Journal of Peace Research, May 1998
by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Valerie Percival
The causal relationship between environmental scarcities – the scarcity of renewable resources – and the outbreak of violent conflict is complex. Environmental scarcity emerges within a political, social, economic, and ecological context and interacts with many of these contextual factors to contribute to violence. To examine this relationship, we outline a theoretical framework defining scarcities, the social effects arising from these scarcities, and the ensuing movement towards violence. We subsequently apply this framework to analyse the link between environmental scarcities and violent conflict in South Africa. Within South Africa, violence arose at precisely the same time that many anticipated a transformation to a more peaceful society – upon the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of the ban on political activity and the official end to apartheid. This article provides a new perspective on these events by analysing the link between South Africa’s environmental scarcity and violent conflict.
Project on Environment, Population and Security, October 1995
by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Valerie Percival
Although South Africa experienced a relatively stable transition to democratic rule, violence within the black South African community has escalated steadily since the 1980s. This violence increased at precisely the same time that many anticipated the transition to a more peaceful society – upon the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of the ban on political activity, and the official end to apartheid. Conflict became more intense and spread throughout the country. This paper provides a new perspective on these events by analyzing the link between South Africa’s environmental scarcity and its social turmoil. We examine state-society relations in South Africa and how the changing nature of these relations affects resource access, perception of grievances, and opportunities for violent action. Environmental scarcity is not the sole cause of the country’s recent turmoil. But policymakers and social analysts who ignore environmental problems risk missing a factor that powerfully contributes to the violence.
Scholars have overlooked the role of environmental scarcity – the scarcity of renewable resources – as a contributor to social instability in South Africa. The severe environmental problems confronting the country have been eclipsed by the negative social impacts of apartheid, opposition to minority rule, and the effort to build a post-apartheid political order. The transition to democracy was an astonishing achievement, the culmination of decades of struggle. Even so, apartheid has left behind a grim ecological legacy that will influence political, social, and economic conditions for decades.
Although the linkages between environmental scarcity and violence in South Africa are complex, this paper traces the causal role of environmental scarcity in the recent civil strife. In the context of apartheid, environmental scarcity contributed to reduced agricultural productivity in the homelands, migrations to and within urban areas, and the deterioration of the local urban environment. These pressures undermined the ability of the state to provide for the needs of society. The level of grievances within society rose, and the transition from minority rule provided opportunities for the violent expression of these grievances. After the election of Nelson Mandela, violence subsided in most areas of the country. Yet civil strife continues in the KwaZulu-Natal region, an indication that underlying stressors – such as environmental scarcity – remain.
We begin the description of the South African case by outlining the effects of apartheid and the process of transition from apartheid rule. We then present the theoretical framework that guides our analysis of the role of environmental scarcity in this case. We provide an overview of environmental scarcity in South Africa, its social effects, and its relationship to violence, with a specific focus on the KwaZulu-Natal region. We conclude by discussing what our analysis means for social stability in post-apartheid South Africa.
Our analysis faced serious limitations in data quality and quantity. Therefore, rather than providing definitive conclusions, this paper offers suggestive findings and provides a framework for further research on South Africa. Analysts need to identify the key social and political factors intervening between environmental scarcity and violent conflict. They must also generate good data on agricultural productivity, soil erosion, and fuelwood availability within the former homelands and on migration rates to urban settings. For urban areas, researchers need to establish the degree of dependence of the local population on renewable resources, and they must determine how access to these resources is manipulated by local leaders. Such information is essential to competent policy formation and implementation in the post-apartheid period.
South Africa: Moving Beyond Apartheid
South Africa is one of the few countries that has experienced a relatively smooth transition to democracy. The apartheid regime, dominated by the National Party, voluntarily agreed to democratic elections in which it had little chance of victory. The election outcome allowed the African National Congress (ANC) majority to form the Government of National Unity (GNU) in cooperation with Inkatha and the National Party. The GNU will rule the country for five years, until new constitutional arrangements for South Africa are finalized. Scholars and policymakers perceive South Africa as a model for democratic transition in ethnically divided societies. However, prospects for a prosperous, peaceful, and democratic South Africa look very different when the contributions of environmental scarcity to the country’s social instability are better understood.
