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Street Life under a RoofYouth Homelessness in South Africa$

Emily Margaretten

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780252039607

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252039607.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Street Life under a Roof

Emily Margaretten

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter presents ethnographic vignettes to demonstrate the institutional inequalities and interpersonal abuses characterizing the lived experiences of youth homelessness in South Africa. These vignettes exhibit how plans of “rehabilitation” essentially equate to evictions and arrests, by means of which poor black youth—deemed unfit for urban citizenship—are expelled from the city center. The chapter also introduces Point Place, a five-story apartment complex located between Durban's beachfront and central business district. In many respects, the youthful occupation of Point Place reflects the shifting demographic of South Africa's inner cities. It reveals the uneasy transitions of the lifting of repressive influx-control laws and the subsequent flight of white residents and capital from the city centers.

Keywords:   South Africa, youth homelessness, ethnographic vignettes, rehabilitation, black youth, urban citizenship, Point Place, influx-control laws, white residents

Vignette One: Vigilante Justice and Street Rehabilitation

“Did you hear what happened to me over the weekend?” A group of young men and women are relaxing in a shaded park on a Sunday afternoon. It is the end of summer in Durban, a South African city known for its subtropical climate and expansive beaches along the Indian Ocean. I am sitting near the group and overhear the story. The young woman explains to her companions that a teenage boy stole her purse while she was sunbathing on the beach. The purse contained the wallets, cell phones, and car keys of her friends, too. A few seconds after the theft, the woman realized what had happened and jumped up from her towel. She saw the teenager with her purse and shouted for help. A mob set upon the boy, who fell to the ground, trying to protect himself from the blows to his body and head.

“Ay, it was vigilante justice,” a young man remarks.

“They were angry,” the woman answers. “They hurt him badly.” She goes on to say that they brought the teenager to the police station. She decided not to press charges, though, for he already had suffered enough from the beating. The police also said that there was not much else they could do, for the boy had returned the purse to her with all the contents in it. As a final warning, they planned to drive him far out “to the bush,” where it would take him several days to walk back to the city, possibly longer because of his injuries.

“They do that for those big conferences,” another girl muses. She is referring to a practice in which police officers round up street kids from the beachfront and dump them in remote places when there is an influx of visiting foreigners and dignitaries to the city. The group is quiet, contemplating her statement as well as the mob beating of the teenage boy. (p.2)


Figure 1. The South African provinces. Durban is located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal along the Indian Ocean.

The young man who spoke of vigilante justice remarks, “There’s no chance for rehabilitation, is there?” The others nod in agreement.

Vignette Two: Urban Renewal and Unsightly Buildings

It is crowded in the Durban International Convention Center, its conference hall filled with reporters and delegates wearing well-pressed suits and, in many cases, police uniforms. They mill around the room, amicably greeting (p.3)


Figure 2. Downtown Durban. The Point Area is located on the right-hand side of the map. It covers the land that extends past Addington Beach but also is used as a shorthand designation for the part of the city that goes inland from Addington Beach and continues on Point Road parallel to South Beach.



Figure 3. The Durban beachfront.

one another before taking their seats in rows of evenly spaced chairs. The delegates—representatives from the Departments of Health and Social Welfare and the Chambers of Tourism and Business—are there to attend an inaugural “Safety and Security Summit.” I have come with an older street youth named Shorty. Many of his friends intended to join us, but on seeing the large number of law enforcement officers, they lost their nerve and left the building. Shorty is not worried, for he does not have an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He is there to learn what the city plans for him and his friends.

In her presentation to the audience, a municipal official informs us about what these plans entail.1 She focuses on a flagship project of the Safety and Security Summit—a project that aims to “rehabilitate” the city center by addressing one “bad” building at a time. The initiative will start with a condemned apartment complex in a downtrodden part of the city known as the Point Area. As she explains it, the building is an “eyesore,” a place of social degradation and bad hygiene that accommodates thieves, drug lords, sex workers, and street youth; it hosts a cache of stolen firearms, too. Shorty and I look at each other, amused. The woman’s description is highly sensationalized, and her last statement is entirely untrue.

(p.5) After the formal speeches, the audience is encouraged to ask questions. People state their affiliations and make various suggestions. Shorty waits until hands are no longer being raised. He stands up and then announces to the room, “I’m from that building you want to close down, that building called Point Place.”

The audience laughs, but this does not deter Shorty.

“I’ve grown up on the streets. I’ve been living in Point Place for years now.”

The din lessens.

