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close this bookLiving Conditions of Low-income Older Persons in Human Settlements UNCHS (Habitat) (HABITAT, 1999, 38 p.)
close this folderPART 3
close this folderIV. COUNTRY CASE STUDIES
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Cape Town, South Africa

Dr. Monica M. Ferreira, Director of the HSRC/UCT Centre for Gerontology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town Medical School supervised the survey of 20 households in six townships on the Cape Flats, which form part of the Cape Town metropolitan area in the Western Cape province. A total of 30 persons aged 60 years and over living in the households were interviewed by two specially trained fieldworkers who spoke the same language as persons in the households.


The Western Cape is the most urbanized of South Africa’s nine provinces: It is 89% urbanized, compared to 55% for the total country (1996 Census). Total population of the province is over 4 million and constitutes 11% of South Africa’s population. Under the apartheid design, people belonging to different racial groups (White, Black, African, Coloured, Indian) lived in separate areas. The residential areas of the province were thus historically divided according to racial classification. In Cape Town, whites lived in the “leafy” suburbs or on the Atlantic seaboard, while the majority of the coloured population and all black persons have lived in townships on the expansive and environmentally harsh Cape Flats. Since the repeal of the Group Areas Act in 1988, people may live in any area, and the majority of suburbs and townships are to some extent becoming racially integrated, with an economic factor being the only divider.


The townships are located 10 to 30kms from the city centre and in 1991 their populations ranged from as little as 16,000 to over 300,000, such as the sprawling township of Khayelitsha which with its many transients may have a population of up to a million. Many settlers migrated in the massive urbanization from the Transkei and Ciskei in the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape 10 to 15 years ago. The majority have settled in informal settlements or squatter areas on the periphery of Cape Town. They share a harsh climate, experiencing the brunt of the sandiness and wind of the expansive Flats which blow refuse from garbage bid sites and open dumps all over the Flats. Some parts may be described as orderly settlements of homes, while others are densely populated with shacks. Local authorities did not anticipate the rapid rate of urbanization and consequently the areas are characterized by poor infrastructure and are underserviced.

Travel time to the city from the townships is between 20 and 40 minutes. Although public transport by train and bus is available, most people prefer to travel in mini-bus taxis, which drop them close to their destination accessible by public transport. The larger townships have day-service centres and libraries. Most respondents said they had no knowledge of plans or programmes to improve environmental or housing conditions. There are NGOs and church groups, which assist older and disabled persons with services. Older residents are mainly late-life in-migrants. Some are transients who have come to the city for health care.

The Western Cape has particularly heavy winter rains and shack dwellers suffer to the extreme, rainwater that does not drain away and drenches their shelters. The shack areas are terribly overcrowded and socially disorganized, exacerbated by the high unemployment rate. Crime and abuse of women and children are rife. There are high levels of violence, especially by gang-related activities. The living conditions of older persons vary from those for shack dwellers to those where the older person co-resides with family in a multigenerational, conventional, brick home with a garden/yard. The majority of dwellings are cozy, comfortable and orderly. However, many wish for more security (burglar bars, walls, etc.).

In the older settlement dwellings are typically constructed of brick walls with asbestos or sheet-iron roofs. The dwellings, referred to as sub-economic or matchbox houses, were originally provided by the local authority and rented to families; the houses may now be purchased for a nominal sum. Each house typically has a small yard and is surrounded by a fence or vibracrete wall. Virtually all townships have electricity, water supply, streetlights, waste collection, health-care facilities, a post office, public telephones, shops, churches, etc.

Survey based on national data, the estimated population of the Western Cape aged 60 years and over is 301,942, constituting 7.6% of the total regional population. Approximately a fifth of the region’s population, in each case, are blacks and whites, while coloureds constitute 54% (Indians 1%) of the older population. The sample for the Case Study was drawn from 6 low-income poor townships on the Cape Flats: 3 historically inhabited by coloureds, and 3 by blacks. Very few Indians reside in this area. The sampled townships were:

Coloured Townships

Black Townships







Ten households were randomly selected in the coloured townships and ten in the black townships. Most of the older black and coloured households were multigenerational with more than four persons. More of the black households than the coloured were homeowners. Most of the black and only half of the coloured elderly lived in houses; others in flats or cardboard shacks. However, all dwellings in the coloured townships were built of brick, compared to only half of those in black townships. Most houses had 3 to 4 rooms. Half of the coloured families and only a quarter of the blacks had gardens. Few elderly complained about inadequate living space or difficult access to their dwelling.

