“Informal Settlements” in Durban, South Africa and California, USA

Posted March 29, 2009

Durban, South Africa, has since my first visit reminded me–and not only me — of California. They both have great surfing, beautiful beaches,an amazing climate and a laid-back vibe.

But lately it seems that life in these two seemingly distant locales is becoming even more similar in less pleasant ways, as California towns and other US cities have begun to develop a healthy growth industry in the kind if “informal settlements”–or shantytowns–that more famously dot the hillsides in and around Durban.




You’ll notice some key differences. 1) most of the shacks in the informal settlements in Durban have walls made of wood and tin scraps while the US shantys are mostly tents, and 2) shackdwellers in Durban have some political organization and movement. I can tell you which Hooverville I’d rather live in.

California squatters are also newly facing problems more familiar to the picturesque poor of Durban. In the most recent New York Times update, a recipient of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s generous willingness to let the squatters have a vacant fairground complained about the national attention the camp is receiving from Oprah and the Times:

“We’re a circus for sightseers,” said Mr. Borchardt, 29, who added a few unprintable adjectives to his comments. “People are coming through here with cameras and then just walking away. We had never had sightseers before.”

Come to think of it, Oprah’s attention just one more thing these two groups of people have in common!

The New York Times photo essay also showed an interesting image of an “improved” squatter camp that reminded me very much of NGO and government “improvements” in South Africa:

Fresno’s “Village of Hope” (isn’t that a bit like calling it an Obamaville?)–


Meanwhile back in the Southern Hemisphere:

Again; improving shacks with cinderblocks versus improving them with plywood sheds. My vote goes to the concrete, though in reality the truth is that people need real houses.

We have a right not to live in tents or inadequate structures made of particleboard, tin or uninsulated concrete. Its amazing to me that we are supposed to be impressed and pleased by these improvements. A real improvement here would be adequately sized, warm houses with running water and electricity.


2 responses to ““Informal Settlements” in Durban, South Africa and California, USA”

  1. Selim Gool Avatar

    Hi, I want to share some info and this link with you:


    New Left Review 58, July-August 2009



    In South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 the ubiquitous posters of the African National Congress read ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ and ‘A Better Life for All’. The latter slogan is trotted out at each succeeding election; the former has never been seen again.

    The reason is simple: unemployment is now far higher than in 1994 and heading sharply upwards.

    On the most commonly used measure, the jobless figure has hovered in the 38–40 per cent range for some time; though even that counts people as employed if they have but a single hour’s paid work (say, washing and polishing a car) in a week.

    On any reasonable measure of formal employment, over half the working population is jobless. True, one must also allow for the informal sector of street vegetable and fruit sellers, car guards, hawkers and the like. But very few enter that sector except out of desperation, and it shades easily into a vast underclass of beggars, prostitutes and criminals.



    Reply to R. W. Johnson
    New Left Review 58, July-August 2009

    In ‘False Start in South Africa’, R. W. Johnson offers a welcome blast against Pretoria’s new crony-capitalist elite, rightly summoning the spirit of Fanon to depict its parasitical mentality. Johnson is a trenchant and highly readable liberal chronicler of South Africa’s endless political degeneracy, and his assessment of anc rule to date hits important targets: the rise of a grasping bee bourgeoisie, the failure of basic social provision, soaring unemployment and vast inequalities. He is right to warn of possible Zulu–Xhosa tensions, and renewed xenophobia against regional immigrants.

    Johnson rhetorically exaggerates the importance of white flight—even on his own figures, economically active émigrés represent only 0.5 per cent of the population, and are probably counter-balanced by skilled white returnees, Johnson among them. His fear that the presence of Communists in government will scare away investors seems almost quaint, considering the amount of foreign capital pouring into Beijing. Johnson will say that the ccp are better capitalists than their confrères in the sacp—but that is simply to concede the point.

    More seriously, though, Johnson provides no explanatory analysis of the anc’s socio-economic failures, nor any apartheid-era baselines against which they might be measured. And in suggesting a lurch to the left under the Zuma government, he totally misconstrues the relationship between the South African Communist Party and the Anc.