Apartheid and the Political Geography of African Communities
Although British colonial rule gradually dispossessed the original Africans of their land, racial separation was entrenched with the 1948 victory of the National Party, which slowly began to implement apartheid (apartness). Apartheid provided whites with 87 percent of the land, while blacks – almost 75 percent of the country’s population – lived within the 10 Bantustans or homelands, which accounted for only 13 percent of the land. The black population in these areas sustained themselves through agriculture, local service industries, and as migrant labor in white-owned mines and industry.
The homelands became a dumping ground for the black South African population. From 1960 to 1980, the government forced 1.75 million people into the homelands to clear what it called “black spots” -squatter settlements in urban areas and rural villages consisting of blacks whose labor-tenant contracts on white farms had been canceled. The population density of the homelands increased dramatically as a result. Quasi-urban communities emerged on homeland borders as the labor force commuting to neighboring cities, mines, and industries grew rapidly in the 1970s. Other black workers lived in single-sex hostels near industries too far from the homelands for daily commuting. The remainder of the black population was restricted to legally defined “townships” lying outside white urban areas and was employed in industry and mines or as domestic laborers.1
A recognizable apartheid city emerged – and it remains largely in existence today. Natural features, such as rivers, steep valleys, and escarpments, or human-made barriers, such as industrial areas, commercial belts, and railways, separate racial groups. Urban land is inequitably distributed: the township areas allocated for black South Africans are not sufficient for the numbers of people living there. These communities are also found on the periphery of the city, in the least attractive sectors – downwind from dirty industries, on poor land, and far from the city center. Informal settlements, which emerged first within the townships and then on public land throughout the major cities, continue to grow.2 Both townships and settlements receive few services and lack infrastructure. The inadequacy of the infrastructure, such as sewage systems, water supplies, and energy sources, means that the urban black population relies extensively for its day-to-day needs on the local environment – including small vegetable plots and local streams, trees, and brush. Because many of these communities are located in fragile environments close to hillsides and river valleys, the environment quickly deteriorates.
The Struggle against Apartheid
The ANC, originally formed in 1912, escalated its activities in the 1950s as the National Party established the institutions of apartheid. With the escalating protest came increased government repression. The government banned the ANC and other opposition groups in 1960. Forced underground, the ANC established the military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), which began violent attacks against the government. Nelson Mandela, one of the leaders of the ANC, was arrested in 1961 and received a life sentence for treason in 1964.
Incremental reform began when P. W. Botha became prime minister in 1978. The political openings provided by reform stimulated increased opposition activities; in response, the government – concerned about losing control of the pace of change – heightened its repression. The main opposition group, the United Democratic Front (UDF), the exiled ANC’s ally within South Africa, fiercely opposed the limited character of these reform measures and worked to make the country ungovernable. The government declared a nationwide state of emergency in 1986, while pressing on with limited reforms aimed at desegregating transportation and education. International companies began to divest, and many countries imposed sanctions on South African goods.
F. W. de Klerk was sworn in as state president on 20 September 1989. In the words of his foreign minister, Pik Botha, “The government began to shift away from apartheid when it realized that it was impossible to stem the tide of Africans moving to the urban areas in search of employment, signaling that the homeland system did not work.”3 On 1 February 1990, de Klerk lifted the thirty-year ban on the ANC and several other political organizations and allowed the return of political exiles. He released Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990. With this watershed event, the process of dismantling apartheid became irreversible.
Almost immediately after Mandela’s release, the incidence of violence skyrocketed. Both the ANC and Inkatha became officially recognized political parties engaged in the struggle for control of the state. Clashes between their supporters gripped the KwaZulu-Natal region and the townships surrounding Johannesburg. Despite calls by all sides for an end to the bloodshed, it persisted until national elections established a multiracial democracy in April 1994.
