Click to read “Fragments from the Edge”, by David Lurie

Fragments from the Edge

According to the United Nations, the majority of the world’s population today lives in cities. Out of a world population of 6.6 billion, 1 billion people live in slums and more than 1 billion people are informal workers, struggling to survive. These figures are staggering if you consider that 95% 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 – especially 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. 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.

Cape Town mirrors many of the problems facing other African cities and cities in the developing world. How does this surplus humanity improvise survival in the city? This work is an attempt to distill 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, where urbanisation has been disconnected from industrialization and even from economic growth.

The images portray a vast humanity living on the edge of Cape Town. I focus on the excluded, warehoused in shantytowns and exiled from the formal world economy, a habitat largely constructed out of crude brick, recycled plastic, metal sheets, cardboard, cement blocks, and scrap wood, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay. The images attempt to capture the variety of responses to this environment, from charismatic churches, to street gangs, to drug and alcohol abuse, as well as homes and small businesses.

The future evolution of slums needs to be determined by political interventions on the ground, rather than by uncontrollable economic and political developments. These issues, if left unaddressed, will not just wither away, but will go instead in search of more radical answers. Are these urban slums volcanoes waiting to erupt?

David Lurie
June 2008