    Also try: FEATURE:
    The arms deal: Ten years on
    13 August 2009

    Selim Gool reviews Paul Holden’s The Arms Deal in Your Pocket Read more »
    Related articles:

    From crony capitalism to African despotism? »

    Date: Wednesday, August 19, 2009, 1:06 AM

    Africa’s top economic power torn by social injustice and crime

    A government for all South Africans?

    Jacob Zuma promised ‘a government for all South Africans’ on his election in April. But will this charismatic, enigmatic man be able to deliver on his promise, with the ruling ANC torn by tension and the country by Aids and violent crime?

    A Summary:

    “A Government for all South Africans?”

    By Professor Achille Mbembe [History and Social Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg] article in Le Monde Diplomatique, English ed., June 2009, p.2.

    He writes: “.. During his final term of office, (Thabo) Mbeki’s unpopularity mounted among the poorest and most marginalised. Government incompetence in dealing with the two deadliest threats to survival amongst the least fortunate – violent crime and Aids – widening the gap between the general population and the ruling clique. But it also attracted harmful accusations about the constitutional state, with the majority believing themselves betrayed by democracy itself.

    A new middle class (of crooks)

    A gang of adventurers, wheeler-dealers and politicians looking for perks and ways to launder their dirty money have attached themselves to the party machine. Many stand accused of corruption, fraud and all sorts of embezzlement. Most are looking to dip their fingers in a pool of influence and private wealth created by official Black Economic Empowerment policies.

    Crime and Violence

    Crime is so omnipresent that anyone an lose his (her) life at any time, in any place and for any reason. Many thousands of women and young girls are subjected to all sorts of sexual assault annually. The incidence of armed robbery, rape and murder is such that some, including the poor, stockpile weapons or, if they can arrange it, live behind barricades in guarded urban enclaves.

    Violence has yet to be politicised, but it is a major factor in focussing and spreading a racketeering, predatory culture.

    Class Politics

    In the past 15 years since 1994, the social makeup of black society has become more complex. The emergence of a middle stratum, followed by a modest bourgeoisie, has become a major social factor. This black bourgeoisie, created by positive discrimination policies, is heavily parasitic … [thanks to] numerous government programmes and a variety of preferential treatment mechanisms, a layer of black enterprises is being created.

    The tendering system allows the ANC to fund networks based on patronage, lubricating a corruption machine, which ironically, spans the racial divides. Today the gap is not just about whites and blacks [‘Coloureds’ or Asians’ get no mention!]. Social breakdown has reached the very core of apartheid’s former victims, with class issues superimposed over old racial barriers.
    Persistent poverty, growing inequality and continuing racial tensions are, however, and continual racial tensions are, however, a potential threat to that domination because it is increasingly difficult to hide the class factor.

    The criminalization of society

    The greatest challenge is to restore hope to the “unemployable” masses who swell the ranks of the marginalised. In particular, the crime explosion – one could call it the rampant criminalisation of society – on top of endless corruption represents a direct threat to constitutional governance. The fact that the transition to democracy represents a halt only makes matters worse. Little by little, the interests of the new ruling class and the black bourgeoisie are being separated from those of the underclasses.

    Political opportunism is rife, demagoguery under the mirage of the “strong man”… [Unless profound change take place] South Africa risks making no progress at all towards becoming a post-racial democracy.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “We have a right not to live in tents or inadequate structures made of particleboard, tin or uninsulated concrete.” ABSOLUTELY. But, until government acknowledges that housing is a human right AND provides housing for all, we should advocate the take over of abandoned buildings for housing and the building of shantytowns, Tent Cities, BushVilles.
    Those living in the “Planet of the Slums” should not be forcibly displaced.

    Many of these tent cities include working homeless and recently unemployed. Meanwhile, many of those of us in adequate housing with running water and electricity are squeezed by impending joblessness. In Ohio, over 700 applied for a single janitor job:

    Daily Cos had a good article earlier this month on the tent cities in the US:

    The homeless and unemployed of our class should mot be swept away like yesterday’s garbage. Camping out in public parks and the lawns of city halls will force the powers that be (and the rest of us) to recognize the severity of the housing problem.