July 29, 2004

Informal Settlement Myths

It was nice to see Richard’s positive post about the efforts to make the N2 safer for Cape Town motorists. I agree with most of his sentiments, but would like to clear up a wider myth about informal settlements that he alludes to in his post. Sorry if I go on a bit, but informal settlements are my thing – I’ve been researching those particular settlements for the last 4 years.

The myth I am referring to is that informal settlements are a result of rural-urban migration. This is the traditional urban growth model for developing countries that many of us were taught in Grade 10 geography classes, but does not actually apply in South Africa – apartheid managed to make sure of that. Certainly, rural-urban migration from the Eastern Cape contributes to the growth of informal settlements, but to a much lesser degree than most people think. Numerous studies have shown that the majority of residents in informal settlements are actually urban-born.

The reason for this is that the state placed a moratorium on the construction of housing in Cape Town’s African townships from 1969 until 1980. This resulted in a chronic shortage of housing and overcrowding with the obvious consequences that people spilled over into informal settlements. The most rapid growth in informal settlements occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s - a time when the influx control laws were at their peak. The most significant factor contributing to growth of informal settlement is thus natural growth of the poor urban population of the city and a simultaneous shortage of housing at the lowest end of the market – not rural-urban migration.

Many of the settlements along the N2 were established as a result of factional violence in the informal area of Crossroads in 1983/4 (allegedly instigated by apartheid forces), when many people fleeing the violence were forced to invade land and erect shacks. The reason that area is so popular for settlement is that it was the nearest open land adjacent to the black townships of Langa, Guguletu, Nyanga and Khayelitsha as it was intended to form a ‘buffer strip’ between these settlements and the N2, the airport and the industrial areas. Unfortunate characteristics of the land are that it is alongside a dangerous freeway (as Richard has pointed out), it is flood-prone, and much of it is covering an old landfill site. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, plans are underway (driving by the national Housing Department) to upgrade these settlements as part of a pilot project for upgrading informal settlements. This should start happening next year.

Another fallacy is the rate of rural-urban migration and the perception that all these people just knock up a shack on the nearest available piece of land. To correct Richard’s ludicrous figure of 25 000 people a month, the rate of influx from the Eastern Cape is closer to 3 000 people a month. Studies have shown that there is a complex pattern of integration into the city. These people do not all settle in informal settlements, but instead will share a room with a relative and may move around the city a number of times and eventually, if circumstances force them, they may have to move into an informal settlement.

I think I’ve said enough for now, but now my favourite topic has been broached, be warned: there may be much more…

July 27, 2004

Local politics in Cape Town

Last week, Farrel gave his predictions about the 2006 local elections. I agree with his first two comments about the IFP and NNP, but when it comes to Cape Town, he’s got it all wrong.

The DA should be able to take control of the Cape Town city council and with that will at least have some ammunition going into the 2009 elections to show that transformation and delivery is not something the ANC has exclusive rights to.

For the last 3 months I have been based at the Cape Town city council and have first-hand knowledge of what the ANC administration has been up to. With the amount of effort they have been putting into their ‘people’s contract’-type projects, there is no way the DA will take back the city. There is a massive campaign underway to upgrade informal settlements and R30 million set aside to purchase land for low-income housing next year alone. What the ANC is effectively doing (and I have it from a good authority that this is all being driven by the mayor and her cronies up at the top) is killing any political competition in the townships through delivery. And this is precisely where votes count. No matter how the DA will go on about it’s so-called coloured voter base, if you win the poor, you’ve won the race.

July 21, 2004

Did you know?

The term Blue Moon is believed to have originated in 1883 after the eruption of Krakatoa. The volcano put so much dust in the atmosphere that the Moon actually looked blue in colour. This was so unusual that the term "once in a Blue Moon" was coined. The term is now used to refer to the second full moon in a single calendar month. This is not that unusual, and occurs on avewrage every 2.5 years.

Well, well – always good to stir up a bit of controversy. I’m never one to shun criticism, so here’s where you can find Laurence and Andrew shooting me down.

Besides nit-picking over a badly-worded paragraph, they miss the whole point and I’m surprised that they neglect the economic realities of our country. Talking about ‘building people up to the same level’ is all well and good, but it doesn’t really happen that way. In the medium term there are always going to be poor people in South Africa (which I am NOT happy about) - all I am saying is that we shouldn’t be surprised if a representative percentage of these people are white.

