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THE ”bungalows” in Clifton were once houses of corrugated iron and timber similar to those in Hangberg today, says architect Jo Noero, who opened David Lurie’s photographic exhibition, Encounters at the Edge.
“I love the triptych that David has made of the homes in Hangberg, a neighbourhood I know well,” says Noero.
“His photographs tell you eloquently all that you need to know about this settlement, the care and attention to the construction of the home, the consideration of the neighbours in ensuring that one does not obscure views or take away from the neighbour the amenity that you might enjoy. Interestingly, the people of Hangberg refer to their homes as bungalows and not shacks.
“This is done very deliberately, since they both are proud of their homes and do not like the appellation shack to be attached to their house. But this term also underpins a very shrewd understanding of urban housing dynamics since the view is, as I have expressed, people who live in multimillion rand so-called bungalows in Clifton once lived in corrugated iron and timber clad houses not much different from what exists today in Hangberg. And the thinking goes quite correctly that what was good for Clifton, which lead to hugely valuable houses today, could also apply to the houses of Hangberg.”
Lurie’s poignant photographs, says Noero, reflect a community of people living side by side in relative peace without having to resort to laws to regulate what you can build.
“People here build resourcefully – all the materials are recycled and not one single cent of taxes goes to the cost of the houses.
“And look at the quality – is it not better than the awful RDP houses constructed by the state at huge cost to us all?”
He adds that a community can build homes for themselves without any support from the state, the banks or any other formal-sector institutions. Given the right conditions, he says, people left to their own devices can produce quality environments way beyond the capacity of the state.
“This should not be mistaken for supporting the idea that the state has no responsibility in alleviating poverty and unemployment. What is revealed is that when people are free from the tyranny of bureaucracy and regulation they are more than capable of looking after themselves,” says Noero.
“These homes exhibit wonderful variety. Each home is shaped in accordance with the family’s needs, in which no two homes are similar and in which the most extraordinary generosity is extended to neighbours, where boundaries and public space need to be negotiated.
“These families have nothing other than the single most plentiful renewable energy resources in the world – namely human labour, imagination, ingenuity and creativity – to offer. These are the energy forces that make this settlement, not banks or pension funds or bureaucracies. And I might add that these are the life forces that can withstand the most repressive forms of state control.”
Lurie has documented communities living in the so-called informal sector beyond the control of state taxes, licences and bureaucrats.
This group of people comprise more than 70 percent of our urban populations in SA and Noero says this exhibits an extraordinary resilience and creativity in managing to survive under the most difficult circumstances.
The photographer, Lurie, says that in research for the exhibition he discovered that the majority of the world’s population now live in cities.
“Out of a world population of 7 billion, 1 billion people live in slums and more than 1 billion are informal workers, struggling to survive. These figures are staggering if you consider that 95 percent of the future growth of humanity will occur in cities – overwhelmingly in poor cities – and most of it in slums, creating a crisis for this global urban, informal working class, or mass unemployed people – especially, but not only, in the developing world – who have no formal connection to the world economy, and no chance of ever having such a connection.
“Inexorable forces are expelling people from rural areas, most of whom migrate to urban slums on the peripheries of cities.”
Mass movement from countryside to cities is not new, but what is new – aside from the sheer magnitude of this movement – is how it is driven not by industrialisation or even economic growth but by sheer desperation.
Recent studies (for example, The Challenge of Slums by UN-Habitat and Planet of Slums by Mike Davis) have alerted us to the fact that the global urban unemployment crisis is as serious a threat as climate change to our collective future.
They have sounded an authoritative warning about the worldwide catastrophe of urban poverty. The informal proletariat constitutes the fastest-growing social class on earth, the truly “excluded”.
This phenomenon, which has been driven by neo-liberal economic policies and a thoroughgoing retreat of the state, clearly deserves more attention than it is getting from urban planners, sociologists, environmentalists, epidemiologists and demographers.
Lurie says that Cape Town mirrors many of the problems facing other African cities and cities in the developing world.
“These photographs are an attempt to distil my experience of these fragments of life, of unfinished stories on the precipice beyond the edge of Cape Town.
“It is a study in informal survival, in a world of unstable, sprawling squatter camps, informal settlements, garbage hills, and the sand dunes of the Cape Flats, (and more recently, for me, in Hout Bay) where urbanisation has been disconnected from industrialisation and even from economic growth,” says Lurie.
These images are from Lurie’s new book, to be published by Fourth Wall Publishing in 2013.
l Encounters at the Edge can be seen at The Photographers Gallery za, 63 Shortmarket Street, until tomorrow. It tours to the Contemporary Art Fair, Zurich, in October, then the Bekris Gallery, San Francisco in November. Call 021 422 2762.