Tag Archives: Urban Poverty

Changing Views of Point

(The Point – 2009)

The sun has just breached the horizon. I watch a homeless man walk along the beach. It is deserted. He walks up the stairs from the beach to the promenade. Looking around to make sure he is alone he makes his way to the freshwater open public showers in front of the multimillion Rand uShaka Marine World complex. Covered to the waist by its wooden wall and without removing any items of clothing he begins to wash himself. Arched back, and with his leg propped up against the wall his washing routine appears well practiced; and well timed to escape judgmental eyes. I am 30 meters off-shore, behind the backline where the waves form. The ocean here is still and tranquil and I am struggling to balance in a sitting position on a surfboard. I am new to this sport and if it wasn’t for the shared need to avoid judgmental eyes I would never have witnessed this routine.

The rich colours of dawn wash over the new developments on the shore and skyline in front of me; throwing them into relief like the unfolding pages of a pop-up book. I am struck by the radical transformation that is taking place. The story of Durban’s Point area reads like and introductory sociological text on the changing nature of spatial organization and activity within an urban space.

With the advent of containerization, the decline of the stevedores and the reorganization of the harbour the Point area’s warehousing, hostel and other traditionally port related spaces fell into disuse. Urbanising poor, and those who could not afford to stay in more central areas of the city moved in. Some landlords took advantage of the demand and their tenants’ insecurity, pulling back on maintenance and other overheads which lead to a slow physical decay of the environment. Ted Leggett deals with this process, its relation to vice crime and the phenomenon of “Sleazy Hotel Syndrome” superbly and in more detail in his book “Rainbow Vice”.

These Sleazy Hotels and the associated vice crimes became increasingly synonymous with the Point area in the recent past. When I have taught urban sociology modules at UKZN and have been discussing the seemingly “natural” segregation and “specialization” of different urban spaces and the activities they house, invariably we turn to the shadier side of cities. When asked what parts of the city might demonstrate decay and nest vice crimes the class always and unanimously replied “the Point”. Point Road came to be not only associated with these activities in Durban, but also a synonym for them. The renaming of the road to Mahatma Ghandi, caused an understandable stir. However, Point Road by any other name was still in The Point.

Many Durbanites frequented the beachfront and Point waterfront but few suburban leisure seekers ventured into the shadows of the streets just behind or beyond these areas. The beachfront of the Point area around Vetch’s Pier and Point Road itself were traveled by ocean sport enthusiasts en route to the Ski-boat and Yacht Clubs; and those commuting to the few remaining commercial entertainment establishments on the new waterfront (before it was demolished to accommodate the widening of the harbor mouth). The roads in between, however, were seen by most of the ‘polite’ leisure seeking public as virtual no go zones.

For many suburbanites, making the trip to these facilities, one got the sense of the final kilometer or two of the drive to the old waterfront being a “running of the gauntlet”. Lock the car doors, and if you absolutely cannot jump the red robot (South African for “Traffic Light”) make sure you leave enough space between yourself and the stationary car in front of you so that you can maneuver at speed in case of a hijack attempt. It always appealed to my sense of humour that for some of the sheltered suburbanites that made this trip it would’ve been their equivalent of the tremendously traumatic scene from “Blackhawk Down” when the marines had to brave their Humvees through the hostile streets of Mogadishu to reach the safe zone.

If you’ve seen the movie you’ll understand. In the case of a trip to an evening cabaret at the old Dockside Theatre one would just need to replace the camo-fatigues with a more appropriate ensemble’ from a suburban boutique; and replace the urgency of the injured marine bleeding out on the backseat with a platter of catered snacks, the delicate pastry of which has only a few minutes left before it transforms from light and fluffy baked manna into condensation damaged stodge. The parallels were frightening.

But gentrification and regeneration were around the corner. The change was engineered and nurtured from the outside and this change would not only include the physical environment but would incorporate the intangibles of attitude towards and perceived desirability of the Point.

The changing attitudes towards this area are encapsulated in the following two extracts written two years apart.

“[Vetch’s Pier] occupies a unique place beneath the city’s daytime sun and dangerous nights. While nearby Addington smells of despair and bedragglement and other beachfront stretches smell of ice cream and truancy, commerce and petrol, Vetchs smells of dagga and diesel, fishing bait and refuge. It is a public beach in all senses of the word – casual, a place for families and fisherman and those learning to surf on their own terms. But all this is set to change as developments at the point start stretching the skyline and the spades of upgrade dig deeper…” (Walne, Sunday Tribune 2006).

“[Now] when you visit the area it is hard to believe that Point was once a grimy, rundown, no-go area for all but the most foolhardy visitor or local. There’s absolutely no doubt that the waterfront is going to become one of eThekwini’s most prestigious addresses, a multi-billion rand property showcase and a key tourist attraction.” (Metrobeat December 2008)

The “grime” referred to above implicitly refers to the social environment as well.

“It is simply impossible to account here for the number of occasions when this wording (clean up) is used, all across the social spectrum, in official, political, press, public and private discourses, which assimilates, explicitly or implicitly, homeless people, hawkers and other informal or ‘illegal’ users of the city, with litter, rubbish or filth”. (Bouillon 2002:114)

Besides for “sleezy hotels”, the Point was home to the Ark, a religious based shelter for some 900 homeless and destitute people. While the Ark, its history, and the associated scandals are an article in themselves it posed an obstacle to the regeneration project and the cleaning up process. How do you relocate 900 homeless individuals? Search the newspaper archives around this event and you’ll find plenty of titles and quotes which pick up on the themes quoted below.

