AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

How about booking a night in this ‘shantytown’?
Zachary Levenson | November 11th, 2013

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Where else, but in #SouthAfrica. There are times when even we here at Africa is a Country are speechless. Who comes up with offensive stuff like this? Emoya Estate in Bloemfontein, South Africa’s judicial capital, is a private game reserve, a luxury hotel, a conference center, and a spa. We learn all of this from the banner on its website. But with a little perusal, we also learn that this Free State resort offers accommodation in a Basotho village and a shantytown. In the former, for roughly half the monthly household income of an actual Basotho family, one can stay in a gorgeous suite complete with stone masonry, a fireplace, DSTV, air conditioning, wifi, and pool access. Not even the façade of the structure or the layout of the “village” resembles anything Sotho, though it does remind me a bit of clay-shingled condos in southern Florida.

But, wait, it gets worse. See, for a price nearly equivalent to the median monthly income of a South African domestic worker, you can stay for a night in a real informal settlement! I mean, just because these shacks have “under-floor heating and wireless internet access” doesn’t make them any less real. These aren’t just shacks or shanties though; some people call them Makhukhus! Go ahead and Google “Makhukhus” and see how widespread and authentic the term really is. (Mokhukhu is the Sesotho word for shack.)

If the concept itself weren’t offensive enough, check out this introductory gem from the description on the resort’s site:

Millions of people are living in informal settlements across South Africa. These settlements consist of thousands of houses also referred to as Shacks, Shantys (sic) or Makhukhus.

Most offensive of course is the naturalization of informal settlements as some sort of indigenous habitat. No one wants to live in a shack, not a single damn person. This is a housing type and spatial form that emerges from necessity, precisely because there’s a worsening housing crisis in South African cities – not because this is how some select ethno-cultural group chooses to live.

I’ll leave to the side the racist implications of this township tour without a township. The falsehoods continue:

A Shanty usually consists of old corrugated iron sheets or any other waterproof material which is constructed in such a way to form a small “house” or shelter where they make a normal living.

There’s nothing waterproof about a shack. That’s why every winter as the rain begins to fall, people literally move their shacks from flooded sections of settlements to drier land, hoping to secure a livable patch, however temporarily. It’s also why most shacks have buckets on the floor to collect dripping water if they’re lucky, and if they’re not, they wake up early every morning and shovel out the flood like the Danaïdes in reverse.

Then there’s the layout of the “town,” which doesn’t resemble any South African shantytown I’ve ever been to. Rather, it recalls Adam Kuper’s widely cited description of Iron Age Bantu settlements, what he called the Central Cattle Pattern.

I could go on all day, but I’ve leave it there. For more, check out Sipho Hlongwane’s brilliant takedown in the Johannesburg daily, Business Day. Here’s to hoping that this informal settlement is bulldozed and its residents are relocated to Blikkiesdorp.

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While certainly not as bad as the white colonial themed wedding complete with black servants in fezzes, a white photographer capturing a white couple in wedding gown and tux in the Emoya shantytown is a close second. “Elizna & Johan,” we read, “is one of those young sweet, gentle & loving couples.” Here they are sharing a cuddle against the strategically mismatched corrugated surface of a shack larger than any structure I’ve ever seen in an informal settlement:

And here they are, after a long day’s leisure, reclining against a zinc façade.

Isn’t it cute how the room numbers are meant to resemble enumeration markings on real shacks? You know, the numbers that the municipality paints on front doors to give informal settlement residents a place on the waiting list. I wonder if this settlement has shacks without numbers scheduled for demolition?

UPDATE: The American political satirist Stephen Colbert has also now weighed in on what he dubbed the “Glamor Camping.”

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Zachary Levenson

Zachary Levenson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley. He is frequently in Cape Town doing fieldwork for his dissertation on urban land dispossession.


21 thoughts on “How about booking a night in this ‘shantytown’?

  1. I’m curious, how does the nightly cost of a room positively affect the local economy? Is this obvious shithole creating jobs in the local community? Do the people who find employment at this blatant white travesty despise their jobs based on the obviously racist architecture?

