Cape Town Township Poverty

Panoramic view of Khayalitsha township on the Cape Flats with distant view of Table Mountain (c) Kenny OMG Wikimedia
Panoramic view of Khayalitsha township on the Cape Flats with distant view of Table Mountain (c) Kenny OMG Wikimedia

Cape Town is characterised by stark income, resource and spatial divisions. The considerable wealth generated from its strong and relatively varied economy is concentrated in the affluent northern and southern suburbs. In striking contrast  poverty and marginality dominate the sprawling townships on the sandy expanses of the Cape Flats and those bits of marginal land on the Cape Peninsula on which migrants have established informal and formal settlements.


In 2010 there were 226 informal settlements in the Cape Town municipality housing 500,000 people (see Floods and Fires video below).

Although some these townships are huge and consitute towns in and off themselves jobs are still scarce and 'the majority of marginalised livelihoods are still eked out in the informal and survival sectors of the economy'.


People 'survive by clinging to employment at the edges of the formal labour market, subsisting on the meagre pickings that circulate through the informal economy, and still rely heavily on the networks that connect them to the rural economy of the Eastern Cape to help them absorb shocks and deal with uncertainty' (see de Swardt et al. 2005 p. 102).

The ever-present threats of flood and fire in the Cape Town townships

Drawing on a household survey of 624 households in Khayelitsha and Greater Nyanga in 2002 De Swardt et al. 2005 (pp. 102-8) revealed that


  • more than half of all households (52 per cent) reported generating no income at all from wages;
  • two-thirds (64 per cent) of adults were reported to be unemployed;
  • and only 23 per cent of adults were reported to earn a permanent salary, 8 per cent were occasionally employed and 5 per cent self-employed;
  • 52 per cent of men and 72 per cent of women had no paid work;
  • two-thirds (67 per cent) of 18–25-year-olds were neither employed nor in education;
  • access to wage labour made a huge difference to household incomes - R1,463 (£115/€146) compared to R502 (£39/€50 a month) - but wages were low (52% got less than R1000 -£78/€100- a month) and the costs of accessing work in distant Cape Twon were high in terms of proportion of income and time used
  • households were dependent on multiple sources of income and informal economy activities but 82% still fell below the food poverty line of R560 (£44/€56) per adult-equivalent a month and 23% had less than R100 per adult per month.
  • Social grants accounted for 17% of income and 55% of households received one or more grant
  • Education and English and Afrikaans language skills were critical for accessing better-paid work. One third of respondents spoke only Xhosa and had no English and/or Afrikaans.
  • 81% of the survey reported insufficient food and 70% reported hunger
  • more than half of all households (54 per cent) rarely or never consumed meat or eggs, 47 per cent rarely or never ate fruit, and 34 per cent rarely or never had vegetables
  • 70% of women were overweight due to crime-induced sedentary lifestyles and over-use of high-fat/refined carbohydrate food sources
  • 51 per cent of households received water from water taps outside their shelter, 8 per cent had a tap inside their house, and the rest used public taps.
  • Sixty per cent of households had access to a (usually communal) flush toilet, 13 per cent had pit latrines, 11 per cent had bucket toilets, while 10 per cent had no toilets at all. Only 17 per cent of households had a toilet inside the home. Thirty per cent of households reported difficulties in accessing a communal toilet, and 10 per cent had no access to toilets.

Video of Khayelitsha made on Global Glasgow's Youth Projects recent visit to the township with a police escort

The bald measurements and statistics of poverty studies which focus on very formalised measures of resource distribution have been criticised for the way in which they ignore the particular social landscapes in which poverty is embedded and played out.


Du Toit 2005 gives examples of three very different social landscapes in which individuals, families and kinship and other networks work to develop survival strategies. 


The first is the highly racialised patron-client relationships between coloured workers and farmers on deciduous fruit farms.  Developed over three hundred years of first slavery and then capitalist modernisation these have developed,


a underlying ‘moral community’ between black and white that is highly racialised and hierarchical, which ... allows for the formulation of claims for resources and protection dependent on personal histories of loyalty and service and which requires a complex politics of moral suasion, hidden resistance and subtle negotiation beneath a façade of racial deference.


The second social landscape is that or the remote Eastern Cape where networks of kinship and traditional patronage are


embodied by a vast, complex, relational economy involving domestic fluidity and ‘stretched’ households extensive trade in goods, services, favours, labour and sometimes even money, and shaped by more than a century of migrant labour.

And where apparently similar households - at least on a statistically measured basis - can have very different fortunes depending on their links to local elites, their ability to make claims and to exploit sometimes tangential kinship networks and so on.


The third social landscape Du Toit analyses is that of the Cape Flats. Here as in the Eastern Cape kinship is important, 'but it is only one of a wide range of social relations, affiliations, alliances and enmities that structure and are structured by informal exchange. Xhosa cultural forms and practices are still important, but the ethos is much less shaped by traditionalism and is infused with an assertive, street-smart urbanity.


Here nouse and the abillity to work the system to get access to social services, grants and educational opportunities; to juggle precarious incomes and debts; to assess and negotiate risk and violence and engage with white society and the formal economy all become important skills.


Each of these social landscapes predisposes some to be winners and other losers, or to create lesser and greater obstacles to survival and possible betterment. in The Cape Flat townships young women are particularly vulnerable, 'partly because gender roles dictate that they should be dependent on men' whilst a different vulnerable group is comprised of older people who end up being the heads of HIV/AIDS affected households.

Du Toit concludes the above piece by arguing that narratives of poverty that focus on quantitative measurement can be seen as hegemonic mechanisms for ordering and refining minimal distributional strategies aimed at containing dissent and moral outrage. He in effect argues that these management strategies, inherited from a discredited colonial past, can be challenged and disrupted.  Although to what effect neither he (nor I) am sure.

To The Fear