Durban Dumps its destitute in Cape Town – Homeless bused into City

(Saturday Weekend Argus; 21st August 2004)

“…starve them out: we need to take a conscious and united stand not to feed the beggars and vagrants [maybe this will drive them out]”

(Berea Mail; 23rd February 2001)

Eventually the grime was washed away. Gentrification seldom serves the needs of existing residents.

It was time for me to explore the old bad lands. Many years ago I wrote my masters thesis on homelessness and poverty in Durban, the Point was a definite focus for my field trips. Today, however, you’re more likely to find an architectural or modern design student doing fieldwork in this area.

I stand on a balcony off the uShaka shopping concourse and over look a canalled suburb. Gondolas are moored beneath me. This is what the Point has become.

I could be in a very up-market area of a European waterfront city on a summer’s day. But the scene is surreal on two levels. Firstly because several years ago I would not be wondering about this area feeling as secure as I do now, this was an area synonymous with dereliction, decay and danger. But secondly, because this development is so new occupancy rates at the moment are extremely low. There are no other people, no cars drive past, the houses and apartments are pristine but empty. I feel like a character in a movie set in a post-apocalyptic world. I am Will Smith in “I am Legend” (… just stay away from the shadows). It feels unnatural and a little eerie but the space has a freedom to it with the absence of humanity.

I walk further into the area and see the canal snaking lazily around a block of flats like a moat. Am I really still in Durban? I come to a crossroads; there are some cars now, and a patrolling police car. Now they are gone again (it is still dreamlike, feeling so secure in this area); there are people drinking coffee at a pavement coffee shop at the bottom of a block of flats. Part of the floor above is a swimming pool and windows break through the façade in neat circles revealing orbs of glowing blue water lit by the sun above. I think this may be Browns Road, if  it is and I follow it towards Point Road (Mohatma Ghandi Road now) I should pass the place of the old Ark… I follow it.  

All the manhole covers are new and branded with the new point logo, it is almost like a theme park. The street signs are new too – white instead of the old yellow. Across the road from the coffee shop; in a block of land which is yet to be “regenerated”; lying broken and bent flat across grass covered rubble; on what looks like an old concrete outdoor basket-ball court is an old yellow street sign. It reads Brown’s Road. It’s a poignant picture and the symbolism operates on many levels. Looking at the corner beyond the coffee shop the gutted face-brick building can now be confirmed as the remains of the Ark.

Old "Brown's Road" street sign

Several years ago the pavement diagonally opposite the coffee shop would have hosted the throng of destitute and homeless. Those who daily awaited admittance to the Ark, or those who had been expelled from the Ark but loitered nearby regardless. I peer through the construction curtain then walk inside. The central buildings have been torn down, there is no roof, and only the shells of the perimeter buildings remain. There is a painted “Gents” above the one door. A notice is painted on the wall which lists shower times. Just beyond is a “Clinic” sign, the tiled floor and the collapsing neon light on the ceiling of this room bear testimony to a mixed past of despair and hope.

Echoes of the Past

The thing about newspaper is that it only comes in single ply

There are workmen here; it seems they are fitting new ceiling beams what remains of the structure – I wonder what will become of this place where the poorest and most destitute used to find some kind of shelter. Up-market loft apartments?

The process of regeneration caught in freeze frame

I can’t help but get a sense of that being somehow perverse. Before I leave I look back along the length of the rubble and open space that would’ve once been the courtyards of this institution. Dominating the skyline on the far side is a new tower block it is well designed and creates the sense of a bellowing sail. It is impressive, but looking up at it from the ruins of the Ark it seems almost menacing. It summons an image from a Walter Crane painting to my mind; of the sneering Sir Bors glaring down at the prone King Arthur.

Winds of Change

I walk back towards the uShaka parking lot against the eastern perimeter of the old Ark, in many ways a symbol of the old Point. To my right are the immaculate Point Dock apartments with canal frontage. To my left are the remaining face brick walls and the empty 2nd storey windows of the Ark complex. I try to imagine indigent faces staring down out the windows at the future residents of the Point Dock apartments. I try to imagine these faces watching the new residents braaing or entertaining guests in their canal front gardens. I can’t. Clearly neither could the architects of the Point regeneration.

The Wrong Kind of Poor

How did Durban’s homeless street people come to be in poverty and why does no one seem to respond to their presence or need appropriately? 

Durban Dumps its destitute in Cape Town – Homeless bussed into City

(Saturday Weekend Argus; 21st August 2004)

“…starve them out: we need to take a conscious and united stand not to feed the beggars and vagrants [maybe this will drive them out]”

(Berea Mail; 23rd February 2001)


The recent developments in central Durban stemming from ‘white flight’, inner-city decay, gentrification, vice crimes and immigrant enclaves have all been key topics in public debates over the post-apartheid transformation of the city. However, in spite of this the condition of homeless street people and the associated social ills have had little focus directed at them (Waters 2007:197). One exception to this was the relocation of a homeless shelter called The Ark from the Point Waterfront development. Public discussion on the relocation of the Ark revealed national and city level policy uncertainty in relation to this group; a population maligned by other poor and middle to upper-class sectors of the society; and a population whose spokespersons depicted the city’s attempts at regeneration as being directly harmful to their livelihood and survival strategies.

These are the adult beggars, loiterers, sitters, wanderers and foragers (Waters 2007:198) of the urban landscape. Narayan (2000:74) suggests that poverty of the street homeless is more anonymous than other forms of poverty and that in the light of the range of poverty types that the post-apartheid government and national policy is trying to address this specific form of poverty is often overlooked. The homeless street people have traveled many different paths to arrive on the streets and the heterogeneity of the population makes them an awkward category of poor in the context of post-apartheid poverty intervention. They are a not a neatly packaged previously disadvantaged group, some of them were previously advantaged (in terms of law and policy at least). Some are migrants from previously disadvantaged areas, but now they live in urban, developed, previously and still advantaged areas. In a poverty policy framework which can be seen to be concerned with “the greatest good for the greatest number” this niche population in the shadows of our developed centers may well be overlooked. Despite all this and in the face of seemingly horrific odds they survive through “hustling”, begging and a range of informal economic pursuits.