Practically all dwellings had piped water and flush toilets inside the dwelling; others had toilets in the yard. Half the coloured, but only a few blacks had an indoor bath or shower. Few of families paid for their water or electricity charges even though they said these charges were affordable. Municipal garbage disposal services, street cleaning and lighting were provided. However, few people perceived that they had police and fire protection.

All households had access to a health clinic or a day hospital and some could access home nursing services. While all coloured households reported access to a park, community centre, churches, shops and schools, most of the blacks had only a church and shops nearby.

All of the coloured subjects had lived in their townships for 20 years or more, compared to only half the blacks. Some blacks said their home was elsewhere- they were circular migrants (similar to many of the squatters in Delhi, India) A third of the elderly coloured were still gainfully employed. Although none of the elderly blacks had jobs, most said they would like to work. Most of the coloured subjects and all of the blacks interviewed received social pensions under South Africa’s means-tested social pension system whereby males over 65 and females over 60 receive a monthly pension of approximately US$85.


The subjects’ greatest concerns were not about their houses or living arrangements, but about their personal safety, with the context of the crime and violence in the townships. In particular, they wanted burglar bars on the windows, safety gates with padlocks, and secure walls around the yard to protect them from criminals and gangsters.

“Police only come when everything is over and gangs have dispersed. Only come when drive-by shootings and murders in homes. “When there is a crime committed and you phone the police, they ask: ‘is he/she dead?’ We don’t have protection because the police are so scared of the gangsters”. “We have to lock the doors during the day when we go to the toilet”.

“It’s not too safe either during the day when one is alone and you have to walk to the shop. I always wait at a distance when a car rides by because you don’t know when you will be shot at”.


Older women in particular are amenable to participating in self-help group development produce. However, because of frailty and a cultural construction of old age as being frail these persons are generally less involved physically in projects. Yet, numerous individuals do indeed join in community improvement efforts in creative and valuable ways. There is a need for additional information on community programmes for the purpose of this study and its outcome.

The subjects described community programmes in their townships in which older persons participate, including some aimed at connecting the generations: “We have a day out to the beach and the youth accompany us. Any function that we have, the youth is at our service. Not every week or month, but on occasions”.

“Our youth do shopping, household chores for the elderly - church choir outings, advice to youth”.

“Once I tried to start an after school (care facility) - to keep the youth from the streets. I have done a course in after-school care. Funding is necessary”.


By Government and Local Authorities

Since the new government took power in 1994 it has made concerted efforts with measurable success to address the infrastructure deficiencies in the townships. It is unable to meet the demand for new houses, although it continues to build houses, but is upgrading streets and developing sports and recreational facilities. However, it is up against an institutionalized “culture of non-payment” in the townships whereby it is unable to recover billions of Rands of arrears payment for services. People also harbor a strong expectation that the new government will provide everyone with a house- as they were told when they voted.

There are scant government funds available to meet the needs of older people in the “new” South Africa. Indeed, the old are not a priority- the young are. The young represent a brighter, long-awaited future for the country in political and democratic terms. All dedicated geriatric services have been withdrawn under the new national primary health care plan. Virtually all social services for older persons have also been withdrawn. On the other hand more than 90% of all age-eligible black and coloured receive the social pension. As virtually all black and coloured South Africans live in multigenerational households all household income including pensions is pooled.

NGO Efforts to Improve Living Conditions

Efforts of NGOs to improve living conditions vary among communities. Prior to 1994 NGOs were receiving extensive international donor funding, and were active in engaging people in development programmes where the apartheid government was failing to develop areas. Since then donor agencies have been encouraged to contribute funds directly to the new government’s central coffers. Yet, there are still innumerable organizations engaged in development projects many of which draw on volunteers. The national “Masikane” project to develop local national pride in “building our nation together” is encouraging people to assume responsibilities within communities and to pay for their utilities. Virtually all community -based services to older persons are operated by NGOs. Most notable among these services are the senior centres, partially subsidized by government, which offer members opportunities for social interaction and recreation; and a hot midday meal at nominal cost known as luncheon clubs.

Final comment

Finally, the situation in South Africa is extremely complex-more so now as the country continues to free itself of the shackles of apartheid and to come up with a better deal for all its citizens. Given cultural patterns of multigenerational co-residence, the future of older South Africans may well be best served by strengthening their integration in society - and supporting families with whom they reside- and possibly by dispensing with notions of aged-specific service models.