    It’s easy to get on a high horse without any perspective on the real world implications of what you’re attacking. Would I stay at this resort? No. It has no appeal to me. Is there a market? I guess so. Does it provide jobs. Erm… Obviously. Does it positively affect the community? Did you see that shit about jobs?

    Is this the opinion of a white dude? Well, um, yeah… I guess it is.

    Did said white dude rip the thrust of his article from bdlive.co.za and then cloak it in ineffectual English? Looks like it. Holy fuck! He even ripped all of the links.

    Wait. Then he named and shamed a couple for actually using the venue. On their wedding day – what cunts.

    Seriously. The issue here isn’t a tacky venue. The issue is a bunch of little fucks intent on trying to destroy viable, small local businesses that positively contribute to the local economic growth of the community.

    Is this growth massive? Doubtful.

    Is it distasteful? I think so.

    Racist? Erm… how’s that white guilt loving you.

    Would dissuading prospective guests from visiting the establishment uplift the local community or negatively affect the income of the people, both black and white, who rely on tourism and the money it brings into the area?

    Relax. I’m white. I’m allowed to decide this shit with vitriolic posts on the internet. I have ADSL afterall; fuck you guys.

  2. Strangely enough, this establishment will be supported by bleeding heart white liberals from Germany and Holland . . . and they’ll go back home and do sweet blow all for the actual poor that actually live in shacks. If the establishment wants to be authentic then it must rip out all the luxuries. It would be nice of Matthew above to actually say what he is trying to say as right now his comment makes as much sense as a Zuma speech.

  3. egteSafrican, of course foreign bleeding heart liberals will use the venue. They’ll come over to South Africa, spend their strong currencies and stimulate the local economic system which, believe it or not, trickles down into all aspects of our society.

    Simulacral holiday destinations are nothing new, not here, not anywhere else. You’re welcome to stay in “slums” in South America; “gypsy caravans” in Europe and a plethora of other “ethnic,” “quaint” establishments across the globe.

    My point is simple. By attacking local business you attack local communities by chasing potential revenue streams away.

    And for what?

    Wouldn’t you say it’s a little more disrespectful to assume an opinion for a demographic, without consulting them in the first place?

  4. LOL “simulacral holiday destinations” — Is Jean Baudrillard doing marketing for resorts now?

  5. I agree this development is culturally insensitive and in extremely poor taste but I disagree that shacks and shack settlements are universally poor habitats. Corrugated iron and wood are viable building materials, shacks are often better built and larger than the 40sqm government subsidised house, informal settlements are frequently better organised for safety and community space. Yes people who are desperately poor struggle to maintain their homes and often have to locate in the worst environments, but there is plenty of ingenuity and innovation in self built homes that the builders of those homes should be made to feel proud of, not ashamed of.

  6. I’m not sure where you think I’m attempting to denigrate shack residents in this piece. And yes, given that often these residents have no economically viable alternative, certainly the homes they pull off are quite impressive given the circumstances. But you’re making a leap that all too many academic celebrants of “ingenuity and innovation” do. It’s possible that these homes are *both* the product of innovation *and* the product of necessity. Given the alternative, would you live in an informal settlement?

    I certainly agree with you that the current delivery regime is horrendous, and there’s absolutely a crisis of RDP housing in the South African cities. According to the CEO of the National Home Builder Registration Council, of the 3,047,600 RDP homes constructed between 1994 and 2010, 2,638,500 of these are at “high risk.” Nearly 610,000 of these need to be demolished and rebuilt according to the NDHS’s own numbers. But to use this as a basis for celebrating informality is quite bizarre.

    The same could be said for people stuck doing unskilled labor for sub-subsistence wages. Sure, they have agency, creativity, and a whole repertoire of brilliant survival strategies, but that doesn’t change the fact that their jobs are hellish.