Research into homelessness is beginning to demonstrate, that like poverty in other forms, homelessness is the result of the “convergence of many factors” (Shlay and Rossi 1992:130). In previous studies (Waters 2007; Roberts 2003) it was evident that many of these individuals were managing to get by, as far as food, money and to a degree informal accommodation were concerned, but what remains unanswered is: what is holding them back from getting ahead

At the advent of democracy in 1994 there were extremely high levels of poverty and human insecurity (Carter and May; 2001). This included severe structural problems surrounding the provision of, and access to housing (Goodlad; 1996). These were accompanied by social problems which had their roots in both tangible and intangible aspects of poverty which grew out of the oppressive apartheid policies against the non-white population (Ramphele 1994, Goodlad 1996, May 2000, Carter and May 2001, Wilson and Woolard 2002)  Over and above these “obvious” detrimental outcomes of apartheid was the presence of pockets of vulnerable and previously sheltered whites who were not prepared and unable to compete economically in a free and democratic society (Robinson 2004, Teppo 2004).

The results of the 1997 Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA) revealed that the poor defined and understood their poverty as including: social alienation, food insecurity, crowded living conditions, use of basic forms of energy, a lack of adequate and secure employment and fragmentation of the family (May 1998, in Woolard 2002). Further, Carter and May (1999, 2001) demonstrated that 60% of poor South African households were caught in a structural post-apartheid poverty trap, and despite the intentions of the RDP and the subsequent GEAR programmes the poor were restrained in their ability to use those few remunerative assets they possessed. This state of affairs was further compounded by the fact that the Social Assistance Act only catered for specific categories of people; 60% of all the poor (11 million people) were not covered or eligible at all for any of the available social grants (Taylor; 2002:31).

Although at the end of apartheid the largest share of poverty was to be found in rural areas, the end of apartheid era influx controls lead to increasing urbanization and an increasing of poor within urban areas (Rogerson; 1999:512, Bhorat and Kanbur; 2005 in Triegaardt). The inability of authorities to respond to the urbanized poor lead to the homeless having to live in appalling conditions (Mohamed; 1997:2). In the City of Durban, existence of “Pavement People” was hardly recognized until the city council warned of a possible typhoid outbreak in 1989. Almost immediately this invisible population received attention, but as a “serious health hazard” (Mohamed; 1997:2). Driven by fear of the outbreak of contagious disease the business sector and residents began to construct this population as public enemy (Mohamed; 1972:2). Just over a decade later when the residents of Albert Park were opposing the relocation of the Ark (A homeless shelter with upwards of 900 residents) to their area this tension and “otherness” was reasserted with the residents being constructed on one side, as “law-abiding citizens” and the homeless street people being constructed in opposition to this; as belonging to “the ‘other world’ of poverty, informality and illegality which strives on the margins of society” (Bouillon 2002:107).

“It is simply impossible to account here for the number of occasions when this wording (clean up) is used, all across the social spectrum, in official, political, press, public and private discourses, which assimilates, explicitly or implicitly, homeless people, hawkers and other informal or ‘illegal’ users of the city, with litter, rubbish or filth”

(Bouillon 2002:114)

The urban homeless are an ever visible but statistically elusive population (Parnell and Mosdell; 2003:1). The statistical elusiveness and anonymity of the urban homeless population makes them an awkward category of poor. The many paths that have brought the urban homeless to their current situation are diverse and the ‘in-group’ heterogeneity of this population (Waters; 2007, Roberts; 2003) further compounds their awkwardness and the apparent difficulty the city and wider society has in coming to terms with their presence and needs. In 1997 the Organisation of Civic Rights (OCR) concluded the following;

“From intensive meetings over the past eight months with various relevant departments of the Councils and key figures, it was evident that there are no plans, no vision and no reaction and interaction between the policy-makers, department heads and the homeless community”.

(Mohamed; 1997:3)

The storm around the closing of the Ark shelter and relocation of its 900 residents in 2004 exposed just how ill-equipped/prepared the municipal structures and society are in dealing with homeless street population. (Bouillon (3 cities project), Bamford 2004, Bisetty 2004, Hlongwa 2004, Sookha 2004). 

In 2002 there were 25 known night shelters which catered for the homeless street people in Durban. Besides for the Ark which housed 900 inmates most of these could sleep up to 100 residents. Capacity varies according to time of the year; people are more prepared to sleep outside in summer than in winter, and holiday times also see increased occupancy. The majority of these shelters are illegal and established in premises not intended for residential use (Roberts 2003:26, 2007, Waters 2007). Eight years on it is almost certain that many of these have closed down, and new establishments have opened to cater to the demand left in their wake. Despite this and more importantly, however, the car guards, hustlers, beggars and informal entrepreneurs remain.

[Those that] go out every day to hunt for jobs and gather the uncertain elements for survival. The city is their jungle; it is just as alien and as challenging. But there livelihood is based on leftovers: leftover jobs, leftover trades, leftover living space, homes built of leftovers.

