Posted by: Andries Louw | 10 November 2010

The South African squatter problem

Sunday morning 3 October 2010, 3:00 am. A young man returns home from a shebeen (a tavern) in Alexandra to Organic Market, a few blocks further, with a young lady by his side. His pregnant girlfriend is outraged at the site of her lover arriving with another woman. In her anger she pours paraffin on the bed and strikes a match.

In a matter of seconds the room is on fire. By the time the thatched roof is alight, the fate of 60 homes is sealed. These “houses” were formerly stalls of a fresh produce market, all linked by a common thatched roof that stretched in a semi-circle. This setup, where a thatched roof is shared by a number of shacks, is quite rare but in most squatter camps the dwellings are very close to each other, making it easy for fires to spread rapidly.

Ever since I can remember I have heard about the “squatter problem” in South Africa. Black people were streaming into the towns and cities from the homelands, their “traditional” pieces of land where they were supposed to stay. These intruders, as they were perceived by whites, occupied land illegally and erected temporary structures but ended up staying for good.

Today, 16 years after our new democracy was born in 1994, our “squatter problem” is still with us and it is growing. Our squatters are still marginalised because they don’t own land. When I visited Organic Market two days after the fire, I asked whether this tragedy could be an opportunity to improve structures in order to be more fire-proof. I was told that bricks would not be allowed here because the people were occupying the land illegally. Two days later, a few were building with bricks.

Most of the people could not afford bricks so the majority of the structures were rebuilt with whatever the people could lay their hands on: planks, plywood, corrugated iron, even office dividers. In many cases they used burnt corner poles as the framework for their new homes.

Who said office dividers are only meant for offices?

One church responded by donating enough corrugated iron sheets to complete most of the affected shacks.

Some questions to consider: How can churches organise emergency response teams, in conjunction with public emergency services, to react quickly to disasters in their own areas to support marginalised communities in their times of crisis?

What can and should churches do to address the issue of land underlying the “squatter problem”? What should churches and Christians do to address labour issues, e.g. paying domestic workers, gardeners and other workers as much as possible instead of as little as possible, improving the working conditions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers etc.?

How can middle-class people relate to poor people as friends and not simply as donors?

This post is my contribution to a synchroblog, Seeing Through the Eyes of the Marginalized. Here is a list of other bloggers who wrote about the same subject on the same day with links to their posts.

George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt

Arthur Stewart – The Bank

Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate

Ellen Haroutunian – Reading the Bible from the Margins

Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized

Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight

Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole

John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways

Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees–Synchroblog on Marginalised People

Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem

Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body

K.W. Leslie – Who’s the Man? We Christians Are

Jacob Boelman – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Peter Walker – Through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Cobus van Wyngaard – Addressing the Normalized Position

Tom Smith – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Christen Hansel – Foreigners and Feasts

Annie Bullock – Empty Empathy

Sonja Andrews – On Being Free



  1. andries, thanks for sharing & being part of the synchroblog. i think you asked one of the most important questions–“how can middle-class people relate to poor people as friends and not simply as donors?” there is too much dignity that has been stripped and too much division that keeps being perpetuated by the “donor” mentality. real friendship changes everything but it is really, really hard to develop when the gap between us is sometimes so wide…

  2. Thanks for organising the synchroblog, Kathy and thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the importance of that question. Tom Smith who also took part in the synchroblog, is the person who challenges me the most on that point.

    My wife and I, together with some friends started an experimental house church almost two months ago. Last Sunday we visited this community who lost their shacks to the fire.

    On Wednesday night we had a very significant discussion about this experience. I felt we were finally starting to touch on some of the most important issues in South African society. We talked about the perceptions black people and white people have of each other, about the power relations, the suspicions etc.

    What made this discussion especially significant for me was the fact that we now have black and white people in our group, from different social classes. We have just made a start and hope to go deeper with this.

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