Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi

Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi, 2018, Townships, suburbs of South Africa. © Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi 2018

A story of Addressing Inequalities in a New Democracy

Building a shack at the side of a highway is risky business in modern day South Africa. But it happens. The Township cities demonstrate the growing inequalities in present day societies 25 years after the democratic transition from apartheid in 1994.


Today, shacks reveal the inequalities as they are small, hot in summer and very cold in winter, lacking basic services. They allow unemployed and low-paid workers to live near a city, in the centre of rural-urban migration. They are crowded in poverty-stricken areas. Yet, along the highway the magnificent affluent homes of their masters line up, employers, owners of offices or factories inlcuding mines. The combination and occurance of township shacks alongside modern day houses reveal  the contradictions of democracy; the freedom without economic freedom that has characterised many political parties' manifestos calling for radical economic transformation. The consequence is a false sense of security of the rich who surround themselves with high fences on one hand and the shattered dreams of a prosperous future on the other. Paradoxically, the laughter, the music, church services, big fat weddings and everyday life goes on in around the shacks - even watching the Manchester United Football match in the UK via television.


Marketing by big companies combined with consumerism  makes people pay exorbitant monthly fees for satellite TV channels to stay up to date with news and entertainment while living in the shacks - showing that inequalities and social class stratification in society  is still rampant. But life goes on.

  • Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi
    Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi


    It is 25 years since South Africa achieved a democratically elected government in 1994. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, became the first black president after years of  apartheid system governing the Republic. What is apartheid and what were some of the effects on housing? The Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to make cities safe and sustainable; ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and building slum settlements into decent houses. It also calls for investment in roads, transport, creating green spaces and improving urban planning. This would envisage participatory planning and inclusive development. The image demonstrates the complexities of participatory planning and urban development in previously divided societies.


    Historical perspectives

    South African history can be divided into distinct phases:  pre-colonial era, colonial era, post-colonial era, apartheid era and the post-apartheid era. During these periods, many different historic events characterised by violent clashes between the indigenous people and european settlers forcefully displacing them from their land occurred. The cultural differences were used to oppress and  marginalise  the people while racial tensions underlying the political oppressions were extensive. The shack is an object that symbolyses not only the oppression in living conditions, but  also inequalities in economics and infrastructure.


    Apartheid systems created shacks

    Between 1948 and 1991, the system of administration in South Africa was apartheid. It was a National party system of racial discrimination and human rights violation. Fundamental to it was the Homeland Citizens Act of 1970, which augmented the Native Land Act of 1931 through the establishment of the so-called Homelands or reservations. The Act authorised the forceful removal of black people from urban centres to “Bantustans”. Surprisingly the apartheid perpetrators and sympathizers quoted a similar act in India where the British had done similar things without backlash from international community.


    The typical Township in South Africa refers to underdeveloped segregated areas established from the 19th century until the end of the apartheid era to cater for non-whites namely Indians, “Africans” (meaning black) and people of colour. The Townships were located on the periphery of towns and cities. The Diepsloot Township in the image above therefore fits its purpose to serve the affluent towns because of its location along the highway.


    The images show the shacks in Diepsloot Township. Close to 1.4 million people live in Diepsloot Township. Characteristically, such areas abound with crime, violent protests due to lack of basic services and overcrowding. The township is also full of diversity of culture, tribes, tradition and many nationalities, due to rural to urban migration. The major problems include unemployment, poverty and lack of basic services which result from lack of education and skills. Coupled with deprivation of water, sanitation and basic infrastructure, shack living environments are unsustainable and challenging sustainable cities.


    In South Africa, the term “township” and  “location” refers to segregated urban areas that arose from the late 19th century that were reserved for non-whites (Indians, blacks and people of colour). Built on the periphery of towns and cities, townships integrated the roots and systems of apartheid so deeply that they are almost difficult to eradicate. Despite strides made over the past twenty five years to provide decent housing for the majority of the population, Townships and shacks in particular still exist. As part of the mining industry, the black population comprising  men lived in hostels and servants' accommodations. With increasing urbanization, the rapid urban expansion could not keep up with the influx of people which led to overcrowding. In the 1950s, townships in the Witwatersrand areas grew exponentially as the gold rush expanded. The shack township settlements were of poor quality but provided advantage over the hostels in more established areas as they were cheaper and not regulated by the apartheid government. With increasing eviction of black people from “white” areas, the forced removals resulted into a broad movement into segregated townships creating the designated race groups - black, coloured and Indians per the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the Group Areas Act.


