World Cup Report: Poverty and Promise in South Africa

Getty Images
Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG—The new South Africa is a bountiful land, a country of extremes. Affluence lives next to poverty. I see this on my first visit.


My suburban accommodations are top-class: high walls, electrical fences, remote-controlled metal gates, panic buttons, security guards and manicured lawns. Less than five minutes away sits a shantytown. The nearest sign says Primrose. As an outsider looking in, I think, squalor, hell on earth. This unplanned, uninvited squatter settlement is part of Germiston, an old mining community. Little evidence remains of the gold rush. Broken dreams can exist only where hope once lived.

A cloud of smoke hangs low like an umbrella above the place, a glum symbol of the misery, poverty and blight that must inhabit the days and nights of the men, women and children who live there. Makeshift shacks no bigger than a single room house entire families. A man relieves himself under a shade tree. Portable toilets, normally deployed for special events or at construction sites, serve as public latrines. Here there is no running water except for when the rains return. Communal water quenches thirst but does not heal the communal suffering.

This shantytown is, unfortunately, still too much of South Africa. For generations, even before the adoption of apartheid in 1948, millions of men and women have come from the rural areas to toil in the gold and diamond mines, and to wait hand and foot on the white upper class. The white-minority government was always more interested in keeping the black majority in its place than meeting its basic needs. Excluded from white and colored-only areas, migrant workers created wood, cardboard and galvanize shantytowns that still squat outside each major South African city. Langa, a shantytown outside Cape Town, along the route to and from the airport, sits like a festering boil between the scenic Table Mountain range and the historic port city.

Everything was supposed to change after 1994. The post-apartheid regime has tried what people here call R&D—reconstruction and development—projects to shelter much of the liberated and expectant masses.

How many apartments have the African National Congress-led government built since it came to power 16 years ago? It doesn't really matter because this is an extreme case of demand always outpacing supply. Trying to build enough houses to shelter this population is like running up a down escalator. Each announcement of new low-income housing projects attracts another surge of rural migrants, men and women with high cheekbones and even higher expectations.

The FIFA 2010 World Cup begins today. The stadiums are built, the teams selected, and hotels room occupied. Vuvuzelas, the ubiquitous horns that are a staple of South African soccer matches, blow. Euphoria reigns. Some even liken it to the mood of '94, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. But after the last goals have been scored and the final whistle blows, after the tourists go home, smoke will still rise from the Primrose shantytown; garbage will still pile up alongside its unpaved roads.


The steel bars of apartheid have been welded into wrought iron security gates. Some complain that the black majority exchanged safety for freedom. But can one really exist without the other? Those aren't questions that keep residents of the Primrose squatter settlement awake at night. For one woman in the shantytown, the needs are basic: running water, a roof that doesn't leak. ''We want flats to live in,'' she said.

It's impossible for anyone to hear her plea above the noise of the vuvuzelas.

Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla. He is visiting South Africa with a group of Florida A&M and Shantou University, China, journalism students. See there coverage of the World Cup here.