  7. Agreed, the homes are the product of necessity and for the most part shack settlements are extremely difficult places that I wouldn’t choose to live in, but this is not the fault of shack design but a variety of other factors including poor land access, insufficient sanitation, bad neighbourhood design, social problems e.g. Crime and poverty. I would happily live in a shack if it was close to transport, schools, shops, work, recreational activities and sanitation in a neighbourhood designed for safety. The objection I had was your reference to shacks not being watertight which is not always the case and the notion that “no one wants to live in a shack”- Which is an oversimplification and should read no one wants to be dirt poor surrounded by other dirt poor people in unhealthy conditions with no means to improve their circumstances- in those conditions would it really make that much difference if it was a palace? Change needs to focus on the societal and location factors that cause townships to be unlivable and not necessarily only the form of housing. The collective knowledge of township dwellers, designers and engineers has resulted in cases of improvements to the livability of townships and shack design that is affordable and improves the habitat, that is a realistic development goal that should be pursued.

  8. Another thing, its not bizarre to market the solutions poor people have to their poverty in the face of public policy and leaders who would provide a worse alternative based on their limited perceptions of what a good house is. The reason so many academics and public servants “celebrate” informality as you put it is because we understand that you need to listen to people in order to find the correct solutions for their living environment and that often means working with the resources available in that environment and maintaining preexisting social networks. No one is saying the living conditions aren’t inhumane, just that more harm can be done if you completely throw out existing local solutions.

  9. My rejection of shacks as a viable living situation comes precisely from listening. In all of the fieldwork I’ve ever done, I’ve never met someone who is happy to live in a shack. That’s why it’s hard for me to take seriously your claim: “I would happily live in a shack if it was close to transport, schools, shops, work, recreational activities and sanitation in a neighbourhood designed for safety.” Shack settlements *can’t* be designed for safety — by definition they aren’t designed. I mean, certainly there are non-scalable SDI-affiliated examples that are — Ruimsig, that one outside of Stellenbosch, etc. — but we all know those are exceptional and qualify as showpieces. I agree with you that the social conditions are equally problematic, but honestly, I just don’t believe that you think anyone would *choose* to live in a shack if they weren’t forced to by the dull compulsion of the market.

  10. it sort of gets at a definitional question. a safe, comfortable, warm “shack” is not a shack but a house with zinc detail. the problem with teh debate i think comes into with with the concept of “realistic” solutions. This quickly becomes “realistic”s olutions equal more systematic recycling of tyres, plastic, zinc etc. Unrealistic? an economy that provides living wages for all workers in it, and decent housing.for all. calling clever people who make the most of poverty designers and architects is a patronizing insult when there is method or even recognition of the need for them to be compensated for this ingenuity in the way that architects and designers are compensated in the so-called formal economy. There is nothing i despise more in social science than the tendency to fish for the spontaneous sociology of the poor, contained as it necessarily is by the existing conditions of poverty and influenced by the various myths and misdirections of the elite, and then serve it back to poor communities as an applied “solution”. Its arrogance and naturalized superiority hiding behind a false humility–if decades and hundreds of thousands spent on graduate edcucation are really so pointless that no idea generated in taht context can imrove on the watertightness of a bin bag stretched over a metal sheet and held in place by bricks, academics really ought to go commit mass suicide tomorrow and and be done with it.

  11. “calling clever people who make the most of poverty designers and architects is a patronizing insult when there is method or even recognition of the need for them to be compensated for this ingenuity in the way that architects and designers are compensated in the so-called formal economy.”

    That’s precisely how Rod Burgess smashed John Turner’s self-help schemes forty years ago. “Sweat equity”: why are we attempting to extract labor-power from surplus populations and represent it as “listening”?

  12. Fair enough Zach, you have more data than me about how people feel about their shelter. Just to clarify I was referring to the SDI approach to participatory slum upgrading and not the older ‘self help’ models. There is actual work and materials that need to be supplied by people with resources to address the problems. I agree that local planners and designers should be compensated. I also agree that structual change that allows people economic access and empowerment is important, but there is no quick fix.

