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SAIS Review 23.2 (2003) 41-52

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"We Survive":
Hope in a South African Shantytown

Anne Sherwood

South Africa is a country of contrasts. Black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural. This nation of forty-three million people has been described as a country with a first-world face and a third-world body. Shiny skyscrapers rise in view of destitute townships. A wealthy elite lives in luxury, while 80 percent of the population scrapes by below the poverty line.

The city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape reflects South Africa's split personality. An industrial town that has fallen into disrepair in the past century, Port Elizabeth offers some beautiful beaches and oceanfront property and is attempting to refashion itself as a tourist destination. The city's website describes it as "the Friendly City" and boasts that it is "a mecca for beach and watersports activities." The website fails to mention the impoverished black communities that ring the city, informal settlements that have mushroomed on the edge of town in the past ten years.

Years of legalized racism and oppression took their toll on South Africa's black population. Laws forbidding blacks to own property and shunting them onto the outskirts of town contributed to rampant poverty and homelessness. At the fall of apartheid, there was only one proper house for every forty-three blacks, versus one house for every three whites. The 1996 post-apartheid constitution guarantees "access to adequate housing" for all South Africans, but the government has a long way to go to make this a reality. Though apartheid officially ended in 1994, many South Africans are still homeless, and seven million people live in squatter camps. [End Page 41]

The highway connecting Port Elizabeth to the town of Uitenhage passes by one of these informal settlements, known as the Joe Slovo Community. Over four thousand people live in the maze of 1,200 shacks. There is no access road to the settlement. To get there one simply pulls off the highway into the mud. Homes in Joe Slovo are made of found materials including cardboard, corrugated metal, and plastic, and offer little shelter from the elements.

Like many other informal communities across South Africa, Joe Slovo has no electricity or sanitation system, and only a handful of communal water taps. The only semblance of urban development are six 100-foot tall security lights whose pink glow turns the hazy night sky to cotton candy. Ninety percent of the adult population is unemployed, and twenty percent is HIV-positive. Until February, there was no public school in Joe Slovo, and children had to cross the highway to get the nearest school, five kilometers away. In three years, forty-six people were hit dodging traffic to get an education.

Amazingly, living in squalor has not stripped the Joe Slovo community of hope. The residents refuse to wait for help from the South African government. They believe in community-initiated social change. They have squatted on this land since 1996, legally acquired it in 1998, and are now fighting for housing subsidies with the help of the South African Homeless People's Federation. They plotted the village lots with extra space to make room for gardens and children and dogs. They put picket fences around their shacks. They participate in choirs and boxing matches and town meetings. There is a body building club and several churches. Birthday parties are all-day affairs. With diligence and persistence, the people of Joe Slovo pressured the South African government to build an official school in the community. The new school, which sits on a hill above the sea of shacks, opened its doors in February and is a source of great pride for the residents.

"People came here in search of a better life," says twenty-four year-old Simphiwe Vubela, a community leader whose mother and father brought their seven children here in 1996. "So that is why they make Joe Slovo a special place. They have difficulties, but they have hope for the future." In the corner of...


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