Economic problems complicated the pre-election period. The South African economy stagnated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, debilitated by economic sanctions, low commodity prices, labor unrest, rural-urban migration, and wars in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique. Annual real growth dropped from 3.4 percent in the 1970s to 1.5 percent in the 1980s; in 1990, the economy actually shrank. “Meanwhile [the total South African population in 1990] was swelling by 2.5 percent a year, adding around one thousand newcomers to the work force each day. According to the best available estimates, more than one in three workers had no formal job, and half the unemployed did not even have unofficial work in the subsistence economy.”4
In December 1991, the government, the ANC, the National Party, and most other political parties, with the exception of Inkatha and the radical Pan-African Congress, participated in CODESA – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. After many false starts and difficult negotiations, CODESA produced a draft post-apartheid constitution and set 27 April 1994 as the date for the country’s first multiracial election. The ANC won a majority but was constitutionally obligated to form a Government of National Unity from all parties winning twenty or more seats. Both the National Party and Inkatha obtained the required twenty seats, and, with the ANC, formed the Government of National Unity. Nelson Mandela, once the South African regime’s most reviled political prisoner, now presides as its president.
The transition from apartheid to post-apartheid South Africa is being guided by the Reconstruction and Development Program [RDP], which has as its goal the mobilization of “our people and our country’s resources toward the final eradication of apartheid and the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist future.”5
Initially, the international and domestic business communities were concerned that the RDP was an inflationary social-spending program intended to rectify the years of apartheid injustices. Instead, the Mandela government put into place austere measures aimed at promoting both foreign and domestic investment. After years of near zero growth, the economy grew at a rate of 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 1994, which brought 1994 growth to 2.3 percent.6
The government’s economic policies, coupled with its so-far-successful management of the political transition to majority rule, have bolstered confidence in its ability to transform South Africa from a conflict-ridden apartheid society to a prosperous democratic success story. Many commentators believe that the liberalization of markets and strict fiscal discipline are quickly addressing the development priorities of South Africa. However, the social and ecological legacies of apartheid will continue to affect the ability of both state and society to meet the goals of the RDP.
Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict:
A Theoretical Overview
The context specific to each case determines the precise relationship between environmental scarcity and outbreaks of violent conflict. The quantity and vulnerability of environmental resources influence the activities of a society’s population and determine the environmental impacts of these activities. Contextual factors also include the balance of political power, patterns of interaction, and the structure of economic relations among social groups. These factors affect how resources will be used, the social impact of environmental scarcities, the grievances arising from these scarcities, and whether grievances will contribute to violence. The particular relationship between state and society is crucially important to the character of the links between environmental scarcity and violence.
Degradation and depletion of agricultural land, forests, water, and fish stocks threaten many societies around the world. However, in this study we examine not only the degradation and depletion of these resources but, more generally, their scarcity. There are three types of environmental scarcity: (1) supply-induced scarcity is caused by the degradation and depletion of an environmental resource, for example, the erosion of cropland; (2) demand-induced scarcity results from population growth within a region or increased per capita consumption of a resource, either of which increase the demand for the resource; (3) structural scarcity arises from an unequal social distribution of a resource that concentrates it in the hands of relatively few people while the remaining population suffers from serious shortages.
These three types of scarcity often occur simultaneously and interact. Two patterns of interaction are common: resource capture and ecological marginalization. Resource capture occurs when increased consumption of a resource combines with its degradation: powerful groups within society – anticipating future shortages – shift resource distribution in their favor, subjecting the remaining population to scarcity. Ecological marginalization occurs when increased consumption of a resource combines with structural inequalities in distribution: denied access to enough of the resource, weaker groups migrate to ecologically fragile regions that subsequently become degraded.7
The three types of scarcity and their interactions produce several common social effects, including lower agricultural production, economic decline, migrations from zones of environmental scarcity, and weakened institutions.8 The first two of these social effects can cause objective socio-economic deprivation and, in turn, raise the level of grievance in the affected population. However, research shows that objective deprivation does not always produce strong grievances. People must perceive a relative decrease in their standard of living compared with other groups or compared with their aspirations, and they must see little chance of their aspirations being addressed under the status quo.9
High levels of grievance do not necessarily lead to widespread civil violence. At least two other factors must be present: groups with strong collective identities that can coherently challenge state authority and clearly advantageous opportunities for violent collective action against authority. For grievances to produce civil strife, such as riots, rebellion, and insurgency, the aggrieved must see themselves as members of groups that can act together, and they must believe that the best opportunities to successfully address their grievances involve violence.