    As far as people not wanting to live in shacks, let me compare it to a living situation I’m familiar with and I believe has developed my sense of empathy for people who suffer. I could be wrong about this, its my personal, anecdotal view, but it may go some way in explaining my reaction to the article.

    No one wants to be disabled and sick but there is no immediate alternative. Do I want able bodied people ‘experiencing’ disability by rolling around in a designer wheelchair for a day? No, so in that aspect, this article is entirely correct. Do I want able bodied people telling me “wow your life is so hard, I’d hate to be you” no I don’t really want that either, regardless of how much I tell them of my struggles. Do I want recognition of how I’ve managed to master my environment despite my struggles? Hell yes! Do I want designers and engineers to work on adapative technology to help me do it even better? Definitely. Do I want a bit of help paying for this technology? Yes. Do I want a solution dumped on me, without my consent, that is worse than the one I had made for myself? No, ofcourse not. Do I want to feel an active part of forming the solution that may help more disabled people? Yes, yes yes! Do I want to be paid for this? Not really but I do need to survive still. Do I want society and the medical community at large to eventually find the best solution that will effectively end suffering? Yes, but I’m not holding my breath and until then there is a lot that can be done.

    So in sum, I am hopeful, I think slums can be improved affordably and with local resources and as other structural conditions affecting poverty are improved, they can become decent habitats. I think people should be proud of how they’ve survived against their odds and that action should be taken to mitigate their suffering. This actions doesn’t necessarily need to come from one place and it definitely needs to take place with peoples consent and participation. Anger only takes us so far, we need to continue working trying, failing and trying again.

  13. But don’t you see that this is completely a straw man argument? Who is telling people living in shacks that they aren’t creative, innovative, etc.? I’ve actually never seen such a claim in print. Who doesn’t recognize that they’ve mastered their environment? Again, I’ll use a workplace analogy. When I worked at a minimum wage fast food job for a few years, I saw my co-workers devise all kinds of brilliant survival strategies. I mean, seriously, who can support a family on minimum wage with with no benefits and no guaranteed shifts? They were creative, innovative, etc. But does this mean that they don’t want to get the hell out of this precarious position and NOT have to be pursuing survival strategies in the first place? THIS is what I find so offensive about academic and NGO work that valorizes survivalism. It’s absolutely patronizing to watch poor people struggle from the comfort of our offices and remark, “God, they’re so innovative! Look at them go!”

    Second, and maybe we differ on this point, but class is not an identity as you imply. Whereas it’s perfectly acceptable for put forward an argument advocating the embrace of an identity — ethno-racial, religious, sex, gender, etc. — this is NOT so in the case of class. No one wants to be working class, and no one wants to be poor. One of the first demands any poor person will make is not to be poor.

    Finally, and this is beyond the scope of a debate we can have in the comments section of a blog, my conflation of SDI’s approach and older self-help models was deliberate. I would argue that when one traces the intellectual history of housing policy at the World Bank, UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance, and elsewhere, and begins to track how formulated plans are actually implemented, the self-help schemes of the 1970s are more or less a constant.

  14. I’m not putting up straw men, I’m still addressing the problem with your statement that shacks are all leaky and no one wants to live there.

    You however have just given three straw men,

    1: that I am supporting people who say “wow look at them go” when I have never heard anyone say that, I’m just supporting the principle that suffering is best understood by the people experiencing it and that experience cannot be easily generalised. What I have heard is “this is a design solution we wouldn’t have thought of because we don’t have the insight that the people living here do”

    2: that I’m equating class with identity. I’m not, experiencing illness and disability is not an identity either and frankly its insulting if thats what you are suggesting. I’m not even sure what your point is here.

    3. I never said people want to be poor, only that saying “no one wants to be poor” is a limiting way to talk about this when for the vast majority of people there is no quick fix to this problem, only adaptations that can be made and battles that need to be fought. I also compared a non-poor person saying “no one wants to be poor, ” to a non disabled person saying “no one wants to be disabled.” Well thank you captain obvious but where does that leave me? I can tell you it doesn’t make me feel good about myself. I may know rationally that its not my fault, but still entertain the thought that I’m personally defective.

