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Reviewed by:
  • The Age of Commodity: water privatization in southern Africa, and: Unlawful Occupation: informal settlements and urban policy in South Africa and Brazil
  • Bill Freund (bio)
David A McDonald and Greg Ruiters (eds) (2005) The Age of Commodity: water privatization in southern Africa. London and Sterling VA: Earthscan.
Marie Huchzermeyer (2004) Unlawful Occupation: informal settlements and urban policy in South Africa and Brazil. Trenton NJ and Asmara: Africa World Press.

The ANC has pinned its justification for consideration as the friend of the poor in South Africa on 'delivery' —the diffusion to the whole nation of services once overwhelmingly confined to white households. But for many this is its Achilles' heel. The so-called social movements, generally focussed on particular settlements and townships or small town municipalities, are in essence protest manifestations triggered off by struggles over evictions or water supply or local corruption blocking delivery —what Ebrahim Harvey calls 'low intensity conflicts' (in McDonald and Ruiters 2005:124) but another contribution on Cape Town sees as making urban areas at times ungovernable, borrowing a term from the 1980s struggle years. Radical activists have written numerous papers denouncing the GEAR-driven ANC as a tool of the World Bank and allied institutions with failures over delivery as the proof of the pudding. Battles have raged over the statistics of what has been delivered, by whom and when, how many cut-offs have occurred and what the poor have been forced to pay for services.

The two books reviewed here shed considerable light rather than just heat on the subject through much more sustained analytical treatment. Their very [End Page 138] considerable value has unfortunately to be counterbalanced with their scarcity; both, astonishingly, are only published outside South Africa.

Huchzermeyer, an academic in the Wits Housing Programme, gives us an entire book devoted to the housing question. She gets to the heart of the state housing initiative by characterising it as being based on the 'project linked subsidy' —greenfields development focussed on land planning, building of identical small properties to scale and the availability of subsidies to new owners who then take freehold title. The core of this, which fits what Huchzermeyer considers a neo-liberal approach, was modelled by the business orientated Urban Foundation and then the Independent Development Trust before 1994 and then extended on a massive scale by the Ministry of Housing, but it also represents continuity with the late apartheid orderly urbanisation philosophy. The failure to get significant bank involvement has meant that the quality of housing has often been minimal and the quality of land dependent on what was available for a small price. Community initiatives have been pushed aside; they tend to be considered as 'exploitative, corrupt and self-seeking obstacles to government delivery' (Huchzermeyer 2004:153).

Huchzermeyer sees this programme as essentially a failure; she contrasts it with the situation in Brazil where equivalent practices were abandoned in favour of upgrade programmes that called on community organisation to provide a social context and alternatives. In Brazil, radical state and municipal governments began to grasp that informal settlements were social entities and housing interventions needed to respond to that. The Brazilians focus on what they call the urbanisation of the favela or slum settlement, in which needed improvements are gradually and co-operatively introduced. In South Africa, the aim is to bulldoze such settlements and resettle people, perhaps at a long distance, in state-organised if private sector-built housing. Based on various examples given, Huchzermeyer believes that the Brazilians are much more likely to be constructing viable neighbourhoods that can help mould a better life generally for their inhabitants. She would like to see the continued growth of contacts between dwellers of informal settlements internationally as a process of learning and pressurising for grassroots derived needs. Numerous examples of potential and past initiatives in South Africa, which have held promise in improving the lives of those in informal settlements but were generally stifled, are presented.

This thought-provoking critique has much to be said for it. It certainly [End Page 139] demonstrates how much can be learnt if South Africans try to develop some serious comparative knowledge of social conditions. In particular it...


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