called it the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a program that blended free-market principles with government intervention. The program encouraged private home ownership, rather than public housing: the poor would buy their own homes, built by private developers, and would be assisted by a government subsidy of up to 15,000 rand, or about $3,200. By 1996, however, the most basic house cost around 45,000 rand. The remaining cost to the prospective homeowners— 30,000 rand—was over three times what the poorest two-fifths of South African families made in a year.

While the ANC made big promises of “Houses for All” during their election campaign, in the years after the first democratic election in South Africa’s history, in meetings and in statements to the press, the new officials took a more realistic, if wary, stance. “Let us be quite frank,” Slovo’s successor, Sanki Mthembi-Nkondo, told the South African paper The Mail & Guardian in 1995. “The maximum subsidy of R15 000 will seldom, if ever, buy outright the kind of house people imagine when they turn to daydreaming. But it will do something South Africa has never seen before. It will provide the poorest people in our country with a tangible and workable housing opportunity.”

By 2010, the South African government had built about 2.7 million houses, an impressive feat considering what the ANC had inherited. But development has not kept pace with demand. According to the South African Department of Human Settlements, in August 2010 the housing backlog was estimated at more than two million. Currently, more than 12 million South Africans need homes.

Most development experts and academics say that corruption at the local level has prevented houses from reaching many South Africans. The recession has also slowed housing delivery and forced many families into slums. In 2010, 12 percent of South African households lived in RDP houses, but in places like Gauteng Province, home to Protea South, over 22 percent of residents lived in “informal dwellings,” or shacks.

And sometimes, initiatives simply never take off. A new, mixed-income housing strategy called Breaking New Ground, intended to integrate poor black communities and rich white communities—who live in suburbs close to city centers, in gated compounds with swimming pools and black gardeners—has failed to get off the ground. The debate about the Breaking New Ground strategy inevitably hung on the question that is always posed by the upper and middle-class residents of upper and middle-class neighborhoods of South Africa, the majority of whom are white, whenever such strategies are proposed: does the movement of black residents into their neighborhoods mean higher crime rates and lower property values, and thus an end to a particular way of life?

In 2009, a mob of men attacked Kennedy Road, a large slum outside of Durban. The men chanted ANC slogans while they forced people out of their shacks, looted their belongings and tore down walls and smashed roofs. The men beat anyone who resisted. Over 1,000 residents fled Kennedy Road with their meager belongings—clothes, baskets, shoes, sometimes mattresses—atop their heads. By the morning, helicopters circled over the slum and paramedics loaded people into waiting ambulances. Many were injured, two were killed.

The incident made headlines around South Africa. Reports circulated that local ANC politicians instigated the mob, because the party felt threatened by an organization called Abahlali baseMjondolo, which had been growing in the Kennedy Road settlement since the mid-2000s. Abahlali baseMjondolo, which means the Shack Dweller’s Movement, had initially been formed by shack dwellers as a “development committee,” a way to organize the community for better sanitation and safety, but quickly grew throughout Kennedy Road and surrounding slums into an outspoken grassroots movement of the poor, agitating for service delivery and safe, affordable housing.

S’bu Zikode, a short, soft-spoken man who had moved into the shacks in 1997, emerged as the leader of the movement. Zikode grew up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal with a single mother who worked as a domestic worker for a white family.

He entered law school in 1997, only to quit months later because he could not afford the fees. He moved into a shack in Kennedy Road later that year.

“It was hard to accept that any human being could live like that,” Zikode said in early November. He was sitting at a kitchen table in an activist’s house in Astoria, Queens, wearing a white polo shirt with the words “Land and Dignity” ironed on to it. He had been invited to the United States by a number of progressive housing organizations and asked to speak about the movement he spearheaded, which had grown into a network that reached into most major cities in South Africa, including Johannesburg and Capetown. “People there, they don’t have water, they don’t have toilets, they don’t have lights.”

“As a result,” he went on, “we have had to create our own space. We had to acknowledge that the government is not for us, and is not with us.”

After he moved into Kennedy Road, Zikode joined the ANC and was elected chairperson of his local branch. He tried, he said, to bring up issues of housing and development. But he soon grew frustrated by the other members, who drove fancy cars and, in his eyes, did not care about the poor. “What disturbed me most was the top-down system that was there,” he said. “You go to a meeting, you have issues, and you have mandates from the shack settlements.

But when you get into the meeting, suddenly an agenda is already there. There is no window to discuss anything. I believe in a bottom-up system. This is a democratic country. People mandate you. People elect you because they trust you.”

