Jo'burg to transform informal settlements

Thabiso Mahowa is one of about seven million South Africans who live in squatter camps, deprived of basic services like clean water, proper sewerage, roads, and a house he can proudly call home.

Now the country’s major economic centre, Johannesburg, is bracing itself for one of its biggest challenges since the demise of apartheid—to do away with the squatter camps, known as informal settlements, within three years.

“This is about dignity ... if people have these basic needs their human dignity will improve,” says municipal spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane.

Diepsloot, on Johannesburg’s northern edge, is a densely-populated shantytown where rows of shacks made from corrugated iron, wood and plastic line dusty streets.

Mahowa (33) has been living in her two-bedroomed shack for the last four years, with her husband Gotlieb, a truck driver, and her 11-month-old son Gotlieb jr.

“Things have improved in the area, but the sewers are still overflowing in the streets,” she said.

“It gets cold in winter and because my son was a premature baby, I can’t use my paraffin stove to heat my house. I have to use plenty of blankets,” she said.

Like most of Diepsloot’s residents, Mahowa was lured here by the prospect of jobs.
For many of the women, a paying job can be found as a domestic worker in the wealthy mainly white suburbs of Johannesburg.

“The thing that scares me the most is fire,” Mahowa said, clutching her baby.

“If the surrounding shacks catch fire, this is where we will die because there is no way we will be able to escape,” she said.

A fireman who is frequently called out to the area said the close proximity of homes made it difficult for big lumbering fire trucks to manoeuvre, resulting in frequent stoning by the community because of their impatience.

According to Modingoane, these are some of the immediate issues that need to be addressed by the Johannesburg municipality if it is to succeed in turning the 189 squatter camp settlements into low-cost housing neighbourhoods by 2007.

“We need to build access roads in the informal settlements as part of formalising them,” said Modingoane.

Other than providing water, electricity and sanitation, title deeds are to be issued and schools, clinics and recreational facilities built as part of the plan.

But urban planning expert Marie Huchzermeyer of the University of Witwatersrand doubts that the city will meet its target.

“It is impossible to upgrade all the informal settlements, erect emergency roads, water and sanitation facilities in three years,” said Huchzermeyer.

She says it can take up to five years to reach agreement with squatter camp residents on the services that need to be introduced and on the departure of some of the locals to make room for roads and bigger housing plots.

President Thabo Mbeki has made combating poverty a priority for his government, shining a spotlight on the plight of squatter camps that have sprung up near most major town centres.

There are about 1,8-million shacks housing about 7,2-million South Africans, according to government statistics. In Gauteng, South Africa’s most prosperous province, half a million people are estimated to be living in the informal settlements.

Some squatter camps sprung up more than 25 years ago, under apartheid, as blacks came to the cities for jobs. Over the years, they have come to symbolise poverty in South Africa.

Diepsloot resident and local barber Lucas Makhura (41) said that he was not prepared to leave an area that he has called home for the last eight years.

“We want to stay here… we were moved here from Alexandra and we do not want to go anywhere now,” said Makhura, referring to a township in northern Johannesburg.

There are no toilets in Diepsloot and hundreds of dwellers share a communal water tap, but all this has not made the residents want to move.

“We are just tired of being moved around,” said one resident. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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