No two shacks are the same. Inside Julia Mashaba’s home, the cushions on the double bed are decorated with images of the Eiffel Tower. Her husband Herbert’s ironed shirts – navy, pink, purple and sky-blue – are neatly organised on coat hangers hooked to a rope above the bed.
A curtain of golden lace separates the bed and a small wardrobe from a compact kitchen. Mashaba wants to buy another curtain to separate the television and Hi-Fi system from the rest of the shack, but can’t afford one at the moment.
The Mashabas, who moved to Johannesburg from their native Maputo, Mozambique, built their shack in the yard of a home in Nomzamo Park, Soweto, in 2011. It is just one of the many homes that contributed to the 60% growth in residential buildings recorded using satellite imagery of Gauteng between 2001 and 2016.
The satellite images, released by the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) on 31 October, show that freehold formal houses make up nearly half of all homes in Gauteng and remain the most common type of residential building. However, the number of backyard shacks such as the Mashabas’ home, and houses in gated security estates, have grown dramatically.
Shacks have increased by 204.7% and gated houses by 248.8%, showing a widening gap in the kinds of homes being built in the country’s most populous province. More than one in every four homes is now either built in somebody’s backyard or behind the walls or fences of security estates.
“Come look at my fridge,” says Mashaba. The exterior is decorated from top to bottom in colourful plastic magnets in the shapes of tropical fruit. But the fridge is bare inside. “There is nothing,” she says as she points to the contents: a box of long-life milk, a tub of margarine and a few crumpled plastic bags.
The R3 500 Herbert earns each month as a security guard in Fordsburg is the only income the household relies on. Once they pay R600 rent, they must cover other monthly costs for food and transport, and send money home to Maputo, where three of their four children are still in school.
Apartheid’s urban ghosts
Research shows that the spectre of apartheid urban design continues to haunt South Africa’s cities and plays a central role in the country’s most pressing current problems. A report published in 2016 by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, for instance, shows that the peripherally located housing in which many black communities remain confined, a hallmark of apartheid planning, contributes directly to unemployment in six of South Africa’s eight metropolitan areas, including Johannesburg.
Spatial inequality has prompted myriad legislative and policy responses.
The City of Johannesburg’s Spatial and Development Framework is the City’s master spatial development plan that, in essence, governs the Mashabas’ backyard shack, the gated security estates mushrooming on the suburban edges of the city and everything in between. The SDF acknowledges the legacy of apartheid and prescribes centrally located, mixed-income residential developments as an antidote.
The Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, which is the legislation that forms the basis for the SDF and all South Africa’s spatial planning policies, adopts “spatial justice” as a guiding principle.
But GCRO researcher Christian Hamann says the recent satellite images are evidence that “residential growth is highly polarised and different types of residential growth remain separated from each other, hence the people that occupy the houses often also remain spatially and socially separated”.
According to Hamann, residential development is not the only reason for the persistence of apartheid spatial forms. He says current trends mean that “when the city-region expands, there is little socioeconomic mixing taking place. This means the city-region is increasingly characterised by spatial inequality … it is not ideal when low-cost housing is built on the urban edge and it is not accompanied by access to suitable economic opportunities, this aggravates rather than reverses spatial mismatch”.
‘It’s better to struggle at home’
In Orlando East, a short distance north of the Mashabas’ home, gospel music drifts from the shack of Eunice Nompulelo Gwanya, 48, as she handwashes the week’s laundry in the yard.
Here, the harsh reality of living far away from economic opportunities is keenly felt. Three days a week, Gwanya makes the 30km trip to Krugersdorp on the West Rand, where she is a casual worker at a soya processing factory.
Gwanya’s entire life has played out in this dusty yard. She was born in her uncle’s brick home and moved out into her shack in the yard when the family home became overcrowded, something Gwanya says is “very normal” in Orlando East.
Her shack, which she shares with her 11-year-old daughter, Dineo, is one of six her uncle has built in his backyard. Her two sons, Mpho, 14, and Xolani, 24, live in another shack, where the family also cooks and eats all its meals.
Dineo is a good student, evident from the school certificates her brothers have placed on the walls. One, above the double bed that Mpho and Xolani share, was awarded to Dineo for “Hard Hard Work”
Gwanya says life in her backyard shack is difficult: it is hot in summer and very cold in winter; there is not enough room in the yard to extend her dwelling; and when it rains, water runs down the walls.
Carefully tipping out more washing powder from a small tub as she begins soaking two pairs of jeans, Gwanya says that, in spite of this, “it’s better to struggle at home”.