The isiZulu word for shack is mjondolo, in isiXhosa it’s ityotyombe, the Setswana word is letikiri, and in Tshivenda it’s mushasha – all of which are themselves not formal words in the languages, but improvisations to describe the structures that have now become home to millions of South Africans.
In his book Long Walk to Freedom, released in 1994, Nelson Mandela made an observation about the experience of poverty between black people and white people when he said: “In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.” Sadly, this is a sentiment that not only still persists but also plays out daily, especially in times of crisis, as the face of poverty continues to be expectedly black.
As black people continue to be trapped in a normalised cycle of poverty, research by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre shows that poverty is intergenerational and says that “a defining characteristic of chronically poor people is that they remain in poverty over a long period. This can mean that poverty is transmitted from one generation to another, with poor parents having poor children, who are more likely to become poor adults themselves.”
South Africa is characterised by a poverty-driven phenomenon called informal settlements, which essentially act as cheap labour reserves for the formal central business districts, suburbs and even farm areas.
For example, if you go to the Franschhoek winelands you will find the informal settlement of Langrug; in Centurion you will find the informal settlement of Spruit; and just outside Durban’s CBD you will find the informal settlement of eNkanini, all of which are black communities.
Informal settlements have become a normal part of our society and yet the people who live there mostly stay out of people’s imaginations because we have accepted that this is the fate of the poor. Our informal settlement issue stems from people needing accommodation that is close to employment opportunities and a chance at eking out an existence, as many are displaced.
I spent a few days over the Easter long weekend with shack dwellers’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM), meeting people whose shack homes had been destroyed or washed away by the recent floods.
At the best of times informal settlements are unsafe because of the precarious nature of the makeshift structures, which are built too close together, with electrical wires that are often not safely encased and installed, and rickety pit toilets that are shared by the community, and the floods have only made things worse.
As I walked through the topsy-turvy landscape that is informal settlements, where there are no clear paths as the makeshift structures all cram to fit in, I saw tyres, rocks and plastic sacks of sand used as stairs and footholds in order for people to get to and from their homes built into steep hills.
Children played in doorways, in between washing lines and the mud that now characterises the communities.
Yet in the middle of it all our common thread of humanity did not falter.
I was taken aback that, even while I went around speaking to people who were experiencing so much loss, they still had the kindness to give me and the photographer I was with apples as an offering of welcome, as they would offer something to drink or eat to visitors coming into their home.
However, seeing people go about their day-to-day lives with the acceptance that this was what life had dealt them and that they just had to make do made me not only think harder about our own acceptance as a society of the abnormal conditions that poor people live in, but also the dual realities that people navigate.
For example, people who live in informal settlements work in the houses and offices that a lot of them may never know the comforts of inhabiting, but play a pivotal role in maintaining, after which they go home to the squalor of their shacks.
Did we need to have this crisis in order for us to examine the unliveable and dangerous conditions of informal settlements? Or is this just another incident where once the floods have passed we will go back to being blind to their indignity and deaf to the calls of ABM for access to safe land and housing?
In the meantime, Helen Zille is making comparisons on degrees of poverty, saying that “to be poor in Langa in Cape Town is a hundred, probably a thousand times better than to be poor in many of the townships in the rest of the country”. Something that only someone who has never known the pain and misery of poverty could say.
Being poor is not a natural state of being and making comparisons regarding who is less poor than the other, particularly in times of tragedy, is not only insulting and out of touch, but minimises people’s pain. DM168
Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.