South Africa’s Squatter Camps

An informal settlement, or squatter camp, near Cape Town.
A construction worker.
Clothes hanging out to dry in a squatter camp.
Mobile toilets in a Johannesburg squatter camp.
Preschool children reading a book with their teacher.
A shop assistant.

Being allowed to vote in the 1994 national election gave non-whites political freedom. This was a huge victory and inspired hope of better living conditions for the formerly disenfranchised people. Aiming to fulfill these hopes, the post-apartheid governments have focused on upgrading poor people’s living conditions and improving racial equality. However, many people today are just as poor as they were before apartheid ended, and there still remain large squatter camps in the big cities where mainly black and coloured people live.

Living in a squatter camp

In the squatter camps, people live in shacks. These shacks often lack such basic amenities as electricity, toilets and running water. Still, people here, just like everybody else, need to have their primary needs met, so mobile public facilities have been installed for squatters to use. Even so, washing clothes or going to the bathroom in overcrowded and often filthy public locations is not convenient. Therefore, both the government and the squatters themselves work to better the poor neighborhoods, and when either of them do achieve an upgrade — whether it be installing running water in individual homes, installing street lights or anything else — it constitutes a great improvement in the quality of life.

Race-based politics

Continuing on the topic of quality of life, during apartheid, very few white people had to struggle with material poverty. This, however, has changed somewhat recently, with a substantial number of whites now also living in shacks. The reason for this structural shift has to do with post-apartheid policy changes — including affirmative action in employment — which have benefited non-whites at the cost of whites. Whites formerly holding secure, low-skilled jobs in the government bureaucracy, for example, have sometimes been laid off due to the new quota system, landing them without a job and hardly any government assistance. This, in effect, means that they, just like other squatters, now have to take odd jobs or rely on handouts to survive.

It is certainly unfortunate that advances for one population group — the non-whites — have come at the expense of another group — the whites — in this way, but the government sees this as an almost inevitable short-term consequence of trying to build a new, racially fair society. Old wrongs, the government argues, must be corrected, and non-whites must be made to hold more well-paid jobs. However, in spite of non-whites having made advances in the jobs market, long-term aspirations of a racially equal society in terms of wealth are not being fulfilled. On average, South African whites continue to be richer than non-whites, and despite the state focusing on improving education for non-whites, South Africa’s non-white students still don’t score as high overall as the country’s white students.