Most theorists of civil conflict assume that grievances, group identities, and opportunities for violent collective action are causally independent. However, in this paper we argue, first, that grievances powerfully influence the meaning of group membership and the formation of groups and, second, that grievances can shift these groups’ perceptions of opportunities for violence. The potential for group formation increases as people identify with one another due to their shared perception of grievance, and the meaning of group membership is influenced by the degree and character of the grievance. In addition, more salient group identity influences the perception of opportunity for group action: it ensures that the costs of violent challenges to authority are distributed across many individuals, and it increases the probability that these challenges will succeed.
Civil violence is a reflection of troubled relations between state and society. Peaceful state-society relations rest on the ability of the state to respond to the needs of society – to provide, in other words, key components of the survival strategies of the society’s members – and on the ability of the state to maintain its dominance over groups and institutions in society.10 Civil society – groups separate from but engaged in dialogue and interaction with the state – presents the demands of its constituents.11 Grievances against the state will remain low if groups within society believe the state is responsive to these demands. Opportunities for violence against the state will rise when the state’s ability to organize, regulate, and enforce behavior is weakened in relation to potential challenger groups. Changes in state character and declining state resources increase the chances of success of violent collective action by challenger groups, especially when these groups mobilize resources sufficient to shift the social balance of power in their favor. 12
Environmental scarcity threatens the delicate give-and-take relationship between state and society. Falling agricultural production, migrations to urban areas, and economic decline in regions severely affected by scarcity often produce hardship, and this hardship increases demands on the state. At the same time, scarcity can interfere with state revenue streams by reducing economic productivity and therefore taxes; it can also increase the power and activity of rent-seekers13, who become ever more able to deny tax revenues on their increased wealth and to influence state policy in their favor. Environmental scarcity therefore increases society’s demands on the state while decreasing its ability to meet those demands.
Severe environmental scarcity causes groups to focus on narrow survival strategies, which reduces the interactions of civil society with the state. Society segments into groups, social interactions among groups decrease, and each group turns inwards to focus on its own concerns.14 Civil society retreats, and, as a result, society is less able to articulate effectively its demands on the state. This segmentation also reduces the density of “social capital” – the trust, norms, and networks generated by vigorous, crosscutting exchange among groups.15 Both of these changes provide greater opportunity for powerful groups to grab control of the state and use it for their own gain. The legitimacy of the state declines, as it is no longer representative of or responsive to society.
Opportunities for violent collective action can decrease, even under conditions of environmental scarcity, when the power of potential challenger groups is diffused by vigorous horizontal interaction within society and vertical interaction between civil society and the state. However, if poor socio-economic conditions persist, grievances will remain. These grievances will probably be expressed through an increase in deviant activity, such as crime. Unless the grievances are addressed, the legitimacy of the government will decrease, society will once again become segmented, and opportunities for violent collective action will correspondingly increase.
Environmental Scarcity in South Africa
This paper analyzes environment-conflict linkages in South Africa as a whole. Moreover, we make specific reference to KwaZulu-Natal because it is one of the most populous and poverty striken provinces in South Africa, and since the mid-1980s, it has also been one of the most violent.16 It is a valuable case for understanding environment-conflict linkages for two reasons. First, the University of Natal has carefully conducted research on the causes of violence within the region and has developed a useful database on migration, growth of informal settlements, and violent deaths. Second, because much of the black population in the region is Zulu, explanations of violence cannot be reduced to ethnicity. Intra-ethnic divisions – caused in part by the effects of environmental scarcity – produced levels of violence in the region akin to civil war. We outline below the environmental situation in South Africa in general, with particular attention to KwaZulu-Natal.
