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2.2 million households fill squatter camps near S. African capital

A squatter camp covers a field in Lawley, some 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg in South Africa, on June 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

LAWLEY, South Africa -- Thousands of shacks made from corrugated sheet metal and waste wood dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. The tiny houses popped up in a squatter camp here about 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, during the past six months, according to Seventeen Lux Ngobeni, 56, a nearby resident. "Last November I could see just dozens of shacks. But it has been mushrooming after that and now you can see thousands."

Thabiso Mbere, 32, moved into the camp in February of this year from the township of Soweto in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, which was designated as a residential area under the racially discriminatory apartheid system administered by white people.

Mbere paid 700 rands (about 52 U.S. dollars or 6,000 yen) as a "registration fee" to the leader of the squatter camp, and there is no need to pay rent. Now some 2.2 million households -- 14 percent of the national total -- had resided in those squatter camps in 2017, more than three times the 630,000 households recorded in 1996 shortly after apartheid ended, according to government statistics.

The ballooning number of shacks symbolizes persistent poverty among black people who make up some 80 percent of the total population of South Africa. The disparity remains almost a quarter of a century after apartheid was abolished. The top 1 percent holds almost 70 percent of wealth in this country where the jobless rate stands at 26 percent.

Historically, people have moved from agricultural communities in the countryside to major cities in search of jobs and better opportunities. In the 1990s, shortly after the end of apartheid and the introduction of democracy, poor black people moved into huge farms vacated by fleeing white owners. The black residents spread the news that the plots they moved in were good for living, attracting more newcomers and forming camps of illegal residents at many locations.

In the past, those camps were concentrated in and around townships in urban areas. But recently, people are pouring out of those townships and their surrounding areas, going far into the fields to find a place to settle down, like those in the Lawley squatter camp.

Many of the residents there came from townships around Johannesburg, like Mbere. Vangile Mahlobo, 85, is one of them. He applied for a government-built house for low-income families that the post-apartheid administrations promised to offer. But there are no signs that the promise will become a reality. "Am I tired (of waiting)? Tired is not enough. I am totally fed up with this," Mahlobo said. With a limited supply of such housing units, 10 years of waiting before getting one is customary. And rumor has it that those getting the government-run houses earlier bribed the officials in charge.

Says Mbere, "What's wrong with living in an empty space? Our government is not doing what they should do, so we just exercise our right." Many people in South Africa share his emotion.

The late Nelson Mandela, who led the fight for decades against the apartheid system and eventually emerged victorious, said in his inaugural speech as the first black president of South Africa on May 10, 1994, in the administrative capital Pretoria: "We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination."

And Mandela, who would have turned 100 on July 18 of this year, succeeded in promoting reconciliation among the races in the early years of democratization. But the succeeding administration allowed poverty, disparity and corruption to fester. It is hard to see if the torch Mandela hoisted high has been passed on to prosper.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on the current situation of South Africa after the death of its first black president Nelson Mandela in 2013. This year marks 100 years since the birth of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

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