(Lomnitz, in Gilbert and Gugler; 1996:93)

This “jungle” is indeed alien to those of us living in the mainstream society with our formal employment and formal obligations; but there is evidence to show that a “streetwise subculture” does exist (Waters; 2007) amongst the population of homeless street people. This “streetwisdom” is a stock of knowledge that allows members of this subculture to maintain themselves indefinitely (albeit in poverty) in Durban with the absence of any formal employment or residential stability (Waters; 2007:210). Once again the disjunction between this group and powers that be becomes obvious in the face of the effects urban renewal has on this groups precarious survival strategies (Waters; 2007:212, 2008 unpublished). This sentiment was captured emotively by the former head of the Ark,

“The eThekwenei Municipality had scant regard for the city’s ‘tramps and outies’… The municipality’s ambitious iTrump initiative, established to clean up and regenerate Durban, was another sad factor in the lives of the destitute… They should rather call it iTramp”.

(in Bisetty 2004)

Much of the antagonism against the homeless street people, and lack of focused recognition of this social problem, is born out of the belief that the “vagrants” and “beggars” are qualitatively lacking, insufficient or plain lazy; and that the root cause to their perceived lowly position in society can be found in their own unwillingness to improve their lives. For many it has been and is still “considered a person’s own weakness if he could not ‘lift himself up by his own shoe-laces’” (Teppo; 2004:53). This appraisal and approach to the problem ignores the existence of conditions, structures and agents which may make it very difficult or even impossible for an impoverished person to ‘lift himself up by his own shoe-laces’. An appreciation of the more intangible mechanisms of poverty is required.

Those who view the poor as being responsible for their own circumstances would happily content themselves in the knowledge that the poor need simply employ their human capital more productively to slowly acquire more economic capital which in time will allow them raise their standard of living and pave their own path out of poverty. This is an overly simplistic model which takes no account of other forms of capital; namely social capital and symbolic capital.

Social capital underpins the fact that social networks have value. Social networks give rise to norms of reciprocity and trust (Putnam; 2000:19); and it is this trust and reciprocity which stimulates the flow of capital between individuals in the network. Some networks are exclusive with focus on “in-group” capital flows; these networks are rich in bonding social capital. Bonding social capital, apart from reinforcing exclusive identities and homogenous groups, helps members of these closed groups get by in terms of assistance in times of distress and need. Bridging social capital on the other hand is characterised as being outward looking and can link individuals across “diverse social cleavages” (Putnam; 2000:22). An important distinction between the two is that bridging social capital is what helps individuals get ahead.

To explain this better Putnam (2000:22) draws on economic sociologist, Mark Granovetter’s observation that;

 “weak ties that link [an individual] to distant acquaintances who move in different circles from [theirs] are actually more valuable than strong ties that link [that individual] to relatives and friends whose sociological niche is very like [their] own.”

For the purposes of this study this is enlightening in that it reveals that even though many homeless people may dwell among friends and have many social contacts the social milieu in which they live affords very little opportunity to forge bridging links to resource-rich networks (La Gory et al; 191:213).

In order to bolster the above concept and secure it within the phalanx of concepts which serve to inform us how phenomena beyond the individuals control can perpetuate poverty one needs to understand what prevents the poor from making contacts outside their specific social milieu, and from coming into contact with “distant acquaintances who move in different circles”. The concepts below conceptualise social distance as well as the mechanisms which frustrate or retard attempts to overcome that distance.

The relational perspective is a good starting point for contextualising social distance in the city. This perspective is based on the ability to appreciate the city as a space which is made up of diverse webs of social, cultural and economic relations (Allen et al; 1999:14), furthermore although the city presents a high concentration of diverse relational webs, superimposed and juxtaposed in a given physical space it is a given that not all of these relational webs are connected, and so, although the city presents a physical proximity for the various actors it can equally present “distance” and complete disconnection between the relational webs of the actors (Allen et al; 1999:15) (Simmel in Wirth; 1938:14). Although the urban street homeless may find themselves surrounded by formal and informal income earning activities social distance negates the opportunities provided by physical proximity.

For Walter (1973:239) the experience of poverty is not only generated by the absence of wealth, but by the presence of illth. Illth includes all those sociocultural processes which exclude and dissociate the poor from the rest of society. The vulnerability which stems from Illth can be seen to be linked to Goffman’s ideas of ‘mortification’ as well as shifts in what Goffman would call the individual’s ‘moral career’ (Goffman; 1991:24). The individual’s ‘moral career’, is composed of the evolving changes that befall the individual’s beliefs regarding himself and others; the changes brought about by change in one’s objective and subjective social position over time; for instance the moving into and out of different degrees of impoverishment. Goffman (1991) discusses mortification in the context of the changing moral careers of inmates on their entrance to total institutions. The mechanisms of contaminative exposure and the curtailment of self presentation which these inmates experience can be readily applied to those who find themselves in poverty; and as such is a useful concept for this study. Mortification refers to the “series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self” (Goffman; 1991:25) suffered by the individual. These include; role dispossession (Goffman; 1991:24); personal defacement (Goffman; 1991:29), the adoption of poses, stances and movements which are deemed as demeaning by the particular society (Goffman; 1991:29), and disculturation (Goffman; 1991:23, see also Miller; 1997:578). All of these can act as mechanism which create and maintain the symbolic barriers which separate an individual from the wider society and certain social networks.

The above concepts are useful when arguing against those who place the blame for persistent poverty squarely on the shoulders of the poor because they expose and give form to subtle social mechanisms that can serve as obstacles to lifting oneself out of poverty. Most of the above concepts and theories are enriched when looking at Bourdieu’s generative structuralism (Harker et al 1990). Here Bourdieu marshals concepts not entirely different from the relational perspective, moral career and mortification within a context of how they all relate to different forms of capital and practice.