    You’ve also assumed that my problem with your statement is because of an academic position when actually it was because I have friends and family members who live in townships and are proud of their self built homes which do not all leak. In the same token I hear a lot about the problems in their neighborhoods, poor services and lack of jobs. Of course maybe I would have gotten a different response about this if I’d been doing fieldwork on the subject of housing. I’ve also witnessed a snobbish attitude in townships against people who live in shacks compared to people who live in brick homes, which I think stinks, given that the shacks are sometimes nicer than the brick homes.

    Another point, you said that shacks can’t be designed for safety and that they aren’t designed. Thats also not true, examples would be people who build their shacks in communal blocks to create safe courtyard spaces.

    One of the biggest dangers in shack settlements, fire, is caused more by the type of fuel used then the dwelling type. Incidentally a fire is a high rise would be devastating too.

    The shack is not the problem, the problem is systemic poverty, land access, unemployment and poor services, the shack is a type of solution-albeit not an ideal one.

  15. I’m not sure I follow your argument then. If it’s not an ideal solution, why advocate it? Again, I’m sure people are proud of their shacks just as they’re proud of all innovative survival strategies, but the fact remains: no one wants to be pursuing survival strategies. Other than the DA or Tokyo Sexwale, I don’t know who you think is blaming them for being poor. In the immediate term, of course a shack is better than being homeless, and I would and have openly defended land invasions on private property. The eradication regime is an abomination. But again, we can simultaneously defend these gains in the short-term AND advocate decent housing for all. Shacks are not decent housing, finish and klaar. You can be both proud of a survival strategy AND gatvol that you’re having to pursue a survival strategy in the first place.

  16. I think we are mostly in agreement, but you are misunderstanding my point. I never specifically advocated for shacks or valorized shacks, I’m just against generalising statements on conditions in shacks e.g. they all leak, are all too small and are all indecent, unless you’ve been in every shack in the country you can’t make that statement and I can certainly say that I’ve visited decent shacks. Some I’ve been to in Mdantsane have been standing for near on 40 years and have been built with impeccable attention to detail, spanning sizes well over 150sqm on plots that are big enough to keep livestock. Congestion in informal settlements in Cape Town are due to other factors. Also why single out shacks as being indecent? Traditional cow dung homes in the Transkei and KZN are the sites of even deeper poverty and are a mission to maintain, offer only wood as a source of energy, no standpipes nearby and no community facilities or transport. Why do you think people are moving to the city to live in shacks? Despite the overwhelming poverty in these areas I wouldn’t even say these homes are universally indecent as in every community there are stratified levels of wealth and power.

    Overall my point is that I’m against interventions that don’t take into consideration the fact that housing is not about houses, but about alleviating the complex conditions that create poor habitats. My view is that resources spent for development need to be prioritised based on well developed insight into conditions in slums and that interventions based on this insight can sometimes be better spent on stormwater, sanitation, energy or childcare facilities than on top-structures. Note I said “sometimes” and some spending on top-structures is also necessary, though the end result may be that the shack still looks like a shack, but is a healthier place to live.

    Don’t underestimate the bias and othering against the poor from all quarters, as a civil servant I’ve experienced this attitude from many sides including the ruling party. I’m glad you agree with me on the problems with eradication. I do agree with your final sentence, but still would like you to consider that the debate around shacks goes further than survivalism of the poorest. A landlord taking R1500 a month rental from several 12sqm backyard shacks may be making more than he needs to survive and not being regulated on the conditions his tenants are living in. Incidentally by square foot, rentals in Gugs cost more than inner city rentals, but land in the city is not packaged at sizes and prices the poor can afford and doesn’t offer access to families and social networks. A large number of people in shacks are earning significantly more than the poverty wage, but not enough to afford a bonded property, they are however earning enough to be able to make their shacks quite homely. Another group of people may be renting out their government subsidised house and living in a shack in order to be closer to transport. All these situations require detailed research to understand and tailored response from people intervening in these communities.

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