“I’ve nowhere else to go. Point Place is my home.” Shorty pauses, carefully choosing his words. “Yes, I’ve committed crimes, you see, to survive. My friends, too, they’ve committed crimes. We want to change. But how can we do this if we’re thrown onto the streets?”

Finished with his speech, Shorty sits down. “Amen!” a few people call out, applauding enthusiastically. Soon afterward, with no apparent resolution, the summit ends. Newspaper reporters jostle me to edge closer to Shorty. They want to photograph and interview him. I wait for him to finish. As we leave the room, we pass by a buffet table spread out with meat kebabs, savory samosas, and fresh fruit. Good food is difficult to come by in Point Place, and I ask Shorty if he would like something to eat. “No,” he replies with a smile that is both ironic and sincere, “it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

I introduce Street Life under a Roof through these ethnographic vignettes to illustrate the institutional inequalities and interpersonal abuses that characterize the lived experiences of youth homelessness in South Africa. The first vignette presents a perspective that is fairly common to South Africa’s privileged classes. It describes a group of young men and women who, although sympathetic to the plight of a beaten teenager, believe that “rehabilitation” offers a solution to his criminal acts. Implicit in this view is the assumption that the teenager lacks the capacity to conform to societal norms and therefore requires some type of intervention. The second vignette also presents a perspective on “rehabilitation.” In this case it is a municipal official’s description of “bad” and unsightly buildings, a description that she extends to the occupants as well. Plans of “rehabilitation” essentially equate to evictions and arrests, by means of which poor black youth—deemed unfit for urban citizenship—are expelled from the city center.

In detailing these forced removals, Street Life under a Roof offers a counter-view to popular perceptions of youth homelessness. It argues that “rehabilitation” is not needed because these youth share the same aspirations, ideals, and (p.6) hopes of their wider South African society. They too want to live in a loving and secure home; they want a good education and gainful employment; they want to provide for their dependents—elders and children alike. In sum, they want to carry purses, which impart symbolic and material significance, as they hold wallets, cell phones, and rings of keys to cars, homes, and places of work.

The attainment of these aspirations is unlikely, however, as South Africa has one of the highest measures of income inequality in the world.2 This inequality, which has a historical basis in the political, social, and economic disenfranchisements of apartheid rule,3 is reflected most acutely in the national unemployment rate, which hovers around 36.3 percent.4 This is a striking figure considering that South Africa has a well-developed industry in mining, manufacturing, and agriculture and boasts the largest export-based economy in Africa. It has a strong finance sector, too. Nonetheless, unemployment remains high as the country fails to develop policies to absorb large amounts of unskilled labor—primarily black labor—into its market-driven economy. “Unemployment,” as economist Nicoli Nattrass (2007:179) writes, “is now the major driver of poverty and inequality” in South Africa. These inequalities present themselves in categories not only of race, class, and gender, but also of age.5

Youth between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five constitute the largest proportion of the unemployed in South Africa. To account for the severity of the situation, the South African government has taken to referring to a specific group of youth, those between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, with the acronym NEET—Not in Employment, Education, or Training. Approximately 31.4 percent, or 3.3 million youth, fall into the category of NEET, which the government also identifies as “idle youth” (Statistics South Africa 2012a:3).

Idle: “not working, active, or being used: not having any real purpose or value” (Merriam-Webster.com). With respect to formal institutions—like the market economy, education, and training—the definition of “idle” accurately depicts the life circumstances of the young men and women in this book. The majority of them are not employed, in school, or engaged in vocational activities. When asked about their day, many will respond with a shrug and say, “I’m just sitting.” Ethnographic evidence from other parts of Africa suggests a similar state of idleness for its youth populations, as they are unable to access desirable jobs or further their aspirations with formal education and training (Mains 2007; Weiss 2009). Moreover, with increasing exposure to global capitalism, media, and commodity goods, these youth find themselves in the position of wanting more with fewer means of legitimate acquisition (Cole 2004; Hansen 2008).

(p.7) At a macro level, much of this commonality across Africa relates to neoliberal economic reforms that were advocated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and 1990s. The implementation of structural adjustment programs devalued local currencies, restricted government spending, and privatized state assets, which in turn pushed up the prices of commodity goods, cut social welfare services, and created higher levels of unemployment. Historian Mamadou Diouf (2003:4) links these economic reforms to a bankruptcy in political projects, too, which once promoted African youth as vanguards of national liberation struggles and as icons of postcolonial development and reform. No longer is this the case. As Diouf (2003:5) elaborates:

This loss of status is reflected in the physical and intellectual collapse of the institutions of supervision and education, the absence of health coverage, and the massive and aggressive presence of young people on the streets, at public garbage dumps, and in urban and rural undergrounds. The reclassification of young people is manifested in hostility toward them. This takes increasingly violent forms which, combined with disdain and indifference on the part of the elites, renders their present difficult and their future unpredictable.