Bourdieu’s notion of social space conceives social reality as a space. This space will contain multiple relational webs, or for Bourdieu, multiple fields, which will or won’t have some relationship with each other, and points of contact. It is important to mention here that capital is the essence of the field, for without a specific capital a field has no meaning (Harker et al; 1990:13). The social space of an individual is linked to multiple fields over time. This dynamic sense of moving through different fields is what Bourdieu terms life trajectory (Harker et al; 1990:9). The dynamism captured through the concept of life trajectory makes it a good companion concept for Goffman’s concept of moral career.

Bourdieu’s concept of field might be a more fruitful one than relational web, because the concept of field allows us to identify specific kinds of relation, defined by the specific form of capital (economic, social, cultural or symbolic) which gives the field meaning.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus can lead to a deeper understanding of the processes of mortification. Habitus must be understood as an individual’s repertoire of dispositions; and these dispositions have been created and are constantly reformulated through interaction with objective structures as well as their personal history (Harker et al; 1990:10). Dispositions can be created or reformulated through an individual’s subjective adjustment to their social position within a given field (Harker et al; 1990:10). Habitus becomes the basis for friendship, love and other personal relationships, but also the basis for constructing theoretical classes into groups (Harker et al; 1990:10).

Habitus is also closely linked to ‘capital’ in that the habitus of the dominant social and cultural cliques (for example) can act as multipliers of other kinds of capital, and “in fact constitute a form of symbolic capital in and of themselves” (Harker et al; 1990:12), through such forms as language, dress code and posture (Harker et al; 1990:5). If one’s habitus can influence symbolic capital it is clear to see how mortification brought on through poverty can decrease one’s stock of symbolic capital and removes one’s legitimacy and power to represent themselves in the social world.

Importantly habitus acts on a subliminal level;

“The schemes of the habitus… function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of the introspective scrutiny or control by the will. Orienting practices practically, in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body – ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking – and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour… or the division of the work of domination.”

(Bourdieu 1984:466 in Harker et al; 1990:11).

To put the above excerpt into different words;

“Poor people must meet their poverty face to face twenty four hours a day, every day, all the year around. The way they dress, the way they walk, the way they prepare their food, the way they fill their children with hope or hopelessness – all reflect the iron laws of poverty.”

(Oyen et al, 1996:16).

These “iron laws” create the social and symbolic obstacles that hinder the homeless street people in their efforts to “lift themselves up by their own shoe laces”. Their “otherness” (in relation to mainstream ‘polite’ society) coupled with mainstream society’s fear of contaminative exposure does little to aid this population in securing access to bridging social capital. How many of your friends heard about an opportunity through someone they know? Or to illustrate differently; how valuable has your membership in diverse social networks been to you?

Beyond the antagonism directed towards the homeless street people by the rest of society the apparent neglect of this population by the government needs to be better examined and understood. Our democratic government touts equality and opportunities for all along with the eradication poverty, but it becomes clear that there are different kinds of poor. Within the context of post-apartheid poverty eradication programmes, perhaps the homeless street people are simply the wrong kind of poor to benefit from the government’s programmes and attention.

The idea of deserving poor draws distinction between those who are poor through no fault of their own and despite their best efforts, and those “immoral fellow sufferers who really merited poverty” (Halper; 1973:71). Historically discussions of the deserving poor revolved around the sick, abandoned, the widowed and the elderly (Schen; 2000:450) while the undeserving poor referred to all those able bodied “vagrants” who made illegitimate claims on different communities’ charity. Yet it becomes apparent that this distinction is not that clear cut, and is very much coloured by dominant ideologies at a given time in a given society (Schen; 2000). In a system that is redressing ills against previously disadvantaged people and places do the urban poor slip through the cracks? The following excerpt is taken from a documentary on poor whites and it is revealing in the context of this discussion of urban poverty. The quote is from former Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad.

ESSOP PAHAD: … and you’re sitting here and worried about whites. I mean no, man sorry. Sorry. Our real fundamental concerns must be the millions of our people who are living under conditions of poverty and under development and they are Africans… living in rural areas, living in the townships. You’re sitting here and all your questions is (sic) about the whites. Sorry… I don’t find it acceptable.

(Foreign Correspondent, 2006)

Baring in mind this Australian produced documentary was entitled “Poor Whites”; and never pretended to be addressing South African poverty generally the fact that Minister Pahad later accuses the interviewer of asking politically incorrect questions startlingly betrays the existence of notions surrounding deserving and undeserving poor. Less explicitly telling from the above excerpt is the focus on rural and under-developed locations. What about the poor urban homeless, of all creeds, colours and ages, living in the shadows of our developed urban areas?

The sense this excerpt leaves one with is that the government’s focus is on “the greatest good for the greatest number”.  If this is the case there will be some who will be overlooked and neglected through this approach. But this leaves a space that calls for the serious engagement of civil society and the non-state development sector. In a country with an ever increasing rate of urbanisation this is not a social phenomenon that can be relegated to the shadows and sidelines indeterminably. Without distracting from the very real plight of the ‘greatest number’ it needs to be recognised that poverty has many faces; and that need is not proportional to distance from centres of affluence. Without this recognition the wrong kind of poor will slip through the cracks.

 (With special thanks to Dr Richard Ballard, School of Development Studies UKZN, for his mentoring and support through the multiple drafts of a research proposal from which this think-piece has been drawn.)

Bibliography (* denotes access through JStor)


Allen, J., Massey, D. and Pryke, M. (eds) (1999) Unsettling Cities. London, Routledge.

Bamford, H. (2004) Durban dumps its destitute in Cape Town Saturday Weekend Argus


Bisetty, V. (2004 ) We’re not Cattle. Inependent on Saturday

Bouillon, A. (2002) The Place of the Poor in the Central City. In Bouillon, A., Freund, B., Hindson, D. and Lootvoet, B. (Ed.) Governance, Urban Dynamics and Economic Development: a Comparative Analysis of the Metropolitan Areas of Durban, Abidjan and Marseilles. Durban, Plumblime Publishing.


