Racial differentiation and social vulnerability in South Africa: Some elementary observations

The white man’s moral standards in this country can only be judged by the extent to which he has condemned the majority if its population to serfdom and inferiority.” Nelson Mandelai

The few observations that follow are based upon a visit to South Africa in September 2010, made in response to invitations from the Disaster Management Institute of Southern Africa and the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North West University Potchefstroom. Papers were presented at the DMISA 2010 annual conferenceii, at Jeffrey’s Bay and, as the Pat Reid Lecture 2010,iii to the University. Acknowledgement and appreciation is made of the interest and hospitality experienced throughout this eleven day visit.
Six hundred kilometres east of Cape Town and 75 km west of Port Elizabeth, Jeffrey’s Bay is a resort and retirement town on South Africa’s south coast,. A well organised conference of perhaps 250 delegates, possibly 65 per cent of who were black-Africans, was a first impression of how South Africa now works. But there was more to come.

Three-quarters of South Africa’s population is non-white but it would be possible to meet black-South Africans only where employed domestically or in other menial tasks, or in lower echelons of responsibility as shop assistants or car park attendants. It also would be possible for a visitor to be unaware of how or where black-South Africans live and for the reality to remain obscured and ignored whilst, at the same time, seeing, learning about and understanding South Africa’s wildlife.

To this visitor, aware of South Africa’s pre-1994 apartheid policiesiv, of post 1994 African National Congress governments, and of “world-wide” social vulnerabilities, it was a surprise, perhaps a shock, to find that although major social changes have been achieved, living conditions of black-South Africans appear to be much the same. A visitor can assume, or be informed, that every town has its townshipv, that cities have several and that Cape Town has many. Townships were evident at Jeffrey’s Bay, at Potchefstroom and around Johannesburg as seen on approaches to Oliver Thambo airport. One observed township extends for at least a kilometre alongside the N12 motorway south-west from Johannesburg, in the region of Soweto, seemingly unrelated to city, town or other places of work.


That townships and their occupants have become the subject of numerous research projects reveals a focus of attention but, at the same time, betrays an impotence of political will to make changes. One complex conference presentationvi described results of a survey of township households by focussing on formatting techniques without any expression of social concern: matter not motive. When asked if complex research of a “status quo” implied anticipated permanence or
were there prospects for change, the evasive reply was that “Another study is looking at upgrading”. When further asked if that implied that informal settlements will stay where they are, but be improved, the reply was “Yes; there isn’t the land available for rehousing”. The questioner’s exasperated “with all the land and space that South Africa has!” being accompanied by muted but cynical laughter from the largely black-South African audience.

Responses to other questioners revealed that mitigation would be another project; access to health services was an item excluded due to non-availability of data; that the work presented was of “a very first stage”; was “not a presentation for action”; and that “improvement attracts immigration from elsewhere” (“elsewhere” therefore being of even poorer living conditions?). Also, that in some cases “men and women are not accommodated together...men live alone where the work is... women make their own arrangements but are separate”vii. Asked if the study explored reasons for the present location of informal settlements, the reply was a simple negative.
That there is opportunity to undertake research, to make presentations of a sensitive subject and to discuss its findings amongst a gender and racially mixed audience was appreciated, but its results did nothing to remove initial concerns; moreover, they brought realisation that, for black-South Africans, townships and informal settlements were here to stay.
Other presentations revealed more issues than were answered: with an image from within a Johannesburg township, attention to risk in crowded inadequate housing was called for without questioning those living conditions, and was a statement that “seventy per cent of Africans live in slums” an explanation or a critical fact? When opportunities occurred, white South Africans seemed reluctant to discuss such issues, a silent shrug seemingly an indicator of denial or disinterest.
In Jeffrey’s Bay, extensive and recent residential holiday and retirement accommodation, with waterways and a “Walt Disney” style road bridge has, within recent years, been recently located within sight of an extensive long-established township. Development finance is sufficiently available but for selected and “appropriate” purposes.

Disaster management

Post-disaster management mantra was repeated without reference, for example, to social vulnerability or to the hazards of climate change. Heavy rainfall and flooding rightly received most attention but droughts, fires, food security and water supplies were not discussed. Earthquakes, by which Cape Town was damaged in 1969, brought the comment: “1969? I wasn’t born then – earthquakes don’t happen”.

