Kate Joyce: Grassland Phase II: Residents and Government Reshaping South Africa's Informal Settlements, 2003-2004

Kate Joyce

From the exhibition Grassland Phase II: Residents and Government Reshaping South Africa’s Informal Settlements, a selection of photographs created over the five months Joyce spent with residents in a government-subsidized settlement named Grassland Phase II, located on the fringe of an expanding township in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Introduction by Kate Joyce

In February 2004, I began working with Diketso Eseng Dipuo Community Development Trust (DEDI) in Bloemfontein, South Africa, as a documentary photographer. DEDI, a local non-governmental organization, provides community support and information about early childhood education, small business development, and empowerment strategies to families and children living in rural and informal settlements throughout the country's Central Free State. Five months into my work with DEDI, I began a photographic series that focused on a government-subsidized "site and services" settlement called Grassland Phase II, located on the fringe of Bloemfontein's expanding township, where DEDI was working with several residents.

Grassland Phase II was developed in an effort to address the land and housing needs of people living in a rapidly growing informal settlement. The local municipality, in collaboration with residents, bought and divided formerly white-owned farmland along the city's outskirts into 2,883 plots approximately thirty square feet each. The plots are commonly referred to as "sites." Each site has access to communal water pumps and electricity at a subsidized fee, and residents are promised ownership of their site's title deed after having lived there for three consecutive years. In 2003, representatives from the local municipality facilitated the move of several thousand households and their shacks from the informal settlement onto the newly allocated Grassland Phase II sites.

Worldwide, nearly one billion people—one in every six human beings—live in slums or informal settlements. In most African cities, from 40 percent to 70 percent of the population lives in these illegal or substandard conditions. In South Africa roughly 26 percent of the total population—one in four people—lives in slums or informal settlements.

In 1994, the post-apartheid South African government faced a critical housing shortage of approximately three to four million homes. There has been, and continues to be, much debate and controversy over the various policies developed by the government to address the country's lack of housing—from building new homes, to developing site and services schemes, to providing land and housing acquisition subsidies. By 2004, the government, in collaboration with a wide range of nonprofits and other civil society organizations, had constructed 1,614,512 houses and provided 2,686,907 land and housing subsidies.

South Africa's post-apartheid housing and land policies are recognized internationally as both timely and effective in their delivery of housing and land subsidies to residents of slums and informal settlements. Yet despite progress, the country's housing deficit remains at around two million. In addition, recent conversations with residents of Grassland Phase II make it clear that policies that concentrate on improving housing and physical environmental conditions alone overlook the broader context of poverty, which includes access to employment and income, shelter, food, health care, education, and basic urban services.

In South Africa, slums and informal settlements have a distinctive history. During the apartheid years, millions of blacks were forcibly removed from white areas and relegated to a life of poverty in "homelands." Most blacks could not live legally in major South African cities, such as Cape Town or Johannesburg. In order to support their families, many moved to illegal squatter settlements within white areas or moved their families to "informal" shack settlements on a homeland's edge nearest white cities in order to have the shortest daily commute for work.

Today, the term "informal settlement" is used broadly to define residential areas in an urban locality and emphasizes the residents' illegal land occupation and lack of property rights, while the expression "slum" focuses on the inadequate infrastructure of these settlements.

Mechanization and the closing of small and/or non-corporate farms have increased migration rates from rural communities to South Africa's metropolitan areas. Illegal immigration and refugees seeking asylum—between 500,000 and a million at any given time—also contribute to the country's growing urban population. Subsidized urban settlements like Grassland Phase II provide residents with a springboard for growth as well as independence from living environments that are no longer sustainable. For some, these settlements provide an alternative to paying rental fees. Others are able to move out of a relative's home. For most, this kind of housing provides a governmentally sanctioned recognition of belonging.

A home is something started small, you build it yourself. Then at the end of the day it is something big and nice. I can see improvement compared to those days, and I can see where I am going.
—Kenosi Shuping, a domestic worker living with her three children and husband in Grassland Phase II

Upgrading of informal settlements and residential development schemes like Grassland Phase II fosters urban sprawl and racial segregation. The residential use of land along the margins of metropolitan areas contributes to the geographic, social, and political isolation of such populations. Drawn into Grassland Phase II's map is land partitioned for the building of schools and clinics, yet these social services and agencies are years away from being built. Until they are, families will continue to commute to other sections of the city and to neighboring settlements for employment, formal education, health care, and other amenities.

Examples from similarly subsidized settlements established five to eight years ago suggest that these residents relied on time, savings, and familial or communal assistance rather than the government to upgrade their housing after settling on their sites. While a handful of people at Grassland are busy upgrading their shacks to mud or cement structures, the majority of residents continue to live in substandard conditions. For some residents, homes remain shacks because the household continues to migrate looking for work. Other residents are waiting for the South African government to build standardized brick and mortar houses, commonly called "RDP housing," through its Reconstruction and Development Programme (1994–1996). For most residents, a lack of economic opportunities inhibits the process of improving their living conditions, despite their hopes of constructing more stable and permanent housing for themselves and their families.

People who are staying in shacks are not having homes, they are having sites, right, but a home is not a shack. We are only in the shack temporarily. . . . We are still homeless, if I may put it that way, because we do not have a formal house.
—Sam Phupha, a council member and community leader living with his two children and wife in Grassland Phase II

Kate Joyce

Kate Joyce

Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2003-2004

Kate Joyce studied sociology and photojournalism at San Francisco State University and, during fall 2003, worked on her Certificate in Documentary Studies through the Center for Documentary Studies. Kate is a photographer interested in the relationship between documentary processes and art.