It is not about deliberately making whites poorer; it is about taking away previous advantage and judging that the consequences of that are only fair.

July 17, 2004

Whites trashed

I tend to be very unsympathetic to whites in South Africa. It is probably due to my own white guilt and an over-reaction to the privilege that I have been afforded and am now ashamed of. The Mail & Guardian last week carried a story on poor whites who lived in informal settlements. My first reaction was “Wow, that’s interesting..” and my second was “Who cares?”.

There are currently around 6.5 million people living in informal settlements; the fact that a handful of these people are white should not matter at all. That they are treated by the press and the public as a curious anomaly to be pitied, is an indication of how white privilege is still alive and well in South Africa. If we were a truly non-racial democracy (if there is such a thing), around 17% of all informal settlement residents would be white. We are certainly nowhere near this figure yet. It is still a shock to whites to see fellow whites living in shacks or begging at traffic lights. This betrays lingering sentiments of racial supremacy that people pretend are not there.

This situation, where blacks move up on the economic ladder and whites move down a notch or two, is exactly what affirmative action and black economic empowerment is intended to do, and, in my opinion, should do. It is all part of transforming and equalising our society; whites have to get poor. It is unfortunate for those people who are marginalised, but that is the way it has to be. We should no longer be surprised, and they should no longer be pitied, unless you feel the same for all the rest of our fellow South Africans in similar situations.

The M&G highlights the tendency for poor whites to cling to religion, xenophobia and racism. It is such a shame to read that these people still think that their white skins entitles them to more than blacks, and that they are undoubtedly “better” than blacks. How can one be sympathetic to those sorts of views. They are also ignorant of, or refuse to take, government social grants – another damning consequence of “white pride”. In reading the article it also occurred to me that a fundamental difference between poor whites and poor blacks is levels of political awareness. Poor blacks are extremely politically aware as politics affects their survival. Poor whites don’t have a clue. They cling to racist ideas, I suppose because that was what ensured their survival in the bad old days.

I think it is apt for the M&G to label poor whites “the detritus of democracy”, but they needn’t remain that way. My view is that those who resist change the most and don’t grasp the reality of their circumstances will always sink to the bottom. I remain unsympathetic.

July 14, 2004

Small town living

I come from East London and I make no apologies about it. In fact, I’m rather proud of it. ‘Slummies’ gets knocked all the time for being a retirement village, “dead”, “boring”, “skanky”, or as someone I know likes to call it, “an outlying suburb of PE”! If anyone watches “The Weakest Link” they will have noticed that there are regularly people who (I am convinced) go on that show just so they can call East London “the butt hole of South Africa”. Now is the time for a little defence for my hometown, which really is a beautiful spot.

Yes, living is slow. But that’s the whole beauty of the place. From anywhere in the city (yes, it does have the status of a city), you are no more than 15 minutes drive away from at least 3 amazing, unspoilt beaches. At these beaches you can actually swim in the water (unlike in Cape Town) and the views are not spoilt by huge hotels or persistent street vendors. There are no macho show-offs parading in skimpy shorts or driving flashy cars, no trendy beach babes in designer bikinis – just people enjoying the peace, quiet and beauty of the uncrowded beaches.

Streets are clean, suburbs are safe (relatively speaking), schools are good, town is accessible and the people are friendly. There are sufficient shops to cater for all your consumerist needs. And I haven’t yet mentioned the cultural diversity. The are is bursting with history, being the frontier of British colonial expansion, the heartland of the amaXhosa, and later, a troubled white enclave squeezed between two doomed homelands. It is no surprise that East London was a hotspot for the apartheid struggle and the site of the first TRC hearings in the country.

Sure, East London has its problems – most notably unemployment, but people there are making a huge effort to do things about it. Next year I am going back to live in East London and am hugely enthusiastic about it. If you’re ever in the area, come and check it out for yourself.

I’m back

Well rested after two weeks in Durbs and East London and ready to get back into blogging mode (if anyone out there is still visiting my site!). I hope I’ll be able to keep up with my blog a bit better than I did last month.