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There is no housing crisis in South Africa

I was watching the debates on the upcoming election in the Western Cape recently. A large piece of the debate referred to what was deemed a “housing crisis”. I hear similar things being said around Durban and indeed all over South Africa.

I make the claim there is no housing crisis in South Africa. The focus on finding suitable housing for shack dwellers and the homeless only creates ghettoes and entrenches social problems for the poor.

The crisis is not in the lack of urban housing but a lack of real, substantive rural development. The crisis is a lack of jobs and support for rural spaces. If South Africa focused its energy on rural spaces the poor and desperate would not flock to the slums seeking a better life.

How much better would it be for the poor of South Africa to be able to stay at home in their communities surrounded by friends, family and a larger community with who they share a history?

It is not a big logical leap to make the claim that people do not wish to live in the slums. Yet the assumption being made appears to be that people wish to live in small concrete cubes surrounded by thousands of other soulless concrete bunkers. The other development is the continued use of large hostels to house workers far from home.

I for one cannot believe that it is cost-effective to maintain the soulless hostels in Durban’s south industrial basin. These horrific spaces have social spin-offs in the form of the bawdy and rough shebeens, deeply unhappy people crammed together in terrible living conditions and a need to ever extend municipal services.

Mooi River textiles closed down in 1999 leaving thousands of people out of work as they could not compete with Chinese imports. If industry was offered incentives to work in rural spaces then perhaps urbanisation would not be happening at the rate it is. How many factories and businesses could be run just as easily but with a happier, healthier workforce from rural spaces.

Mass urbanisation is not an inevitable effect of modernity and industrialisation. It is the outcome of narrowly focused technocratic solutions to a problem clearly not being understood. Too many town planners trained specifically in urban solutions seem to be involved in what is essentially a rural problem. The politicians themselves often hail from urban spaces and fail to make the necessary connections.

KwaZulu-Natal still has more than 55% of its population living in rural spaces. It clearly needs to focus on rural planning and I have only heard one party discuss rural issues in any meaningful way. The Inkatha Freedom Party actually makes a lot of sense on these issues.

I for one think that we should support the majority of our province in creating a meaningful life in their communities and not aiding the destruction of their communities and the building of slums to house them.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.