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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

October 6, 2006

Dear Friends,

My South African Council of Churches work is more office-bound these days, so I tend to be grateful for opportunities to escape. Typically, it is the arrival of visitors that provides the excuse for a welcome excursion. A few months ago, a visiting friend doing academic research invited me to accompany him on a trip to Joe Slovo, one of nearly 100 “informal” settlements in and around Johannesburg.

South Africa, like most of the developing world, is experiencing rapid urbanization as people migrate to the cities in search of employment and better prospects. Johannesburg is one of the country’s wealthiest cities, so it seems a particularly desirable destination for job seekers, even though its unemployment rate is not much better than the (official) national average of 24 percent. (When you include folks who have given up even looking for work, the figure climbs to closer to 40 percent.)

Photo of three boys. One boy's face is badly scarred from burns.

Children from Joe Slovo with Feleng Mahamotse, a 5-year-old burn victim being cared for by Children of Fire.

Housing remains a major problem in South Africa. Although the government has built nearly 2 million new houses since 1994, the backlog continues to grow due to urbanization and population growth, so many people are left to their own devices. They build homes out of whatever they can find — corrugated iron, cardboard, plywood — wherever they can find land that appears to be unused. Often that is next door to others who have already done the same thing. Since these settlements are unplanned, they usually lack the amenities of formal communities: electricity and other utilities, schools, parks and recreation facilities, even adequate streets and lighting. The density of the settlements, the building materials used and the widespread reliance on candles for lighting and paraffin (kerosene) stoves for cooking and heating mean that these communities are extremely vulnerable to fires.

Photo of a young person standing beneath a water tank.

A young Joe Slovo resident shows off one of the water tanks installed for fire fighting.

Joe Slovo is no exception. On several occasions in recent years, it has been devastated by fires that have left thousands injured or homeless. Our visit to the community was arranged through a group called Children of Fire, which assists young burn victims and helps communities to prevent fires through education and promotion of safer practices. Busi Nhlapo, a Joe Slovo resident and a COF-trained volunteer fire fighter, acted as our tour guide. As we threaded our way through the narrow passages between dwellings, Busi pointed out the extent of recent fires and told us about what the community is doing to prevent future fires.

Joe Slovo is built on land owned by Transnet, the huge parastatal corporation that runs South Africa’s ports, pipelines and railways. Busi was eager to show us a strip of vacant land between the settlement and the rail lines a hundred yards away. At first glance, it looked like an open field. But Busi led us to narrow, concrete-rimmed slots hidden in the tall grass. These opened on to large, underground bunkers. Just over a foot wide, the slots were large enough for a person, especially a child, to fall through. Equally sinister was the collection of rusty, rubbish-strewn pipes and barrels on the concrete floor, some 15 feet below. She explained that despite the cramped community’s need for more land on which to build, residents were concerned about the various hazards lurking here. They had been trying unsuccessfully to get the city council to assess and address the risks.

The morning at Joe Slovo was a sobering reminder of the difficult conditions in which so many South Africans continue to live. But it was also encouraging to see the energy and passion with which residents like Busi are working to build the community’s capacity to tackle its own problems. In such a situation, even small changes — such as the simple devices COF has developed to reduce the risk of candles and stoves starting fires — can have a dramatic impact. For the first time in several years, Joe Slovo seems to have made it through the high-risk winter months without a significant fire.

Another recent outing may be of particular interest to those who have been following events in Zimbabwe. A few weeks ago, I attended the initial screening of a powerful new documentary entitled “Meltdown.” Produced by the Solidarity Peace Trust (a human rights group co-chaired by the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube and the Anglican Bishop of KwaZulu-Natal, Rubin Phillip), the 45-minute documentary looks at what has happened to families whose homes were demolished a year ago by the Zimbabwean government during Operation Murambatsvina. Those interviewed for the film remain in dire straits as the government has largely failed to make good on its promises to provide alternative accommodation. The entire video, as well as other resources, can be downloaded from the Trust’s Web site.

Restructuring in the PC(USA)’s General Assembly Council seems likely to increase the size and importance of my role as regional liaison for Southern Africa. Regional liaisons perform three major roles: they assist area coordinators to support programs, relationships and activities with partners, they facilitate communication with and support for PC(USA) mission personnel and they resource congregational and presbytery partnerships and mission networks. I would encourage those who wish to support this aspect of my ministry to give to ECO account #E051753.

With thanks for your continuing prayers and support,

Doug Tilton

The 2006 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 339

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