An increasing number of poor Southern Africans live in poverty-stricken urban slums or shantytowns. Focusing on four shantytowns in the northern Namibian town of Oshakati, this study analyses the coping strategies of the poorest sections of such populations. I ask what it is that enables some people living in oppressed and poor urban shantytowns to strive to go on with their lives or improve their situation, while others living in the same context and under the same conditions seem trapped in chronic poverty and apparently give up making much of their lives?

The study is based on fieldwork conducted intermittently from 1991 to 2001, using qualitative anthropological methods supplemented by quantitative measures of material poverty. It combines theories of political, economic and cultural structuration, and of the material and cultural basis for social relations of inclusion and exclusion. The first part traces the historical formation and structuring of oppression in Oshakati's shantytowns. Colonialism, apartheid and war forced pauperised members of the rural population into poor, dense and tense shantytowns that recast their social relationships on the basis of economic differentiation and gender. And it shows that, at odds with the project of the relatively newly independent Namibian state, of commercial capital and as represented in cultural images of modernity, the shantytowns and their residents have continued to be oppressed and marginalised within the contemporary nation-state.

Living in poor and deprived shantytowns, individuals' positions of relative well-being and poverty depend on their options and ability to establish and maintain social relationships outside those shantytowns i.e. with rural areas and the extended family, and with the formal urban town and its relations of provisioning. The poorest shanty dwellers are marginalised or excluded from such relationships due to the commodification of the hegemonic rural and urban socio-cultural formations, forcing them into social relations of poverty in the shantytowns themselves. In the shantytowns poor women increasingly form their own households and female focussed social networks centred around the informal economy and child-care to alleviate their material poverty. This process then acts to marginalise poor and unemployed men who become increasingly redundant to women's family coping strategies. Having experienced long-term processes of marginalisation and impoverishment, and becoming encapsulated in close shanty-based social networks, the very poorest and most destitute in the shantytowns find themselves in a sub-culture of destitution that further traps them in chronic poverty.

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