The South African ecosystem is characterized by low rainfall, water scarcity, and soils susceptible to erosion. Approximately 65 percent of the country receives less than 500 millimeters (mm) of annual precipitation, a threshold that is widely regarded by experts as the minimum required for rain-fed cropping.17 About 60 percent of South African cropland is characterized by low organic matter content. After repeated cultivation, organic matter is rapidly lost and the soil is easily eroded.18 Other factors affecting erosion include climate, slope, plant cover, and land-use management. Plant cover is especially critical for controlling soil erosion: in one study in the Mflozi catchment in northern KwaZulu-Natal, only 2 percent of the land receiving 900 to 1,000 mm of rain was eroded, compared with 13.5 percent of land receiving less than this amount. The reason for this curious differential was found to be the extensive plant cover within the former region.19
Low rainfall and fragile soils limit agriculture potential. Only 16 percent (about 16 million hectares) of the total amount of land used for crops and pasture is considered suitable for crops, while the rest is used for pasture. About 4 percent is high-potential agricultural land. Of the total area of cropland, 13 million hectares fall within commercial farming areas, while only 2.5 million are in small-scale farming areas in the former homelands.20 This imbalance, combined with other natural resource limits – including weak soils and poor rains – has resulted in extensive environmental scarcities in the homelands.
Structural Scarcity under Apartheid
The apartheid system institutionalized the uneven social distribution of environmental resources in South Africa, which caused serious structural scarcity for blacks.21 Land ownership by black South Africans was tightly restricted in both rural and urban areas, curtailing economic advancement. Unequal access to land affected 15 million blacks living in the homelands or as tenants and laborers on “white” land.22 In the 1980s, 95 percent of the black population earned less than 100 dollars per month, whereas 89 percent of the white population earned more. With an average disposable income of only 150 dollars a year – one-sixteenth the white average – homeland farmers in particular could not make the long-term investments necessary to protect their land.23
Table 1 uses differences in per capita availability of farmland to illustrate the structural land scarcities affecting blacks in South Africa.
Not only did blacks suffer from an imbalanced distribution of the quantity of land, but they also often received the most marginally productive land. Moreover, under the apartheid regime, structural scarcities of land were often reinforced by stark shortfalls in agricultural inputs, such as capital, fertilizer, veterinary services, and new agricultural technologies. Tables 2 and 3 compare statistics for crop yields and cattle performance in Natal and KwaZulu.
Structural scarcities of land also existed within the former homelands. Rights to communal land were unevenly distributed among homeland populations: up to 80 percent of production came from 20 percent of the farmers who controlled most of the land, and in some areas three or four landholders owned 80 percent of the livestock grazing on communal land. Widespread landlessness existed even in Transkei, the homeland with the best land, where fewer than 50 percent of villagers were allocated a field, and 60 percent had no cattle.24 In urban areas, black townships were built on sites not useful to the white community. They were often overcrowded, short of housing, and located downwind from dirty industries. Infrastructure was inferior, with few services such as electricity and running water.25 Overcrowding and poverty meant that new residents built their houses from nonconventional materials scavenged from local dumps and public buildings; they used mud, grass, and straw from nearby streams, fields, and hillsides, which tended to increase local erosion and flooding damage.
In sum, the black population, with little political or economic power in South Africa, was forced to subsist on a severely restricted and eroded land base. Because of the particular vulnerabilities of the South African ecosystem, this structural scarcity interacted with and exacerbated demand- and supply-induced scarcities.
The estimated population of South Africa in 1995 is 42.6 million, with an annual increase of 970,000. About 28 million people – over 66 percent of the population – live within towns and cities, while 15 million reside strictly within urban areas.26 The black population is expected to grow at a 3 percent rate from its current 32 million to 37.2 million people by the year 2000, which will be 78.3 percent (up from 74.8 percent in 1991) of the anticipated total population of 47.5 million. Conversely, the white population will stay constant at approximately 5 million, and its proportion of the total population will drop from 14.1 to 11.4 percent.27
The growth of the black population results in more severe scarcity of land and exacerbates the differentials in land availability per capita shown in Table 1. Under apartheid, the average population density of the former homelands was 10 times the density of rural “white” South Africa. When labor requirements in commercial agriculture declined, apartheid ensured that black South Africans could not move to cities when they were expelled from rural white areas. Police forcibly moved blacks to the homelands; partly as a result of this forced migration, the population of the homelands grew from 4.5 million to 11 million between 1960 and 1980.28 But the land area of the homelands did not increase.
