To live by force: when there is no space elsewhere

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In 1983 South Africa’s apartheid era government announced that Khayelitsha, 30 km to the east of Cape Town city centre, was to be established as a new township for black South Africans. Its name means “New Home” in isiXhosa. For a settlement of its size, it certainly is new. The 1985 census recorded a population of 3,533. In 1996, two years after the advent of democracy, its population had reached 253,000. Khayelitsha’s first quarter of a million citizens arrived for a variety of reasons. Many were forcibly relocated. Some fled the overcrowded neighbouring township of Crossroads in the aftermath of the deadly 1985 riots. The most recent population estimate of 440,188 makes Khayelitsha Cape Town’s largest township. Khayelitsha’s residents face many challenges which are often exacerbated by overcrowding and a lack of either available or suitable land for housing.

Indlovu is one of Khayelitsha’s overcrowded informal settlements. As with other informal settlements, Indlovu’s shacks lack water mains or sanitation. Toilets are provided in communal cubicles on the side of dirt roads. Resident Kefuoe Moolisa, who describes himself as a freestyle rap singer, explains “we need proper toilets; the number of people sharing those toilets is crazy. It’s cleaner to use the bushes.” Kefuoe points towards some bushes behind the toilets next to a stagnant pool and continues “but it can be dangerous, people get raped in the bushes.” Kefuoe is 14. 

The stagnant pool overflows onto the dirt road next to the two room shack Phindile Sambatha shares with four family members. Phindile submitted his application for government housing in 1999. He has heard nothing since. Fire is a serious threat when shacks are cheek by jowl. Dense informal settlements have limited entry points for emergency vehicles. Phindile lost his legs as the result of a hit squad shooting in the 1990s and is concerned that if one night his neighbourhood goes up in flames, he wouldn’t have time to attach his prosthetic legs or access his wheelchair.

Phindile is unemployed and unlikely to find work. His family subsist on his meagre R1,200 monthly pension. Like so many others, Phindile’s only hope of ever enjoying brick built housing with running water and electricity is if he reaches the Himalayan summit of the government housing list. Formal housing would also mean tarred roads rather than the pothole ridden dirt track along which he must currently navigate his wheelchair.

At Enkanini, another Khayelitsha informal settlement, children lacking a playground create their own fun. They’ve made sledges from car parts and slide down a bank into the debris below. The stench in Enkanini is overpowering. Enkanini is adjacent to a municipal sewerage works. An employee explains “the sewerage works were here first, Enkanini appeared in the last five years or so.” I ask him the meaning of Enkanini “it means ‘to live by force’ there’s no space elsewhere for them to go, they have no choice but stay here opposite the sewerage works.”

Khayelitsha has grown rapidly since it was proclaimed, but its space is finite and its growth faces insurmountable barriers. To the south is the sea. In other directions lie settlements or land not suited to human habitation, such as sand dunes. This will not stop the construction of yet more shacks but once the dunes are eclipsed by further informal settlements there is no obvious next place to inhabit.

Some commentators believe the world’s primary task is to address overconsumption in rich communities not population growth in poor communities. However, it is not a question of one or the other. Kefuoe’s and Phindile’s problems will not be solved by reducing consumption in rich western countries. Whether the lifestyle of an Australian or Briton produce the same carbon emissions as 32 people in Khayelitsha is not directly relevant to Kefuoe.

The population of Khayelitsha need and deserve better housing, education and employment opportunities. Khayelitsha residents are not mere population statistics but individuals with dreams of becoming rap singers or owners of a home promised long ago. Many of these dreams will not be realised. Khayelitsha is running out of space to satisfy the demand for additional shacks, let alone the additional space needed to replace the shacks with adequate formal housing. Unless something dramatic happens, Phindile’s children are unlikely to have the opportunity to move to better accommodation. By the time they are adults, if they lack work, they won’t be able to afford formal housing. Will they even be able to find space to set up home of any poor standard in Khayelitsha at all?

As originally published in the Sustainable Population Australia Magazine, August 2012 - to read the article, click here (and see page 6)