In one of my local Hout Bay Facebook groups there is an on-going debate about the term ‘privileged’ and what that actually means. It is sometimes used as a divisive term in regards to race. It is actually more related to financial status as many white people are also poor. The primary difference that I see is that there are very few white people who live in shacks, where as there are millions of blacks who live in shacks.


Image credit.

Based on statistics published by the Housing Development Agency (HDA) in South Africa in 2013 (the most recent I could find), the number of households living in shacks has increased at a rate of 4.5% per year. In terms of total households, Census 2011 indicates at total of 712,956 households living in shacks in backyards, compared to 459,526 in 2001.

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This varies across the various provinces in South Africa.

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Consider that in each shack you could have anywhere from 2-6 people living in them and you start to get an idea of the number of people who live in shacks.

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For me the saddest statistic is that Census data indicates that there are just under one million children under the age of 18 who live in informal residential EAs accounting for 5% of all children in South Africa.

This analysis is based on Census 2011 data and I know for a fact that this data was incorrect. We know that to get an accurate Census of the counts of people living in shacks when they are often out working during the day or they may be of an illegal immigration status and unwilling to disclose personal info is near impossible. Aside from census data, the HDA analysis is supplemented by other survey data sources including the 2010/11 Income and Expenditure Surveys as well as the General Household Survey from various years. However as an analyst, I know that your outputs are only as good as your inputs. Dodgy data = dodgy analysis.

It is harder to find stats on informal settlements divided by race. The best figure I can isolate is that just 7,754 white households lived in informal settlements. This is extrapolated to estimate that 31,000 white people live in informal settlements.

So when defensive white people throw out the ‘my family was poor’ argument they are being somewhat disingenuous. The majority of whites in South Africa have no comprehension of the levels of poverty and lack of opportunity that shack dwellers experience.

Shack dwelling generally means that you do not have running water or electricity supplied to your shack or other amenities that most of the world take for granted.

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I was reflecting on my own privilege one morning this week when driving to work. I accept that I am privileged. I wake up in a warm, dry bed. In a home with a solid door and windows to keep out the elements and hopefully any unsavory people I do not want to wake up to in my bedroom. I shower with piped in heated water, available at the turn of a tap (albeit restricted amounts due to the drought). I choose from my closet full of clothing and shoes to decide what I want to wear. I take a lunch of healthy food with me to work. I get into my relatively new car which gets serviced regularly and I drive to my high paying job which has parking on site so that I do not have to walk into the rain. I am treated with respect in my work environment and have a certain level of control over what I choose to do and when. If I have health issues I make an appointment to go to the doctor and it is paid for by my medical aid (which I can afford to have) and I get paid sick leave from work. At night when I get home I have a supply of ready cut firewood which is delivered by the truck load to my home and I can start a big fire in my fireplace. I have 5 pets who are fed the best food available and which I can afford to take to the vet whenever they have a twinge. If we have a busy day we can afford to go to a restaurant or get a take away. Otherwise we can afford to buy the best food to cook and eat at home.

I thought about how grateful I am for all of this as I drove past people walking in the dark, enduring the pouring rain on their journey to what is most likely a low paying job. People who had probably spent the night sleeping in a shack which might have leaks and drafts of ice cold air keeping them awake, who if they wanted to wash with hot water had to go to a standpipe to get the water, bring it back to their living area and heat it in order to wash. People who most likely did not have any breakfast, but who if they were lucky, might be given a bit of toast and margarine before they start their day’s work. People who work at what may be a very physically exhausting job for an entire day for about what I get paid per hour just to sit on my arse doing analysis and writing reports.  People who have to suffer with any pains or ailments they have until they can get the time off to go to the free clinic for basic treatment, but will miss a day’s pay. People who may have only a few items of second hand clothing to wear, yet always look clean and well dressed.

It made me count all of my blessings and to be grateful for all of these things. It made me aware of my privilege.

Some people say ‘but I worked hard and sacrificed to get to where I am’, however the difference is that my parents could afford to educate me. I had books to read as a child and I had opportunities.

I cannot deny my privilege however I am not defensive of this nor do I carry guilt about my circumstances. I have had hardships, after my divorce from my first husband I had nothing. I worked as a waitress and I endured abuse from drunken idiots who came into my workplace. I survived off of the food they gave me at work. I struggled. But my way out was to move to a bigger city and fall back on my University degree. That led me to become self sufficient and financially stable again and when I met Norman and emigrated to the UK I was able to get a temp job which eventually led me back to SA where I have specialist skills which have allowed me to get the job I have now. Part of that was due to my drive and determination but a lot of it was opportunity and some of it  of course was destiny.

I count my blessings every day.




3 thoughts on “Privilege

  1. Lori Henry

    I was not aware of this about you, however I enjoyed the read and it’s very insightful. We all should be greatful for what we Do have. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Is There A Doctor in the House? | Kitten in the City

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