In addition to this in-migration, the homelands experienced high natural population growth rates. The total fertility rate for blacks from 1985 to 1990 was estimated at 5.12 children per woman.29In 1990, Alan Durning observed, “Black couples . . . have larger families because apartheid denies them access to education, health care, family planning, and secure sources of livelihood – the things that make small families possible and advantageous.”30 Gender discrimination contributed to these high fertility rates. Priya Deshingkar, a researcher for the Land and Agriculture Policy Centre in Johannesburg, describes the responsibilities of women in informal settlements and rural regions:
As opposed to men, the lives of a majority of women in rural and peri-urban areas of South Africa are linked intimately with their natural environment in the course of their daily activities.Women are responsible for providing food, water and fuel (survival tasks); preparing food and caring for children (household tasks) and income generating activities such as trading of forest products. At the same time they are poor and face many legal and cultural obstacles which deny them the rights to own and control natural resources.31
Research conducted by Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta shows that women who lack paid employment have less decision-making authority in their families. Weak authority, combined with the usefulness of children for labor in subsistence conditions – for collecting fuelwood and water and for herding animals – leads to high fertility rates.32 In South African rural areas, black women’s responsibilities are largely unpaid, and high fertility rates are to be expected. High infant and child mortality rates also raise fertility rates, as families have no guarantee that their children will survive to adolescence. The infant-mortality rate among black children was estimated at 74 per 1,000 from 1985 to 1990.33
Population size, growth rate, and geographical distribution in KwaZulu-Natal are shown in Tables 4 and 5. These tables demonstrate that all areas in KwaZulu-Natal are experiencing population growth, with the most dramatic increases in informal settlements. In 1992, the population of informal settlements made up 26 percent of the total KwaZulu-Natal population- and the percentage was steadily increasing.
The apartheid regime situated the homelands in fragile environments with thin topsoil not suitable for supporting the level of agricultural production required by their populations.34 The result has been severe erosion: “Dongas [erosion gullies] have become small valleys which split the hillsides; soil has given way to a crumbling grey shale, stone-guilt huts squat in a scene which is almost lunar in its desolation.”35 Per capita food production in the former homelands has fallen; these areas have become net importers of food, partly a result of land degradation and high population growth rates.36 South Africa’s overall rate of topsoil loss is 20 times higher than the world’s average.37 Experts estimate that South Africa has lost 25 percent of its topsoil since 1900 and that 55 percent of South Africa is threatened by desertification.38 One study puts the daily cost to the national economy of lost production due to reduced soil fertility at about $250,000. Yet maintaining agricultural productivity is crucial, because South Africa’s food needs are predicted to double by 2020.39
Deforestation is an important form of supply-induced environmental scarcity. By destabilizing soils and changing local hydrological cycles, it disrupts key ecosystem links.40 Unfortunately, fuelwood remains the most accessible and inexpensive energy source for many rural blacks, which encourages deforestation. Inadequate energy services force about 40 percent of the South African population to depend on fuelwood for cooking and heating. Estimates place the annual volume of fuelwood consumed at 11 million metric tons.41 In the past 50 years, 200 of KwaZulu’s 250 forests have disappeared.42 A comparison of forest consumption rates with noncommercial forest growth rates shows that all ten former homelands are in a fuelwood deficit, with supplies expected to be almost gone by the year 2020.43 Wood for fuel is perceived as free, and collection costs are seen in terms of women’s time, which is generally undervalued. Moreover, “frequent fires, the high opportunity cost of land, the long time periods for tree growth, and the use of both arable and uncultivated land for grazing all discourage tree planting. Trees can be seen as a threat to crops if they compete for space, water, and labor, and if they are seen to harbor pests.”44
The scarcity and degradation of water resources is also a problem. South Africa is a water scarce county: twelve to sixteen million people lack potable water supplies, and twenty-one million people – half the country’s population – lack adequate sanitation.45 Seventy percent of urban blacks do not have access to running water and are forced to rely on severely contaminated river systems for their daily water needs.46 The water used by residents in informal settlements tends to have the highest concentrations of suspended solids and the highest level of fecal bacterial contamination.47 The wider health of South African society is at risk as the probability rises in these settlements of epidemics of cholera, gastroenteritis, dysentery, parasitic infections, typhoid, and bilharzia. Pollution from industrial sources and seepage from coal, gold, and other mines threatens the quality of both river and ground water. The level of industrial pollution is particularly severe in the former homelands, where environmental controls were nonexistent.