Mention of any hazard was of how it did, or did not, fit disaster management mandates and budgets. Preoccupation with how future expenditure would be affected by anticipated events, overrode any discussion of how changes of living conditions might mitigate disasters. A question in conversation of: “why after 15 years since 1994, are there still townships, where is the new housing and where did the money go?”brought raised eyebrows at the questioner’s precocity - or at the realisation that an anomaly exists. 

Numerous presentations hammered processes and frameworks but underlying social and political issues were not mentioned. Attention was devoted to the status quo, without reference to the need for change - only that change remains conveniently unforeseeable.

Conversations with black-South African participants revealed, first, that: the South African “economic drive” is excluded from black-South Africans and perpetuates itself by denying their active participation and, second, referring to (white-man’s) “greed”, land may lie under-developed and in the ownership of people who would sell - but not to “undesirables”. Land in private ownership would not be sold to non-whites even though, in consequence, it may remain unsold for years.
In other words, racial exclusion and discrimination prevail. Management of the conference centre was entirely white, while cleaning staff and gardeners were black. The same situation, it seemed, prevailed “everywhere” in South Africa for house-maids, child minders, construction and road maintenance workers, luggage handlers and shop attendants. There were no black-Africans amongst the DMISA management. In Johannesburg, there is said to be a black-rich sector and, to a passing visitor, possibly evidence of its fallout in more responsible positions for black-South Africans as immigration and security officers and hotel and shop managers.

In Potchefstroom, the only black-South Africans of casual encounter were waiters and waitresses, cooks and cleaners, and male and female car-park attendants and minders; in a popular restaurant close to the university precinct, all waiters and waitresses were white students. It was easy for a white visitor to temporarily join a community out of sight of, and regardless of, issues involving black-South Africans and township communities. All the South African students with whom I worked were white and the one black person observable amongst the audience for the university lecture was a visitor to Potchefstroom.

Does a high number of black-South African disaster managers reflect a low status of disaster management; does conspicuously high conference conviviality, and its cost, reflect a temporary unleashing from repression at work and home but, nevertheless, should this surely excessive expenditure be better spent?


There are many countries where regions and city districts have their ethnically distinct and often historic neighbourhoods, and many with decayed and dysfunctional tower-block estates, over-crowed slums, shanty towns, favelas or bidonvilles. These peripheral but distinct areas are, however, either a part of the geometry and fabric of the built environment, whether rural or urban, or established on land contiguous with it.

South African townships, as seen on this visit and on the other hand, have been intentionally located remotely and sometimes distantly separate from the nearest town or city. Nadine Gordimer’s graphic 1979 description surely cannot be bettered: “...the ‘place’ of those millions who have been dispossessed and for whom others have made all the decisions...These restless broken streets where definitions fail – the houses the outhouses of white suburbs, two-windows-one-door, multiplied in institutional rows; the hovels with tin lean-tos sheltering huge old American cars blowzy with gadgets; the fancy suburban burglar bars on mean windows of tiny cabins; the  roaming children, wolverine dogs, hobbled donkeys, fat naked babies, vagabond chickens and drunks weaving, old men staring, authoritative women shouting, boys in rags, tarts in finery, the smell of offal cooking, the neat patches of mealies between shebeen yards stinking of beer and urine, the litter of twice-discarded possessions, first thrown out by the white man and then picked over by the black – is this conglomerate urban or rural? No electricity in the houses, a telephone an almost impossible luxury: is this a suburb or a strange kind of junk yard? The enormous back yard of the whole white city, where categories and functions lose their ordination and logic, the ox and the diesel engine, the pig rootling for human ordure and the slaughterer, are milled about together. Are the tarts really tarts, or just factory workers or servants from town performing the miracle of emerging dolled-up and scented, a parody of any white madam, from these shelters where there is no bathroom? Are the ragged boys their brothers? Their children, conceived with lovers in a corner of a room where brothers and sisters sleep? Which are the gangsters, which the glue sniffers among the young men on street-corners? Who are the elderly men in pressed trousers and ties who sit drinking beer and arguing on a row of formica chairs on the strip of dirt between a house and the street?”viii
Another, more recent commentator is concerned with “human waste-related risk from informal settlements” (this author’s italics) and the “need to factor-in bad practices and behaviour on the part of informal dwellers”. This South African researcher writes: “For example, it is pointless installing flush toilets in an informal settlement, that in a month's time gets blocked because of user's using newspaper instead of toilet paper, or that gets vandalized because of residents dissatisfaction with other services (such as slow housing delivery or electricity provision), etc. With infrastructure and services provision, there also needs to be responsible behaviour on the part of the recipients”.

