I find myself in and around ‘squatter camps’ every week. When you drive out of Durban, fly into Cape Town or near Sandton you get confronted with the uncomfortable contrasts of shacks near mansions. Foreign visitors are usually indignant and quick to join in the blame apartheid chorus. To be clear, in many ways apartheid is to blame, and we have to deal with that. Besides apartheid, if I ask whites, why they think South Africa has so many shacks, the answers vary from: “they just don’t have money” and “they just used to it, they don’t imagine anything else” to “they are useless and lazy”.
Yet after just a few chats, it seems to me that the South African government is to blame. I wont mention political parties, because I don’t want that emotional response to detract from the topic. In Zimbabwe and especially Mozambique, you don’t really see shacks; why? Their government gives them land. Either cheap or free. After 19 years of democracy our government has not yet come to the same conclusion, that it might be a good idea to give the poorest of the poor their own little stand. South Africans stay in shacks because of the government. Citizens are NOT allowed to build on the stands where they have their shacks. No permanent buildings or constructions. Even if you stay there ‘temporarily’ for 10 years, you are not allowed to make or buy your own bricks and build yourself a house. The idea is that the stand does not belong to you, it is not permanent, it is not your home. What has the psychological and societal effect of this unrootedness been? One of my friends built an extra shack room on his stand and the red ants even came to destroy that.
It would be so easy to transfer dignity and power… just give each poor citizen a stand, where he or she can start building their own house with their own hands. Are we to good or proud for that? It’s a numbers game. Compare the number of South Africans living in RDP’s and those living in shacks… Our plan is not the smartest, it is not realistic. Many with RDP’s also rent them out and build another shack! The government loves to be Santa Clause, ensuring the kids behave and vote, or they wont get a shine RDP house under the Christmas tree. The promise of a free two room RDP ensures that politicians remain seen as chiefs, instead of public ‘servants’. Some of my friends are removed from their communities, their shacks destroyed after many years of living there, forced to live elsewhere. Friendships and relationships are torn apart, soccer teams split and communities are cut in two with these generous forced removals into the South African Dream, getting an RDP for free… How empowering.
To be clear, a RDP is great, Id love to live in one. By law I cant buy or rent one, which I suppose is right. Yet it happens regularly, everywhere. In a way RDP’s do not better housing, but promotes entrepreneurship. Which is kind of interesting I guess. Yet, if our country is ever to be ‘equal’ we should start working together and learn to imagine, dream, take charge and resist, we will need to learn how to think critically, especially critical of ‘good things’ that are cheap imitations of freedom and from good people that have slipped into bad habits.
Once I discovered that shack dwellers are forced and encouraged by law to live in zinc squares, I understood why I sense such a different vibe when I am in Mozambique, why when I am there poverty feels less, despite people being way ‘poorer’. Forget building standards, self made houses don’t fall in, cheap fake contract tender houses fall in. And trust me a poor man can build a house that is safer than a shack. How many losses have been caused by fires ripping through squatter camps? The safety regulations is a white answer and poor excuse to deny people the basic right and freedom to decent housing and shelter. There is a dignity in making a home, making a place, having roots. As a whitey, I struggle with issues of home and rootedness. It saddens me to think Africans are punished by their own leaders. Freire was right: the mind of the oppressor infiltrates the mind of the oppressed, first the oppressed starts believing the lie and when they are liberated, ironically find themselves imitating the oppressors they so despised.
Im very keen to learn more about all of this.This post is my thoughts as they are in response to what I see. If there are reason and legislation Im not aware of, I would be glad to learn, understand better and even change my mind.
Below, friends in front of a shack in Gabon, Daveyton where shacks are being destroyed by government.