Zikode left the ANC soon after. By 2006, he was invited to speak on local radio stations and was interviewed for news reports about service delivery and housing. That same year, Zikode was arrested and tortured by a local white police superintendent and began to receive threats against his life. Shacks had spread like wildfire across the country, and it was becoming common to hear of township and slum residents holding marches and other demonstrations to protest against the ANC and the fact that they had no electricity or safe water. The ANC retaliated by evicting residents from slums, without court orders, and sending police to break up peaceful protests. Residents of the slums, many of which sat next to dangerous mine runoffs or other hazardous areas, were often evicted from the land by the government, without notice, and placed into dingy “transit camps.” The camps were meant to be temporary stopovers until the residents were given better land or placed in housing. But the temporary camps were, more often than not, permanent.

Some believe that what happened on Kennedy Road represented a turning point in the ANC’s history. While the party was once considered to be the party of the poor, many academics and other South Africans regarded the incident as the first organized attempt to stifle dissent amongst the poor.

“It’s important to see this in the wider context because this turn towards supporting vigilante ways of doing things hearkens back to apartheid, when the government would arm paramilitary groups or try to prevent unrest in the townships to try to undermine the fight against apartheid,” Jared Sacks, Executive Director of Children of South Africa, told me. “At the local level, in South Africa, there is very little democracy going on. The councilors are very authoritarian and they often instigate violence. What happened has a lot of side effects for poor people because now, there is this fear of reprisals when you speak out. That prevents a whole lot of communities saying things that need to be said.”

Zikode was out of town when the attacks on Kennedy Road occurred, but his wife and four children were there. They fled to a family member’s house and, when ikode came back, neighbors told him that men had been looking for him and his family. With the help of Amnesty International, Zikode moved underground for six months. Now, he considers himself a political refugee.

“The ANC is in power now,” Zikode said as he folded his hands on the table. “If you are opposing them, they will say you are anti-revolutionary, and they will call you thugs who are being funded by foreign agencies to destabilize the country. Our hard-won democracy. That’s what they often say. Our hard-won democracy.”

In early July 2010, while soccer fans flocked to Soweto’s Soccer City stadium—a few minutes drive from Protea South—to catch the last games of the World Cup, I talked with Soloman Mdakane, Mbuleo’s father, while he sat with his wife in their shack and cried.

“Even now we can’t cope,” he said. Mdakane, a rail-thin man with a goatee, looked up at his wife. She sat across from him and looked down at the floor, as her shaking fingers pulled at the end of her shawl. Tears streamed down her face. A group of women, her neighbors, huddled around her and laid their hands on her shoulder. It had been months, Mdakane said, and still, she couldn’t talk about it.

The homeowners had shot another young man from the settlement, but he survived, and the day I arrived in Protea South, he refused to come out of his shack. His neighbors said that he had been afraid to leave his home ever since he was shot in the leg. But Mdakane wanted to talk about his son’s death because, he said, nobody—not the police or the media—seemed to be paying attention.

As Mbuleo lay dying and his father knelt by his side, shack dwellers called the police and an ambulance. Mbuleo was dead before they arrived. The ambulance carted him off to the hospital, and the police stayed behind. But, shack dwellers say, they refused to take down statements from the many who witnessed the shooting. They arrested a few homeowners but released them soon after, without any charges. Mbuleo left behind four children and a wife.

“We know those people were arrested but now released,” Mdakane said. “The police don’t come. I ask myself, ‘Why he was killed?’ He was just going to buy cigarettes. I should have been killed.”

In Protea South it is crowded. Like in any slum in any part of the world, people live pushed up against each other. The United Nations estimates that throughout the world, over 827 million people currently live in slums; the number stands to grow to 889 million by 2020. In Protea South, the government estimates that over 6,000 families live in the shacks.

There, where between cardboard and corrugated iron shacks, rats traverse tiny, trickling rivers of urine and old dishwater, people were less than thrilled about the development possibilities of the World Cup.

“They say we should ‘Feel it, it is here,’” Maureen Mnisi said, scoffing at one of the slogans of the World Cup. Mnisi is a well-respected housing organizer who lives in Protea South. “But how can we feel it when we live like this?”

Mnisi, a black woman with bobbed hair and strong arms, stood in front of her home in the slum and pointed out where a group of marauding homeowners tried to set fires the same night that Mbuleo died. They were trying to force her out of her home, she said, because they knew she was an activist and a symbol of power: she encouraged the shack dwellers to organize and agitate for services.