Of several issues that arise from this brief communication, first, there appears to be an absence of understanding of the psychological impacts upon township occupants of community and familial separation, deprived provision for basic needs, and the interminable day-to-day problems and pressures of life in townships and informal settlements, the likely causes of the behaviour described. Second, is the problem of water contamination for others, emanating from deprived and debased living conditions, not secondary to the primary issue of township housing and sanitation standards? Would it not be preferable to improve debased living conditions that are a cause of water-source pollution?  Or is focus on what appears to be a secondary question a case of disposition and denial?
Beyond South Africa, the use of used newspapers as toilet paper remains within living memories of many families. Toilet pans did become blocked, especially by young children, but no authority then demanded responsible behaviour or threatened offending families with removal to ghettos of social differentiation.
A United Nations report on the state of African citiesix observes of townships that: “...prevailing inequalities are a product of the history of political power relationships, institutions and international factors that continue to reproduce social differentiations at various scales... addressing inequalities in urban welfare is unlikely to emerge without struggles over power... (and) policy-making is a process whereby socioeconomic and political interests are defended by those with power, and that technocratic interventions alone may not necessarily be enough.”
“A legacy of uneven urban development on the basis of race or class continues to prevail in urban Southern Africa. In many instances, the racial dimension (black vs. white) is, perhaps, becoming less visible as socio-economic class is gaining prominence, although the various socio-economic strata retain clear ethnic-based associations. On the one hand, one can find the ‘world city’-inspired and aspirant cultures with market-driven investments, as physically expressed in urban ‘glamour’ zones, gilded entertainment sites in middle and upper-class suburbs and for tourists, gated shopping malls and residential communities. On the other hand, overcrowded, resources- and services-deprived townships and informal settlements proliferate and are hosts to a majority of the population, including black Africans from rural areas and migrants from other Southern African countries and beyond. Although rural-urban migration remains significant, nowadays it does not exceed 8 per cent as a proportion of the total population. Migration to cities has many dimensions, such as circular migration to and from rural areas and countries in the subregion and stepwise migration whereby migrants settle in lower-order cities before moving on to larger ones. Stepwise migration means that smaller urban settlements experience higher rates of immigration relative to large conurbations. Deprived urban communities are largely neglected or overlooked by formal governance systems, or viewed as pathological. As was the case in the colonial and apartheid eras, development plans continue to target squatter settlements for demolition, with residents relocated to urban ghettos on the city periphery, far away from jobs, social networks and services. In Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, recurring social catastrophes (especially fires and floods devastating entire communities) are viewed by officials as ‘natural disasters’ or faults caused by their low-income victims. Yet, they are clearly a product of asymmetric public policy choices that favour the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The poor are most exposed and vulnerable to disasters and disease...HIV/AIDS prevalence is highly correlated to poverty as well as to overcrowded, poorly serviced urban slums and informal settlements. These are areas with substantial inward and outward migration flows and multiple deprivations, a combination of factors conducive to the spread of diseases such as cholera, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Horrific fires in Alexandra, Johannesburg, are a product of informal settlement layout, overcrowding, highly combustible building materials and inadequate strategies for fire prevention compared with upper-class areas like neighbouring Sandton (a fashionable suburb of Durban). As argued and illustrated by fledging grassroots squatter settlement activism in Durban, the most effective prevention of such fires would be provision of affordable electric power to replace the fire hazard of paraffin lamps and candles.”
Especially when recalling those very many brave men and women who campaigned, protested and fought, who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, or who were obliged to emigrate because of their efforts to bring about a democratic fully representative South African government, it is difficult to understand, first, how ANC governments have been unable to more radically improve the living conditions of black-South Africans and, second, why black South Africans appear not to have more vociferously demanded improvements and change.

