On the left, houses -- each surrounded with scaffolding -- are ready for thousands of volunteers. Each metal shipping container (seen on the right) holds enough building materials for five houses.
Photo by Kim MacDonald

Symbolic Site Helps Build
Reconciliation in Durban

By Pat Curry

Cato Manor – the old name for the site of the Jimmy Carter Work Project -- was once a place where people of all backgrounds lived side by side on the banks of the Umkhumbane River in Durban. Restricted by law from owning land or building homes in an urban area, black Africans built thousands of shacks near Indian market farmers who bought or leased plots from the white landowners.


In the background is a Habitat for Humanity "test build" house which shows the type of houses being built this week at the Jimmy Carter Work Project. The dwelling in the foreground is an example of the type of houses that were located on this property until it was forcibly cleared in the 1960's. This shack is on loan from the Kwa Muhle Museum.
Photo by Kim MacDonald

Although the shack settlements were illegal, the government ignored the situation. Indian businessmen opened shops, bus services and Hindu temples. In 1949, most of the Indian residents left the area after homes and shops were torched during anti-Indian violence. Eight years later, the government developed a new housing plan for Africans and attempted to move black Africans out of Cato Manor. The effort was met with resistance; in ensuing riots, nine police officers were killed by a mob. Nonetheless, the area was quickly cleared and the residents forcibly removed. Since 1968, it has sat largely undeveloped, a kind of no-man’s land to provide a buffer between the races.

“The first trench of removal was here,” says His Worship Obed Mlaba, Lord Mayor of Durban. “When it was cleared, it was not because people needed land. They wanted to push people away.”

The situation was typical of South African land-use planning under apartheid, says Larry English, a Durban resident who served as technical director for site development for the Jimmy Carter Work Project.

“They maintained that every race should have access to the economic center of the city, but no race should pass through another race’s area to get there,” English said, “so the city was designed in wedges, separated by large infrastructures, such as roads, railroads, high-voltage electric wires, or barring that, space. As a result, you have these huge swaths of land between the races.”

When Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project planners began looking for land, they wanted a site that would be in the middle of the city, near existing social amenities and public transportation that would allow residents easy access to jobs. They also wanted a location that would increase in value. Their first choice was the old Cato Manor site, now known as Sherwood, which is convenient to jobs, close to the highway and adjacent to an affluent, largely Muslim neighborhood.

“We’re dealing with the ravages of apartheid,” English says. “It may be gone, but you still live where apartheid put you. You still go to school where apartheid put you. I refuse to plan [Habitat] communities in a place where people have to spend two hours to get to work and have to spend in excess of their house payment in transportation costs.”

Mlaba agrees that the site location was critical. “This site was the best choice,” he says. “It’s not about houses. It’s about building homes.”

Key to the success of the project, English says, has been the process of winning over suspicious neighbors, who had been told Habitat for Humanity was bringing in squatters. After the land was purchased, hundreds of “For Sale” signs went up in the neighborhood.

Within the Habitat homeowner community, he says, the prospective homeowners decided to prove the neighbors wrong. On weekend work days, they entered the site quietly and orderly. When they left, the site was spotless. A local real estate agent was asked to teach the new homeowners how to increase the value of their property -- and by extension, their neighbors’ property.

The process worked. The homeowners have been invited to serve in the neighborhood watch program. A neighbor who had been actively opposed to the project came out to the work site with food for everyone.

When the project ends and the homeowners move in, it will be the beginning of transforming a symbol of divisiveness – the vacant swath of land -- into a symbol of reconciliation and renewal. Even the name of the neighborhood will be changed from Sherwood, to Ethembeni, a Zulu word meaning “a place of hope.”

English says the project has already done far more than simply build roads, streets and houses. It has pioneered a whole new social process of “values reformation” to give the poor the skills to survive and thrive in the city.

“When you bring the poor to the city, you create a support network,” he says. “These children will grow up linked into the community. You’re creating democracy. We should be creating the next generation of leaders.”

—Pat Curry is a writer based in the U.S.



 




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