“They can build a stadium for billions of rand,” she said. “But they can’t build homes for the people.”

She paused for a moment, and then she said something that many other residents of Protea South told me: “This government has failed its people.”

For the thousands in Protea South, there are only a hundred or so portable toilets. For many women in the settlement, the toilets are symbols of rape and sexual assault—too many times, they said, they have met a drunk or violent man inside one of the toilets at night.

Many of the men are unemployed here, residents told me, and are often forced into petty crime to support their families—or they simply wash their pain away with home-brewed beer. Women, as they did under apartheid, often travel hours to work as domestics in mostly-white suburbs or, barring that, take in sewing or laundry to make ends meet.

In the face of all this, the residents of Protea South struggle to maintain normalcy. They plant tight rows of vegetables in front of their shacks and do their laundry and send their children to school. Women collect dirty water from a nearby creek for their families to drink. And they try to get electricity in whatever way they can.

Above the shacks, tall wooden poles thrust into the air, their tops bound with wires that give electricity to some of the shacks. The wires, residents said, mean that their children can study at night without inhaling smoke from the paraffin lamps. Electricity also means they won’t have to worry that their shacks will burn down—paraffin oil tends to spit and jump from the lamps, causing fires.

But the homeowners object to the stealing of their electricity, and that is understandable—they end up footing the bill for the entire settlement. None of this would be a problem, most shack dwellers say, if the ANC fulfilled its promises.

“We haven’t got toilets, we haven’t got water, we haven’t got electricity,” Busisiwe Tawala, a 22-year-old resident of the settlement, said. “We need houses. And we keep being promised that in such and such day and in such and such year the government will build houses. But nothing is done.”

What she said next is illuminative of the massive shift in thought for thousands of South Africa’s poor, many of whom organized or rallied for the ANC during apartheid or grew up under the transition: that the party of liberation had become the party of the status quo. “The poor people should stop voting the rich in,” she said. “It was better under apartheid.”

Throughout the slums, it is a common refrain: life was better under apartheid. How could anyone say this?

“We feel that we have been betrayed by our brothers and sisters that we trusted the most,” Zikode had told me that morning in Astoria. “Most people were voting for the ANC. Most people were part of the struggle to end apartheid. A lot of people worked hard within the ANC to end old rule. But it has become clear that the government has turned on us. It is clear to us that even the apartheid we fought against, yes, it was there. But it’s not the race question anymore.”

“Some people talk about the farmers, the Boers,” or the Afrikaaners, Zikode continued. “That stole our land. But today, we have black Boers. We have black elites that have enriched themselves. This government has turned into a business. There are government ministers that are now multi-millionaires. You have a ituation in South Africa where you cannot differentiate between the private business sector and the government. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Those that are in power have become blind to our suffering. They pretend not to see, but they were once with us. They should know how it is to be in the shacks.”

“It is better to be betrayed by your enemy, than your brother,” he said.

Later that month, a few miles away from the shacks in Protea South, a hundred or so people danced and sang anti-apartheid protest songs on the side of a highway. The blinding afternoon sun hung high over the dancing people as they kicked up dust over the black tarmac and women ululated. A man stood in front of the crowd and shouted into a bullhorn. A police car was parked in front of the man and two policemen stood leaning against its open doors, watching.

Across the road, a handful of private security guards and an ANC councilor were also watching the crowd. They stood on a corner where the highway intersected with a long, dusty road that receded far into the distance. On that road, between the security guards and the horizon line, was a patch of newly constructed affordable housing units. From the other side of the highway, one could make out the dinosaur-like neck of a yellow bulldozer moving between the squat, red-roofed homes.

The people in the crowd gathered that day to protest. They said that the houses rightfully belonged to them, but their local ANC councilors told them the houses had already been allocated to new owners. The man with the bullhorn, a housing activist from Soweto named Sipho Nhlapo, told the crowd that they would not move from the highway. They would appoint “security guards,” he said, to wait on the corner from morning until night, waiting to see the families who had been given the homes.

The people cheered. Old women moved to the front and shuffled their feet back and forth as the crowd of swaying bodies morphed to form a semi-circle. The old women held up laminated copies of their applications for subsidized housing. Most of the applications dated back to 1996. Nhlapo moved in front of the women and pumped his fist in the air. The crowd kept singing. The police leaned against the open doors of their car, and the security guards across the street crossed their arms at their chests.

But nothing happened.

Eventually the crowd stopped dancing and the hundred or so people without homes stood and craned their necks over the police car to catch a glimpse of the security guards and the houses behind them.

