Walking into the settlement at Kennedy Road in Durban, what one is confronted with is the familiarity of the place. I’ve been here before. Not to this settlement, but to others like it. To bastis in India and favelas in Brazil, to Mexico’s Neza-Chalco-Izta to Bangkok’s Klong Toey.
The United Nation’s agency that monitors housing – UN Habitat – has said that there are a billion people in informal settlements (slums). A demographer at the UN tells me that within a few decades, he assumes that the number might easily double. In fact, he says, given how bad the data is, two billion people might already live in these kinds of vulnerable settlements. ‘We just don’t have the numbers,’ he said.
The residents of Kennedy Road do not use the word ‘slum.’ They find the term dismissive and pejorative. Words aside, the residents would agree that they live in informal settlements. Kennedy Road is only one of Durban’s such habitats. A million of Durban’s citizens live in such places.
Zandile Nsibande gives off a quiet confidence. She is one of the leaders of Abahali baseMjondolo (AbM) or the People of the Shacks – based in Durban. She tells me that of the one million people who live in shacks in Durban, half of them do not know where their next meal comes from. Most children do not know when they will next eat. ‘They pick up anything to eat,’ she says. At least fourteen million of South Africa’s fifty-six million citizens go to bed each night hungry.
Zandile seems saddened to share this kind of information. She prefers to talk about what Abahali has done to relieve the problem. What is Abahlali’s goal? Not merely to deliver food to its members. It is run by the shack dwellers themselves. They tell me clearly that they want to lift the confidence of their neighbours and bring them into the struggle.
But Abahali cannot ignore the pressing needs of the people. The movement fought the local government to get education and get medical care for their neighbours. But it was not enough to get a teacher and medicine. ‘You can’t take your medication on an empty stomach’, Zandile said. Abahlali had to get involved in feeding scheme of one kind or another – including the creation of community gardens in the settlements. ‘We are becoming the state,’ Mzwakhe Mdlalose – another Abahlali leader – told me.