Bourdieu, P.(ed) (1999)  The Weight of the World – Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge, Polity Press (selected chapters)

Charmaz, K. and Mitchell, R. (2001) Grounded Theory in Ethnography. IN ATKINSON, P. C., A. DELAMONT, S., LOFLAND, J. AND LOFLAND, L. (Ed.) Handbook of Ethnography. London, Sage Publications.

Chesney, K. (1974) The Victorian Underworld. Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd.

Connelley, S. (2008) Paul’s Christmas Wish comes true.  Northglen News, January 18, p.2

De Castro, A. 2003) Introduction to Giorgi’s Existential Phenomenological Research Method. Psicologa desde el Caribe, (11), 45-56.

Everatt, D. (2005) The politics of poverty. Bangladeshi e-Journal of Sociology, 2(1).


Goffman, E. (1991) Asylum. London, Penguin Books.

Halper, T. (1973) The Poor as Pawns: The New “Deserving Poor” & the Old. Polity, 6(1), 71-86.*

Harker, R., Mahar, C. and Wilkes, C. (eds) (1990) An Introduction to the Work of Pierre BourdieuThe Practice of Theory. London, The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Hlongwa, W. (2004) Soon these people may be forced to vacate their only shelter. City Press


Lafuente, C. and Lane, P. (1995) The Lived Experience of Homeless Men. Journal of Community Health Nursing, 1(4), 211-219. *

La Gory, M., Ritchey, F. and Fitzpatrick, K. (1991) Homelessness and Affiliation. The Sociology Quarterly, 32(2), 201-218.*

Lewis, O. (1959) Five Families – Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York, Basic Books Inc.

Luther, M. (ed) (1528) The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars. Translated with introduction by John Camden Hotten (1860), London.

(Made available by the University of California)

url: http://ia351420.us.archive.org/1/items/bookofvagabondsb00luthiala/bookofvagabondsb00luthiala.pdf)

May, J.(ed) (2000) Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Meeting the Challenge. Cape Town, David Philip Publishers.

Miller, S.M. 1997. The Great Chain of Poverty Explanations. In: In: Else Oyen, Miller S. and Abdus Samad, A. (eds). Poverty: A Global Review. Handbook on International Poverty Research. Oslo, Scandanavian University Press.

Mohamed, S. (1997) Durban’s Homeless Community Survey. Organisation of Civic Right’s (OCR’s) inner city project. ISBN No. 0-9583886-5-2.

Moser, C., Gatehouse, M. and Garcia, H. (1996) Urban Poverty Research Sourcebook: Module II: Indicators of urban Poverty. Urban Management Programme. UNDP/UNHCS (Habitat)/World Bank

Narayan, D.(ed) (2000) Voices of The Poor – Can Anyone Hear Us?. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Neuman, L. (2000) Social Research Methods. Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Boston, Allyn and Bacon.

Oyen, E. 1996. Poverty Research Rethought. In: Else Oyen, Miller S. and Abdus Samad, A. (eds). Poverty: A Global Review. Handbook on International Poverty Research. Oslo, Scandanavian University Press.

Packer, G. (2006) A Reporter at Large – The Mega City. The New Yorker, November 13 2006, 62 – 75.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone. New York, Simon and Schuster.


Rankin, B., Quane, J. (2000) Neighborhood Poverty and the Social Isolation of Inner-City African American Families. Social Forces, 79(1), 139-164.*

Roberts, T. (2003) Poverty Amongst the Destitute and Homeless Population of Central Durban. School of Development Studies. Durban, University of Natal. (Masters Thesis)

Schen, C. (2000) Constructing the Poor in Early Seventeenth-Century London.  Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 32(3), 450-463.*

Shaly, A. and Rossi, P. (1992) Social Science Research and Contemporary Studies of Homelessness. Annual Review of Sociology, 18, 129-160.*

Snow, D. and Anderson, A. (1993) Down on Their Luck. California, University of California Press.

Sookha, B. (2004) Anger over Ark Move-in. Daily News


Sudman, S., Sirken, M., Cowan, C. (1988) Sampling Rare and Elusive Populations. Science (New Series), 240(4855), 991-996.*

Triegaardt, J. Reflections on Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Policy Considerations in an Emerging Democracy. Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) and Applied Development Research Unit (ADRU)

url: http://sarpn.org/documents/d0002618/Poverty_Inequality_SA_Sept2006.pdf

Walter, E. (1973) Pauperism and Illth: An Archaeology of Social Policy. Sociological Analysis, 34(4), 239-254.*

Waters, G. (2007) Down but not Out in Central Durban: ‘Streetwisdom’ and survival in a Post-apartheid City. In Pattman, R. and Khan, S. (Eds.) Undressing Durban. Durban, Madiba Publishers.

Waxman, C. (1983) The Stigma of Poverty. New York, Pergamon Press.

Wilson, F. and Ramphele, M. (1994) Uprooting Poverty – The South African Challenge. Cape Town, David Philip Publishers.

Wirth, L. (1938) Urbanism as a Way of Life. The American Journal of Sociology, 44(1), 1-24.*

Through the Looking Glass on the Golden Mile

I arrive on the beachfront to a full moon rising through the twilight. A fitting backdrop to this twilight space; in the city yet not quite of the city; a place of oddly juxtaposed worlds; a place where light and dark coexist. Separated on its inner edge by a pan-African wall of informal curio traders, and closed in by the sea on its outer perimeter. This strip hosts leisure seekers, beach enthusiasts, tourists, locals, and all those who make their living, informally and formally, off them.  I am pursuing an interview, and I know if I find what I am looking for I may well have to step into a different world, one where my reality no longer matters.

