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Shanty Towns in South Africa

Shanty Towns in South Africa are a big problem and little is being done to alleviate the conditions that cause them.

Squatter camps, also known as shanty towns or informal settlements, are like cancerous sores in the cities of South Africa. Attracted by hopes of employment, thousands from rural areas have moved into town and live in make-shift shacks.

Change in Lifestyle

Many of these people are used to living off the land. Their previous dwellings were simple one roomed huts and they would raise a few goats and chickens and plant a small patch of corn. However, the money in the cities entices them along with promises from the government of free housing, water and electricity for all. Sadly, their dreams often fracture into the reality of over 40% unemployment and no shelter.

Building Materials

Being a communal type of people, they tend to congregate in areas. Usually a patch of land between suburbs or vacant plots in industrial zones. Their building materials are anything that comes to hand. Broken bits of board, plastic sheeting, rusty corrugated iron, mud, and used bricks. Out of these, they construct small, one roomed shacks, in close proximity to each other. Roofing material is held in place by bricks, tubs of stones, old car tyres and logs. The settlement sizes vary from clusters of thirty to sprawls of several thousand.

Living Conditions

As many as six people live in a shack. The walls are lined with newspaper and the floor is bare earth or cheap linoleum. Beds or mattresses are shared and there may be a chair or two to sit on. Generally there is one door and no windows. Lamps and candles are the main source of light although some have illegally tapped in to a power line and siphon off “free” electricity.


As can be expected, these cramped living conditions give rise to a number of problems. Fires are very common as cooking is done on kerosene stoves or over open flames. Because of their construction, an entire settlement can burn down very quickly, often leading to the death of unsupervised babies and children.


Health issues are another big concern. A few years back, cholera ravaged many communities and took months to bring under control. Rivers are used for bathing, drinking and as toilets and this leads to rapid spread of infection. Littering is also very common and the piles of waste attract rats and create unhygienic conditions.


Violence is another trademark of these settlements. Tempers run high as frustrations caused by unemployment and living standards are fuelled by cheap beer. Rape is an every day occurrence and brawls and fights common.

Police Action

In the past, police would occasionally come in with bulldozers and flatten a settlement in response to complaints received. These days, they generally do nothing, the reasoning being that they cannot destroy people’s homes without offering them an alternative. Land owners have gone as far as obtaining eviction orders, but police say they are impossible to carry out. In cases where the shacks have been destroyed, they are often reconstructed within days.

Lack of Interest

In fact, the lack of interest by the police and government seems to be the biggest problem for the informal residents as well as their neighbours. Sometimes a couple of taps will be installed to supply clean drinking water or a water tanker parked on site. One large settlement in Cape Town has been supplied with power, but generally these people are ignored until another fire breaks out, another baby is raped or another health crisis erupts.

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User Comments
  1. Gone.

    On December 11, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I have heard of these dwellings, but it’s still always hard to take in that people are forced to live in such a degrading way. If the government would all but do it’s job, they would alleviate so much of the suffering! The rapes by other African citizens and by some UN officials on young African woman are at an all time high. This is an excellent and educational article. God bless…

  2. sfau

    On March 10, 2009 at 7:19 am


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