Summary of Environmental Scarcity in the Former Homelands
Figure 1 summarizes the causes and effects of environmental scarcity in the former homelands. Apartheid created homelands in areas with few natural resources. Resources were also inequitably distributed within the homelands themselves, as elites controlled access to productive agriculture and grazing land. Populations sustained themselves through subsistence agriculture with added remittances from family members working in industry and mines outside the homelands. Homeland agricultural producers suffered from a chronic lack of investment capital, were denied access to markets, and lacked knowledge of appropriate land-use management techniques – a product of discriminatory education and agricultural extension services. Opportunities to move into urban areas were restricted by influx control; these restrictions combined with high fertility rates to increase population densities. Soils were fragile and susceptible to erosion. Inadequate supplies of electricity and fossil fuels forced people to use fuelwood, which became more scarce. Rural poverty escalated as agricultural and grazing productivity declined from land degradation, and daily water and energy needs became ever more difficult to satisfy.
This rising scarcity of vital environmental resources boosted incentives for powerful groups within the homelands to secure access to remaining stocks – a process we call resource capture. Land rights were traded for political favors in the homelands’ highly corrupt system of political rule. The combination of overpopulation, depleted resources, and unequal resource access resulted in ecological marginalization: To survive, people migrated first to marginal lands within the homelands – hillsides, river valleys, and easily eroded sweet veld. Then, as the apartheid system began to show signs of limited reform in the early 1980s, people started moving to ecologically and infrastructurally marginal urban areas.
Environmental Scarcity in Urban Areas
Even before the collapse of apartheid, an estimated ten million people lived in informal housing in urban areas – corrugated shacks, outbuildings, and garages.48 Although the system of apartheid was initially successful in curtailing the movement of the black population to urban areas, influx control broke down in the early 1980s. In 1993, the New York Times described the implications of rapid growth in the city of Durban:
Albert and Nellie Brown need no newspaper to tell them South Africa’s old order is collapsing. They can step out on their porch in a white university neighborhood and look across the street. There, on an overgrown slope where they once expected to see a new hospital or terraces of comfortable homes like their own, is a burgeoning squatter village of mud huts, recycled plywood, plastic tents and sheet metal. The Browns can hear the whack of machetes chopping the neighborhood trees for firewood. They can smell the stink of pit toilets, and watch the daily procession of new black settlers walking up Cato Manor Road, some pushing grocery carts full of building scrap, to join an estimated 15,000 people encamped near the heart of South Africa’s second largest city.49
South Africa’s recent economic decline combined with its infrastructural shortcomings to produce a dire marginal existence for most blacks within urban areas. Urban growth has placed natural vegetation under constant attack, as the poor struggle to satisfy their basic needs. A growing population, concentrated in a limited area, coupled with the structural inequalities that deny them access to basic services, such as electricity, running water, refuse collection, and adequate sewage disposal facilities, results in environmental degradation. An estimated 25 percent of the population of informal settlements have no access to piped water, 46.5 percent have no access to electricity, and 48 percent lack adequate sanitation facilities.50 Trees are cut down for fuel, grasses are used for feeding livestock and thatching, and residents often burn the veld to promote rapid regrowth, which depletes the soil of its humus content. These processes increase soil erosion, which is particularly high during intense rainstorms.51 Devegetation leads to floods, mud slides, and sinkholes, because informal settlements are frequently in water catchment areas.52
Table 6 provides statistics on water and electricity services in informal settlements in KwaZulu-Natal and shows the degree to which the population must rely on the local environment to provide its daily needs.