The city has its own rhythms, its own ecological sequencing and ordering of a day’s activity. Soon it will be dark on this twilight strip and there will be no time. Between the revelers in the bars, and the destitute sifting through garbage it will simply be night time, and it will remain so until the seaward horizon begins to burn.

It is warm tonight. It is inviting out. On a colder night it would’ve been easier to identify a homeless person preparing to “sleep rough”. I walk south along the promenade, getting a sense of the night. Past the funfair, then up to the road and the informal traders who are rolling up and packing away their mats and colourfull nik-naks. Like so many sea anenomies retracting their tentacles after a day’s feeding. I loop back to the Joe Kools and Deck area of beachfront. It is school holidays, and there is an increased and very visible police presence. 2010 is coming and refuse will not be tolerated. This will not make the evening’s mission easier.

I have spotted a potential candidate, a woman carrying a small travel bag and a neatly secured yet full plastic packet. I recognize the posture and vibration from previous research but with such limited cursory information hers could realistically be any one of countless situations. I return to the café beneath the Deck, and buying a cooldrink take a seat at one of their outside benches where I can watch the beachfront’s activities unfold. She has moved her bags to the park to the left, overlooking the promenade. I can’t see her. “Do you have a light?” she suddenly appears on my right, “No one here has a light. I think they’re all being spiteful”, she smiles. I no longer smoke, but I remember what a potent conversation initiator it used to be in the field. Instead I direct her to a group of youngsters on the promenade wall who are smoking a hubbly bubbly. She startled me. She is younger than she looked from a distance. But it was an easy mistake to make. Her face is drawn and her shoulders slouched – she looks tired.

A beggar boy asks me for a Rand. I decline him politely.

I stay on my bench for a while, watching. The rikshaws are doing a roaring trade this evening. I resist the curiosity to look and see if she has returned to her bags. Just in case she ends up being my best interview opportunity later and regardless of what her story may be I don’t want her to mistake me for a potential John.  This is her environment, she knows who is not here for the same things as the leisure seekers. That’s why I was asked for the light out of the dozen people in the vicinity. Another police car cruises by the promenade. When I look again she’s gone.

Twilight is over now. It is dark and the tide of humanity is visibly beginning to recede, slowly revealing the rock pool of the nocturnal urban landscape, exposing it to the cold lights of the promenade and the cloud shrouded moon.  Different actors with their own symbiotic and predatory relationships begin to emerge onto this stage. It is interesting to watch. I don’t really have any reason to frequent the beachfront at night; and as a younger man my nocturnal experiences of the beachfront never moved much beyond the warm throb of Joe Kool’s and its promise of flirtatious indiscretion.

I decide to take another short walk, south, down the promenade to get a better overview of the changing human-tide. Young black guys call to me from their sand sculptures of animals and the new soccer stadium. “Two Rand for a Pic!” they offer, “Can I have your cooldrink?” another asks. The latter is a more reasonable request which I indulge. They tell me they sleep in the shelters when they make enough through the donations they get from tourists willing to pay for a photo of their sculptures, otherwise they sleep on the beach.  I walk past more sand sculptors, and clumped groups of holiday makers proceeding to the safety and comfort of their waiting busses or hotel rooms. An elderly Zulu man asks me if I want some “Mawra-Jah-Wana”; when I decline he smiles cheekily and asks if I am sure. Have long hair in Durban and don’t shave for a few days and life becomes a Fanta advert. The fun will find you.

I become aware now that I am being watched as much as I am watching. To the leisure seekers and tourists I am just another one of them, scarcely a blip on their cognitive radar. But to those postindustrial beachcombers who live their lives and make their living on this twilight strip I am a thing of interest; I am different to the other visitors. Predator, prey or potential symbiote they cannot be sure. But they are watching.

I make my way back to the steps of the café from where I can watch the environment, and I wait for those actors whose cue I know must shortly be called. A lone man in a karate outfit is running through katas and stretching exercises on the beach. The woman from earlier is back, sitting in the shadows of the park. Another police car cruises by. From the corner of my eye I see her quickly stand and busy herself , so as not to appear to be loitering  while the police car passes.

While I watch and wait I remember how my mentor’s wife always teases him that the city is probably full of undercover social scientists all unwittingly studying each other. I wonder whose ethnographic study I may wind up in; playing the part of Long-haired-unshaven-character-scribbling-in-a-notebook?

I wonder what assumptions are being made of me?

And then he appears. A dark grey Mr Price “Red” sweater, dirty light grey trousers and dirty white takkies. His face is weather beaten and sporting a long white beard, a slightly balding pate and unkempt white hair. He walks slowly, shoulders down, head slightly bent but eyes watching. Watching the pedestrians on the promenade and the patrons of the various cafes on their benches. The body language is unthreatening but the eyes want something from the environment, they are keen. He walks past me, watching everything. He wonders back and forth along the strip in front of the cafes, sussing out the pedestrians, those sitting on the beach wall and those patronizing the cafés’ benches. Another social scientist? I chuckle inwardly. He watches me out the corner of his eye as I watch him. Like the others residents of this environment he senses I am different, but is not fazed by it. Another man who would fit his same description, save for the clothes comes to speak to him, then disappears down towards the southern end of the promenade. My man circles for a few minutes more, then he engages. Sidling up along pedestrians he begins begging. I wait and watch a bit more to be sure. His path brings him past my position. I engage, “Sorry I wonder if you can help me…”

I meet Patrick.

