Image: Africa's growing pains

Michael Mfazwe closes the collar of his tattered overalls and turns away from the cold winter wind that rustles the wall of his home. “Home” for Mfazwe, his girlfriend and his child, is a scavenged collection of cardboard, plastic and carpet scraps held together by discarded twine and rusty wire. He came to the city seeking a new life. Instead, he found one worse than that he left behind.

After 18 years of hard work in Johannesburg’s gold mines, the best Mfazwe can hope for is to return to his tribal homeland empty-handed.

“The house you get is according to your salary,” Mfazwe said. “I haven’t got good accommodations, so I built this shack to keep the child warm while I look for informal work, but we ended up sleeping here.”

Mfazwe is a desperate example of a situation hardly unique to Africa or even South Africa. Yet the country’s recent apartheid past, when most blacks were banned from residing in the great cities, puts a peculiarly South African spin on the more global question of rural migrations to urban areas. For, while South African’s new constitution guarantees freedom of movement to all citizens, the government is straining to balance that right with the need to encourage millions of people to stay and develop the country’s vast rural areas.

Kadar Asmal
Kadar Asmal, South African minister of water affairs.
“Freedom of movement is a constitutionally protected principal, a very dear principal,” says Kadar Asmal, South African minister of water affairs. However, the government is committed to creating an incentive for people to stay in rural areas. “We are trying to make the rural areas into one with the urban areas. It’s an enormous problem, but obviously by making the rural areas attractive people can stay there,” says Asmal.

President Nelson Mandela’s government hopes that by creating opportunity in the countryside, fewer South Africans will wind up like Mfazwe, on the ragged edge of survival in an increasingly dangerous and overcrowded urban slum.

Mfazwe didn’t plan to end up in a squatter’s shack. No South African migrant laborer ever did, but there they are: hundreds of thousands of them in vacant lots, abandoned buildings and dusty informal settlements in and around Johannesburg lured off their rural homelands by the dream of getting a job in a city that, of late at least, isn’t producing that many of them.

“None of the homelands provide anything more than about 10 percent of the cash income upon which people in the homelands live,” says Tom Lodge, head of political studies at Wits University in Johannesburg. Once in the city, some people find work with the big gold, diamond or other mining firms. But South Africa’s currency is weak and gold prices are falling. The migrant labor force, a direct product of apartheid, remains at the mercy of the “new” South Africa’s market.

Once on the street, the best these laborers can hope for is a casual job in the informal economy. Mfazwe spends his days looking for temporary work at a wage of about $8 a day. That little bit of money doesn’t even meet his basic needs, let alone that of his niece. So he spends further hours each week begging for water in local shops, depending on the kindness of strangers for much of the food on his table.

“The Muslims bring food once a week and the Indians used to bring food on Sundays, but they don’t come any more,” he said.

Apartheid's urban legacy
Michael and those like him are living with the aftereffects of apartheid. Among its many evils, apartheid assured a cheap migrant labor force for the white economy.

“Among other things, apartheid was about stopping black people from coming to town,” said Lodge. “City planners called it a process of ‘orderly urbanization.’ ”

Gold miners, Tom Lodge
Gold miners descend down an elevator shaft, left, to toil for another day in a Johannesburg mine. Right: Professor Tom Lodge
Apartheid also prevented black breadwinners (deemed necessary to do the cities’ menial jobs) from bringing their families with them.

“One of the demographic effects was that the pace of urbanization between 1948 and 1980 was very slow compared to most Third World countries,” explains Lodge. As a consequence, he said, South African towns, compared to other African towns, were extremely small, clean and free of crime. For whites, that is.

Fears and expectations
All of this was an illusion that could not be maintained. Apartheid controls began to break down in the late 1970s, in part because migrant workers decided to violate the law and bring their families to the cities. Political activism and international protest finally caught up with South Africa and by 1994, when the country’s first democratic elections were held, apartheid had been all but dismantled.

Mandela and his new government raised enormous expectations about what freedom would mean to nonwhites. In Johannesburg, it also meant that city planners who once ruled by fiat now struggle with democracy’s anarchy: squatters, crime and “white flight.” A white Johannesburg resident of 20 years referred to it as watching a First World city decline into the Third World.

Neil Fraser, the executive director of the Central Johannesburg Partnership for Urban Regeneration, certainly understands the challenge. “There just isn’t as much employment as everyone would like to see, but I’m not one of those who believes Johannesburg is a dying city. I think it’s a changing city, and it will continue to change for quite some time.”

Fraser says the city is in the process of being normalized into a true African city. It’s a difficult time of transition, said Fraser - “a problem of trying to meld what was an old formal white economy with a developing informal black economy.”

Fraser’s biggest concern is that Johannesburg could become an almost exclusively black African city while whites build malls and new communities in the northern suburbs - a kind of de facto apartheid. Seeking to prevent that, Fraser’s group visited American cities faced with similar problems and established improvement districts to attract business back to the inner city.

Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser believes Johannesburg is a changing city, not a dying city.
“We’ve hired 50 security guards and 10 street cleaners,” he said. “Within a 50-block inner city area rentals are up 12 percent and vacancies are down 8 percent.”

The partnership is tackling the lack of modest-income housing. “A city can’t survive on just high-rent housing or on just squatter housing. A city is an amalgam of an entire spectrum,” says Fraser. As an interim step, he adds, is pushing for “transitional housing” in which a person can stay for as little as 25 cents a night and receive job training. After six months that person could move into better housing once they’re able to find work.

In contrast to the worst expectations of the African National Congress’ critics, South Africa’s attempts to tackle the problems associated with these migrations have focused mostly on the private sector and microcredit enterprise.

One exception, however, is water.

“Opinion surveys in the rural areas show that water is the main priority,” said Asmal, the water minister. “For women it’s the most liberating thing. They can now spend that six or seven hours doing something much more creative than going to collect water.”

The sprawling Bophuthatswana township of Modder Spruit is one place the government met its target.

Photo: Welder, woman hanging laundry
A welder, left, connects rural water-delivery pipes as part of the government program to bring water to a million people in 1,000 days. Lena Khutshwa, right, in the front yard of her home in Modder Spruit Township.
Lena Khutshwa is a direct recipient of the rural water program. There is a stand pipe in her front yard that several households in her village share. For the first time in her life Lena has a garden, and doing the wash only takes a few hours instead of the majority of the day.

Improvements like that make a difference and the government knows it. Bringing water and other improvements to rural South Africa may not be enough to keep people from wanting to see Johannesburg, but ultimately they may conclude that life is still better down on the farm.

Robert Hood is MSNBC’s senior media editor for special projects.

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