Vulnerability and climate change

Directly associated with poverty, vulnerability’s accretive processes have to do with dispossession, inequality and exploitationx xifrom which poverty ensues and from which are created any society’s sectors of underdevelopmentxii. Townships were not located on the best quality soils or on the higher ground, nor were they securely constructed with adequate power and water supply, drainage and adequate space between dwellings. Consequently, most are overcrowded, prone to disease and fire, to storms and flooding and, moreover, to forced removal and displacement without appropriate alternative accommodation. South African townships are ghettos of discrimination, deprivation and disadvantagement and are man-made dynamos of concentrated vulnerability. 

Extremes of climate change are likely to make such matters worse; the risks of fire, water shortages, crop failures and food scarcities, endemic to South Africa, will exacerbate and issues of rural survival, as presciently observed by Elizabeth Francis in 2002xiii, will intensify and with political implications: “The institutional framework governing natural resource management – land tenure systems, farming and grazing management practices, conservation measures - has done little in the past to enhance farmers’ capacity to respond to ecological uncertainty and in many ways has intensified its effects...Many other formal and informal institutions act in such a way as to generate or reinforce vulnerability to risk...The major problem people in this (north-west) region face is the riskiness of their environment, in terms of climate, economy and social relationships. We have seen examples of households which have dealt with this highly risky environment successfully, but these are a small minority. It is doubtful whether, in such an environment, a significantly large number of households could emulate them. While the national Government retains a large degree of goodwill, it must be aware that failure to address the institutions that generate insecurity would have serious consequences for its rural support”xiv.

Climate change has to be made to become the opportunity for and the impetus of social improvement of township living conditions. These two major issues, if left unattended in South Africa, will be caused to combine in social unrest by which city quality of life as well will be affected. As warned by the United Nations report (above), long-term “struggles over power” for rural survival and political acknowledgement will join forces with more recent and more pervasive struggles for recognition of, and response to, increased environmental risk.

The South African Development Partnership Agency, formed in 2011, is uniquely placed to attend to these issues within South Africa, in addition to those of other Southern African countries. Only in this way will the goodwill, to which Francis refers, be maintained by increasingly vulnerable people. Self-abasing resilience to continued repression, deprivation and risk cannot, and should not, be expected to be infinite.

Many other countries have their racial issues but few are likely to involve three-quarters of their population. Townships are the result of legalised removal of black and coloured South Africans from a minority of South African society. A South African government having created the townships, it is clearly possible for one of the richest African countries to discontinue, dismantle and to replace townships with public housing – and soon. The separation of black South Africans was a racial act and will remain a racial issue until national and individual denial of that reality is overcome.


  1. Extract from Nelson Mandela's First Court Statement, 1962. http://www.un.org/en/events/mandeladay/court_statement_1962.shtml
  2. Lewis, James (2010) “Vulnerability, fear, denial and the social geography of risk” DMISA Conference 2010.
  3. Lewis, James (2010) “Corruption: The hidden perpetrator of under-development and vulnerability to natural hazards and disasters” The Pat Reid Lecture 2010. African Centre for Disaster Studies, North West University Potchefstroom.
  4. Which implemented the separation of black and coloured South Africans away from white populations to live in townships and informal settlements.
  5. “Township” is used throughout this article to include townships and informal settlements.

  6. “Determining a vulnerability index for informal settlements in the Western Cape Province” presented by Zelda Els of Aurecon.

  7. A participant’s comment from notes taken by the author at the time.

  8. Gordimer, Nadine Burger’s Daughter (1979) First published Jonathan Cape (pb Bloomsbury 2000) pp147-8.

  9. UN-Habitat (2010) The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequalities and Urban Land Markets. http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3034 (pp204 & 209-210).

  10. Lewis, James (2008) “The Creation of Cultures of Risk: Political and commercial decisions as causes of vulnerability for others An Anthology. September. http://www.islandvulnerability.org/docs/lewis2008risk.pdf

  11. Lewis, James & Kelman, Ilan (2010) Places, people and perpetuity: Community capacities in ecologies of catastrophe ACME An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 9/2 http://www.acme-journal.org/vol9/LewisKelman10.pdf pp191-220.

  12. See note 3 above.

  13. Francis, Elizabeth (2002) “Rural livelihoods, institutions and vulnerability in South Africa” Working Paper Series No 02-30. Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. London. pp 30 & 36. http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/DESTIN/pdf/WP30.pdf

  14. As note 13 above.