Patrick left Orkney for Durban six months ago. I ask him what brought him here, and so stepped through the looking glass sooner than I had anticipated. He tells me he was one out of a hundred to be chosen by the Lients. He was told to go forth and receive his prize. Now he works for the programme in Durban. The programme is run by an overseas charity organization, it’s American or English but he can’t remember the name. The Lients (programme managers for lack of a better term) give him his tasks. On the completion of these tasks he is awarded points which are then converted into overseas money for charity.

He never applied to join the programme, nor even knew of its existence, but the Lients in Orkney had been watching him, and approached him to join. They then tested him rigorously to ensure he was up to the position. The tests included having to get from one place to another in a limited amount of time, or even having to enter people’s gardens at night and braving the waiting guard dogs.

“Obviously I must have impressed them because one day they simply told me to board the train for Durban. I was told to,‘Go forth and receive your prize’ .”

When he arrived on the beachfront the first Lient only spoke Zulu, but he knowingly assures me that was all part of his test.

He gets points for walking up and down the promenade. Sometimes he has to go all the way to the harbor mouth to wave at a specific ship as it passes. He is monitored the whole time. A man watches him from a tower and takes photographs which he then sends to America to verify that the task was completed.

Without sounding incredulous I paraphrase what he relates to make sure I understand.

“Yes, that’s right” becomes his standard reply to such verifications. He seems excited, relating his story to me. He keeps a firm eye-contact, sometimes it seems he is over compensating. I ensure him I am in no way connected to the Lients and that I am not part of any test.

I ask him is it not difficult to be working for a charity and yet be living in such impoverished circumstances. He’s not really poor, though, he tells me. The Lients put a million Rand in his bank account along with R100K for expenses when he boarded the train. Unfortunately one of his first tasks in February involved some swimming in the ocean and he lost his wallet and ID book. Thankfully he still gets tithes from the Lients which help him get by.

For the last few minutes of our conversation a young girl dressed in a hijab has been standing near us. A lull in the conversation gives her a chance to interrupt, she is begging.

He sleeps on the beach, the pier or on the benches outside the cafes. It doesn’t appear as if he as a set location. Unlike other homeless people I have spoken to he says the cops don’t overly harass him when he “sleeps rough” at night, but he does try and keep out of the way. When asked if he ever makes use of night shelters he simply replies, “I never stay in shelters. I’m not allowed off the beach. Anyway this is where my programme is.”

The Lients don’t like him to leave the beachfront because it is dangerous for him. His wealth makes him a target. Life on the beach is not easy though, “You never really sleep properly on the beach. It is uncomfortable and you worry about your safety. One time I dosed off and I woke up with someone going through my pockets.”

His bag and the clothes it contained (all donated by church organizations) were stolen and all he has left is what he is wearing now.

He doesn’t know how the rest of society could make life easier for the homeless, he seems to view the homeless as other to him and once again, as throughout the rest of the conversation, brings the conversation back to the Lients.

“The Lients don’t stay on the beach. They work normal hours and then they go home. I’ve been here solidly since I arrived six months ago but a place to stay with a hot bath and a warm bed sounds like Christmas to me. But my programme is almost coming to an end.” He explains how the programmes are run six monthly. When is finished here he will buy a flat with his earnings and spend time relaxing and visiting family. At least until December when the next programme will start. He openly hopes that he may even be initiated into the Lients if he does well enough in this programme.

He goes further describing how the homeless come out at night and start asking people for money. This annoys him because he can see it makes people uncomfortable. “Some do very well on begging,” he tells me, “using sob stories or hustling; but some just spend all their money on booze. I mean, a person doesn’t mind helping a person if there is a need, but some of the beggars use the help for the wrong reason.”

Drinking problems are worse with men he believes, and accordingly, this is why you find more men on the streets than women. Further, he continues, if drinking has led to a separation the wife has more chance of meeting someone new and finding security.

I ask him who or what does he think would look after him should he fall ill or be injured while he is without access to his salary. He looks at me, wide eyed with child-like surprise, “You know, I’ve never thought of that…but I’ve never been one for taking pills and those things, and besides for sinuses when I was younger I’ve been alright.”

He goes on to mention that the police do, in fact, look after him because they are aware of his programme and the danger it places him in. When he absolutely has to leave the beachfront to ask for food from some of the street side shops they always protect him. Whenever he leaves the beachfront he’ll see the police coming to the corner to keep an eye on him.

When I ask him what he’s going to do when our interview is over he tells me he is going to ask the Lients for some tithes and hopefully get some money to buy food. Some of the Lients might even bring him food. A Lient may even take him back to their house so he can clean up; he’s allowed to leave the beachfront for that. Tomorrow, however, if the tide is right he needs to jump off the pier and swim back to shore. It is his latest task and he is up for it, but he is not really accustomed to waves and bobbing up and down in the ocean, “I’m from the Transvaal and I know more about rivers and dams.”

I ask him about what I observed earlier when I was watching him begging. Does he target a specific type? Or does he know which people are more likely to give?

“Oh, I ask anybody, but I’m not comfortable asking for money. I wasn’t brought up like that. But I need to learn to be more demanding when I ask for my money.”

When I ask him what he means by “demanding his money” he replies that the money is his he has earned it. It is here I realize I have been mistaken. What I witnessed earlier was not begging, he does not beg. In fact, he mentioned earlier how it annoys him when he sees homeless people beg. He only ever asks Lients for money that is already due to him in the form of tithes. There are many Lients, and they could be any race, age or sex; occasionally he might ask a non-Lient by accident but that is a rare event.

I ask him, “So, are there any Lients around now?”

“Yes, that’s right… there are quite a few. There’s one right there.”

I follow the motion of his gesture across the promenade… just a man sitting with his family. I am not surprised as I am pulled back, leaving Patrick on his side of the looking glass.