Yet, while African youth find themselves excluded from formal institutions, especially those that promote their wellbeing, this is not to say they have shrunk from the public sphere. If anything, as Diouf (2003:5) writes, their presence is magnified, often violently so, as they turn to urban areas, and more particularly the streets, to defy and appropriate their marginalization by the state and society at large. Hence, recent anthropological studies about youth in postcolonial Africa tend to gravitate toward metaphors of maneuverability to describe their social identities and practices. Youth are “makers and breakers” (De Boeck and Honwana 2005:2), “navigators” (Vigh 2006:31), “generators” (Christiansen et al. 2006:21), and “social shifters” (Durham 2004:592). In each case they are represented as agents of considerable mobility and social change.6

With these considerations, this book presents the distinct cultural universe of youth who refuse to accept the bleak prospects of their socioeconomic subjugation. They do so, moreover, through their very movements on the streets, transforming public spaces into domestic spaces. The title of the book, Street Life under a Roof, conveys these experiences and patterns of living. It delineates the daily routines, exchanges, and interpersonal relationships that make urban survival not only possible but also meaningful. In this regard, the government’s attribution of “idle” to its youth is misleading, for the young men and women in this study do not succumb to inactivity but rather do the (p.8)


Figure 4. Rooftop graffiti by street youth.

opposite. They set up structures of domesticity at the very edges of public acceptability—in alleyways and gutters, underneath protruding overhangs, in parking lots and condemned buildings. Their shelters—constructed from cardboard boxes, plastic tarps, and oftentimes just blankets—are impervious to idleness, for they undergo constant modification and degradation, and when the state is involved, outright demolition. To draw on the apt metaphor of one law enforcement official, these sites are like mushroom patches: they seem to spring up overnight (helped by rain) and disappear just as quickly. Analytically, one can even extend the metaphor of the mushroom patch to view these shelters as a type of “youthscape”—a geopolitical configuration of cultural spaces connecting youth to one another and to larger globalizing institutions, ideologies, and technologies (Maira and Soep 2005).

Puff and Pass

The stark graffiti shown in figure 4, written on the rooftop of one such shelter, conveys the impermanence of these cultural spaces. “Puff and Pass” refers to drug use, to the smoking of a joint or Mandrax pipe.7 It also describes the moral economy of the streets, of having very little and sharing with a person, (p.9) most likely a friend, sitting nearby. The accompanying script “When days are dark, friends are few” offers a cautionary adage. It highlights the volatility of street life as well as the capricious nature of social relationships. To the far left, “[Blank] is a scrub” similarly conveys the disappointments of social relationships, in this case a sexual relationship. Taken from the American hip-hop group TLC and their hit song “No Scrubs,” the graffiti presents a commentary on deadbeat boyfriends, on those who cannot fulfill emotional and material commitments. It is notable, too, that the boyfriend’s name is removed, literally scrubbed off, erasing an individual identity to leave the scrub as an everyman. These sentiments—“Puff and Pass,” “When days are dark, friends are few,” and “[Blank] is a scrub”—animate the ensuing chapters of this book. They speak to the centrality of social relationships in the lives of street youth as well as to the structural violence—the poverty, addictions, illnesses, and abuses—that shape the uncertainties of their urban survival. And here perhaps “Puff and Pass” sums it up best, for it emphasizes the transience of street life under a roof, of inhaling, exhaling, and moving on either in life or in death.

Vodacom! Tokyo Cars! Chicken-Licken! Billboards and advertisements abound in the Point Area, but no painted sign, mailbox, or number announces the address of Point Place. In the early mornings, fog rolls in from the Indian Ocean, shrouding the building in mist. With the hazy sun the fog lifts, replaced by car exhaust and the bustle of passing pedestrians. Rarely do they look up to catch a glimpse of the young occupants peering outside. Only the gaping windows, without panes or curtains, reveal that something is amiss.