Women began to crowd around, desperate to tell their stories. “I have been living in a shack since 1996,” one of them told me. “I have no job. There are no jobs.”  “We all live in one room together,” said another. “My mother, my sister, her children, and my children. There is not enough room.” “I have been waiting so long,” said another woman. She wore a kerchief on her head and she shut her eyes and clenched her fists in frustration. “How much longer can I wait? I have no money to build a house, and no land.”

Many of the women did not live in shacks, but in rented rooms or one-room houses, stuffed full of children and extended family members.

“I feel like crying, or killing myself,” Emily Moleane, 50, who lives with her sister and large extended family in a small room in Soweto, said. She began to cry. “How can you wait 14 years for a place to live? Even with the previous government it was not like this.”

Nhlapo, the housing activist, and a tall, dark man named Samson Nembudani stood near a stop sign, next to a handful of women resting their round bodies on a patch of yellow grass. Nhlapo clutched the bullhorn in his hand. They suspected, Nhlapo said, that the government was giving away the houses not to South Africans, but to “rich foreigners.”

“They are taking foreigners and putting them in these houses,” he said. “We are not promoting xenophobia, we just want everyone who applied for housing in this country to get it.”

Citizens in any country suffering from a scarcity of housing, jobs and other resources tend to search for someone, or something, to blame. South Africa is no different. A diplomat once told me that some of South Africa’s problems lie in the fact that it was an “island of prosperity in a sea of suffering.” South Africa’s cities have long been a promised land for migrants desperate for jobs and a better life for their families. Some migrants are highly skilled and come to the country legally to work. Most, however, cross the South African border in secret, smuggled in the back of trucks or simply on foot in the middle of the night.

The neighborhoods of Johannesburg’s inner city teem with immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Central African Republic and, perhaps most controversially, Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans share a border with South Africa and have always migrated back and forth between the two states, but as the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe began to deteriorate in 2007 Zimbabweans flocked to South Africa in droves. Migration to South Africa increased even more in 2008, after Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party launched a brutal campaign of torture and political repression against ordinary Zimbabweans. Today, South Africa has the largest population of Zimbabweans outside of Zimbabwe, and most of them live in abject poverty.

For those fleeing violence, war and economic insecurity, life in South Africa is much better than the alternative. But both successful immigrants — Somali or Pakistani shop owners, for example—and poor immigrants, like many Zimbabweans, face harassment from native South Africans. Sometimes the harassment turns violent. The narrative goes, much like it does in the United States, that these immigrants lower wages for native South Africans with their willingness to do any job at any price.

Locals make jokes about Zimbabweans being as common as cockroaches and hold rallies accusing immigrants of spreading HIV/AIDS and crime. In the years since apartheid ended, acts of violence against foreigners, including murder, rape and beatings, although not common, have occurred with enough regularity to make some worry that the seams of the “Rainbow Nation” were coming apart.

In May 2008, South Africans’ distrust of immigrants and their frustration with the high unemployment rate hit a fever pitch. Across the country, local ANC councilors up for re-election roused anger in the townships and shantytowns by publicly blaming immigrants for poor service delivery and scarcity of employment. Riots spread across the country, and soon news outlets around the world carried photos of a man, a suspected foreigner, being burned alive in a slum.

During the riots, 62 people died. Refugee camps built by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sprung up on the outskirts of Johannesburg to house those fleeing the violence.

As the world waited for the 2010 World Cup, South African papers began to publish rumors that xenophobic violence would return after the games ended.

And when they did, immigrants began to leave the cities en masse, armed with bus tickets back home. But aside from a few beatings around the country, predictions of violence on a massive scale were largely unfounded.

So it was, perhaps, not surprising that Nhlapo and his associate, Samson Nembudani, were standing on the side of the highway that day in late July, with no doubt in their minds that the problem here was not only the corrupt ANC councilors standing between them and a safe, clean place to live, but also foreigners, who had jobs, money and, therefore, a chance at being placed in a government-subsidized home.

But it was frightening, nonetheless.

Nembudani said that the group would appoint “guards” to watch who went in and out of the houses. “And then we will ask to see their papers, to see if they are citizens or not,” he said.

I asked him if he thought that might encourage violence. He shrugged. “Violence is a thing you cannot guarantee. We cannot guarantee nothing will happen. If you’ve applied for housing since 1996 and you don’t get it, how do you feel?”

Nhlapo nodded and looked across the road.

“We will go into the houses and drag them out by force,” he said 

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