In South Africa, the Shantytown May Become Political Failure’s Most Powerful Enemy

Corruption isn’t going anywhere, but one group’s entrepreneurial spirit is hoping to change that.

Shantytown just outside Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Don Bayley/Getty Images)

Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

The township of Khayelitsha lies a few miles outside Cape Town, along the N2 highway. The former South African apartheid government designed the N2 and the townships that line its edges for easy access in the event of insurrection or rebellion. It was easier to keep the people in—and get the tanks out.  

I spent some time there recently to find out where South Africa is headed on the eve of this week’s presidential election. It’s the fifth such vote since the end of apartheid in 1994, and the first since the death of Nelson Mandela earlier this year. But even with 20 years of democracy under its belt, South Africa faces an uncertain future.  

There is plenty to celebrate, of course. Millions of black South Africans have moved into the middle class, the country is rich in natural resources that continue to attract foreign investment, and there’s a free and vibrant press that strives to hold government to account. 

But there are serious problems, and they’re growing. Corruption at the highest levels of government is crippling the country’s politics and business, high crime is a reality for nearly every South African, and the government is failing to build basic services such as water, electricity, and proper sanitation for the poorest of the poor, who still comprise about 30 percent of the country’s 47 million people.  

I got a sense of this in Khayelitsha, where Tholela Thembani took me on a walk through the shantytown where he has spent his whole life.

Shacks made of wood, corrugated tin, and plastic sit precariously atop sand dunes just feet from the highway. Several months ago a fire swept through, and some 4,000 houses were burned to the ground. Lining the edge of the township are dozens upon dozens of derelict Porta-Potties. The government provided the toilets thinking that each one would service four households, or 16 people. In the end each latrine was being used by upwards of 100 people. They crashed in short order. 

“Whether a household is wealthy or poor, its members need access to food and water, access to habitat, financial services, transport, energy; people need the same thing,” says Nico Pascarel, a 34-year-old Frenchman who runs an ingenious company called Reciprocity, which works with entrepreneurs in townships like Khayelitsha. “Whether they’ll be able to afford quality of service is another question.”

Pascarel and his partner, Pierre Coetzer, believe there is huge potential for growth in townships like Khayelitsha, and that unlocking that potential could be a powerful tool to helping the poorest South Africans move into the larger economy. 

“You find extremely innovative people willing to disrupt the established way of doing things,” says Pascarel. He cites the example of the man who started delivering medicine to people who couldn’t find their way to the local health clinic, either because they didn’t have transportation, couldn’t afford it, or were too sick to go. 

“We would like things to be changing faster,” adds Pascarel, whose corporate customers include Johnson & Johnson, Colgate, the United Nations Development Fund, and Pepsi. “We would like inclusive businesses to get a bigger share of market.”

Thembani works with Pascarel and Coetzer as a local liaison, helping to take corporate customers and business school students from elite universities in Europe and the United States on “learning journeys.” The tours are designed to help them understand how the seemingly desperate conditions in the townships are also ideal for resourceful entrepreneurs and socially conscious companies to work together to make a difference.  

“Not enough companies are willing to disrupt their way of looking at the market to test for long enough a new approach in a protected slum environment to find out what works and what doesn’t,” said Pascarel. “Many companies would be happy to work with the poorest if they can guarantee the product quality. That’s where the idea of reciprocity comes from, that it’s possible to match both worlds.”

It’s an idea that seems particularly relevant in South Africa now, where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. That’s in part because of problems with corruption among the political and business elite. But it’s also because the government  in many cases has failed to follow through on its postapartheid promises of reform, development, and progress. 

But increasingly, people like Thembani say they can’t just rely on the government to fix their problems, severe as they are.  

“Yes, nothing much has changed,” he told me on our walk. “But we need to create change for ourselves; it all depends on the individual now.”

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