    With the fall of apartheid in 1994, the townships still persisted because it was a systemic problem that can only be solved in a multi-sectoral way. Typically, most towns in South Africa have a township associated with them. The New Democracy has created modern developments in townships since 1994 for example building wealthy homes and middle class income homes.  In Soweto for instance there are many new developments. Hence "township" is changing its meaning and ways as it no longer means the original apartheid low income location but a home for the growing middle class. This has resulted in properties and real estate development in the townships. Although many houses were built inofficially, the government has improved the access to water, electricity and roads that impact on the quality of life. The biggest challenge is to make the progress sustainable. With plans to build the sewage system, water and electricity, townships are increasingly attract young people. As they belong to the generation of millennials, who want to stay connected globally, it is not surprising that the shacks in townships have connected to digital devices and satellite television, after all, the people have to live their life. A study in Diepsloot showed that 24% of the residents lived in brick structures, 43% in shacks and 27% in backyard shacks (additional units build on a plot of land by the landlord to get extra income (Harber, 2011).



    The shacks are small constructions built on the periphery of towns and cities to provide cheap accommodation to the growing number of people working in towns or cities. The discovery of diamonds and gold in the 19th century in South Africa had a profound impact on the wealth of the region, propelling it into world stage competition for industrialisation. This was a fundamental shift from an agrarian-based economy with effects on the people and society. Not only were conflicts between the “Boer” farmers and the British Empire created, but also conflicts among the black natives as the groups fought for control over resources of the mining industry. These fights continued to define the mining industry for years and years. One sphere impacted was the human settlements. Between 1948 to 1994, the country was dominated by Afrikaner nationalism led by systems of racial segregation and a white minority rule called the apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”. The blacks, Indians and people of colour were forcibly removed from their land into Homelands or townships. With increasing demand for housing, shacks provided a cheaper option close to towns and cities. With no basic services, the areas continue to challenge governments as they are in need of building sustainable cities and sustainable solutions.


    Shacks remind us of the lived experiences of people wanting to create sustainable livelihood in the economy. Given the opportunity of a job in a town or city, the viable option would be to live in a shack that is cheaper than brick construction. The downside is the lack of basic infrastructure and basic services for the population who want to participate in the economy. The dual economy in South Africa comprises the affluent businesses listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange and the basic township economy.  People who want to participate have to choose between living in a shack or to be excluded from economy. The contradictions of the creation of jobs without viable sustainable housing options leads to the perpetuation to the segregation. An extension of two cities - two economies. Shacks on one side of the highways and the affluent middle class on the other side. The images show the contradictions and frustrations of moving towards sustainable cities in a country divided by inequalities.


    This phenomenon is not only a South African one, but known worldwide: In Brazil and Mexico there are also areas divided by inequalities of social, economical and recently technological divide.






    • Harber, A. (2011) Diepsloot, Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball Publishers LTD, 2011. 2011. 1-226. Print.
    • Tinashe, P.  (2014). We have a story to tell — Diepsloot youth: A quest for safe space and opportunities to earn a living. (PDF).
    • Rosa Luxemburg Stating. p. 2. Retrieved 9 November 2018.
    • Foster, D. (2012): After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa
    • https://unequalscenes.com/alexandra-sandton Retrieved 22 Jan 2019
    • https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1EODB_enZA550ZA550&tbm=isch&q=shacks+in+Townships+near+Lanseria+Airport&chips=q:shacks+in+townships+near+lanseria+airport,online_chips:apartheid,online_chips:gauteng,online_chips:apartheid+museum&usg=AI4_-kTUvSb-CcNIqEavZu8utwO5g7HbUg&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwislenZooLgAhXUQxUIHeIRDOYQ4lYILSgC&biw=1025&bih=587&dpr=1, Retrieved 25 January, 2019.



    published April 2020