South Africa grapples with explosion of shantytowns |

South Africa grapples with explosion of shantytowns

Scott Calvert

DIEPSLOOT, South Africa – At dusk, Joshua Masekoameng burrows into his history books as an escape from the shantytown that is his home, but it is hard to ignore the setting. A high school senior, he does his schoolwork by candlelight.The 10-by-20 foot shack that he shares with his mother, two sisters and a nephew lacks electricity and running water. There are four corrugated metal walls, a metal roof, a concrete floor, a faded shag carpet, a single bed and an old stereo mute on a battered shelf – but that is all.”I love history very much,” Masekoameng said, reading a textbook last updated in 1988. “History talks about life, the olden days when people were fighting. A long time ago, people weren’t equal. Now we are equal.”‘Adequate’ housingEqual up to a point. Since the end of apartheid, an explosion of shantytowns, many of them within urban townships, has made a mockery of the government’s promise of “adequate” housing for all.Since 1994, the government has provided 1.8 million houses at little or no cost. But the backlog of people waiting for government housing has grown to 2.4 million households, says national housing spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya. As many as 12 million people now live in crude shelters lacking basic services – a quarter of the country’s population, and a 50 percent increase from a decade ago.The cause is not a mystery: People from rural areas who decades ago were forcibly moved to remote “homelands” under apartheid are flocking to South Africa’s largest cities for work, joined by immigrants from other parts of Africa. They find too few jobs paying enough for families to afford even a modest house.Lack of servicesIn a faint echo of the anti-apartheid tactics of the 1980s, a growing number of people are taking to the streets to protest the lack of services, as well as local government corruption. In November, police fired rubber bullets on protesters in a shantytown near Durban, injuring two.Diepsloot, 15 miles north of Johannesburg and almost within sight of a wealthy suburb, was the first community to erupt, in July 2004, amid rumors that residents would be moved further from Johannesburg. Protesters threw stones at cars, and police made numerous arrests.The governing African National Congress has been scrambling to respond. With an eye on the country’s March 1 local government elections, President Thabo Mbeki this month announced a $67 billion program to provide all South Africans with clean water and sanitation by 2010, and electricity by 2012. The campaign slogan of the opposition Democratic Alliance is: “Stop Corruption, Start Delivery.”The unrest poses little immediate threat to the ANC at the polls. In addition to dominating the national government, the party controls local governments in seven of the country’s nine provinces. But the street protests have prodded the country’s leaders to act faster – and may thus be able to do more for the poor than can the country’s opposition parties, said Adam Habib of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria.”When politicians are uncertain about their future, they act in the interests of their citizens,” Habib said. “That is what democracy is about, enshrining uncertainty.”Economic policyHe expressed hope that the government’s promise to do more signaled a shift away from the conservative economic policy that has kept inflation below 4 percent and drawn cheers from the business community – but without providing the jobs, housing and services needed by a large part of the population. While new homes and better services could reduce the anger, he said, the most important step is to create jobs for those mired in squatter camps like Diepsloot.Diepsloot (“deep ditch” in Afrikaans) is barely a decade old. Officials assumed its first residents would be here only briefly, after being moved here to relieve crowding in another township near Johannesburg. But people have been arriving ever since.Vail, Colorado

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