Point Place is a five-story apartment complex that is located in between Durban’s beachfront and central business district. Its proximity to the recreational and commercial sectors of the city makes the building an attractive residence, at least to the untrained eye. For as it stands today, Point Place has no working electricity, running water, or sanitation services. Since the mid-1990s, following the overturn of apartheid rule, a constant stream of tenants has occupied the twelve apartment units within Point Place. The ground floor of the building, once a family restaurant, now operates as a nightclub. The upper residential floors have been cut up, diced up, and leased out so many times that not a single room conforms to its intended blueprint layout. Further confounding this legibility, most of the original owners have moved abroad. As a consequence, the body corporate of Point Place has ceased to exist, making it difficult for the Durban municipality to enforce its housing bylaws. To collect on outstanding debts, in 2001 the municipality cut off all services to and from the building.

(p.10) At the time of this municipal cutoff, Durban’s older street youth faced a shutout of their own kind. The Street Children’s Forum—a service provider for children’s shelters—lowered the intake age for accepting youth directly off the streets. Overnight, those who were sixteen years of age and older found themselves without affordable accommodation. Unable or unwilling to return home, most of these youth returned to the streets. A few, however, knew about Point Place. They had learned of its whereabouts from a shelter worker who was residing in the building at the time. Sympathetic to their plight, he allowed a group of older boys to enter one of the vacated units. From there they made steady inroads, their numbers growing to incorporate companions on the streets. By 2003, Durban’s older street youth—males and females between the ages of fourteen and twenty-nine—had claimed eight out of the twelve apartments within Point Place as their de facto rent-free domain.

In many respects, the youthful occupation of Point Place reflects the shifting demographic of South Africa’s inner cities. It reveals the uneasy transitions of a post-apartheid state, the lifting of repressive influx-control laws (which until the mid-1980s restricted Africans’ residence in urbanized areas) and the subsequent flight of white residents and capital from the city centers. The structure of Point Place reveals this rapid disinvestment, as does its disconnection from basic municipal services. Yet, while the building’s physical disrepair points to the socioeconomic disparities of urban life, its internal composition suggests a different story. For the large number of youth residing here—up to a hundred at any given time—signals an undertaking of enterprise and activity as opposed to abandonment or idleness. It points to a continuation of social connections despite the welfare gaps, disappointments, and setbacks of institutional structures. Ultimately, then, I contend that the Point Place youth—contrary to the assertions of the general public—do not set out to oppose the regulatory practices of the state. Rather, they reside together to mediate the inequalities of urban life. In the process they transform their social dislocations into rich cultural forms of domestic companionship, care, and cohabitation.

The research for this book spans a decade, from 2000 to 2010, providing a longitudinal view of the lives of street youth in post-apartheid South Africa. While I conducted preliminary investigations of street shelters in the summers of 2000, 2001, and 2002, the majority of my research derives from my two-year field stay in Durban, which occurred between September 2003 and August 2005. In 2008 I returned to South Africa as a postdoctoral fellow at (p.11) the University of the Witwatersrand. During this time I traveled back and forth from Johannesburg and Durban, spending ten months, until 2010, conducting follow-up research with street youth and their families.

My findings largely draw from the anthropological field methods of participant observation, semistructured and unstructured interviews, informal conversations, and a demographic survey that I administered inside Point Place. I also make extensive use of local newspapers as well as scholarly sources to triangulate my data and frame my analysis. Over the course of my field research, I interviewed approximately one hundred street youth, with a large number of them participating in follow-up and group interviews. I conducted these interviews primarily in isiZulu, the language that is spoken most commonly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. My knowledge of isiZulu derives from two years of formal language training in graduate school at Yale University as well as an intensive summer language course in South Africa that included rural and township home stays as well.

In addition to interviewing street youth, I spent a significant amount of time traveling to their homes and speaking with their family members. These visits proved invaluable to my research, for they helped me corroborate life stories while providing a better understanding of the love and commitment—and suffering and abuse—that underpin the relationships of youth living in the city. Telling, too, is that during these home visits, their kinsfolk would press photo albums into my hands, showing me pictures of family members—alive, missing, and deceased—while narrating their accomplishments and tribulations. The walls of their living rooms also displayed portraits of kin, honoring and recognizing their presence in the home.

The prominence and, indeed, celebration of these photographs sits uneasily with my obligation not to include identifiable pictures of individuals in my publications, a requirement of the institutional review board that oversaw my fieldwork, which also stipulated that I change the names of my research participants. Therefore, this book displays photographs of places and events devoid of identifiable individuals. My intention is not to marginalize or stigmatize the Point Place youth or their families. I make an exception only with my research assistant, Ofentse, who was invaluable in helping me carry out this project and requested that I include her photograph in my work.

Although I am unable to include identifiable pictures of the Point Place youth, I do my best to convey the substance and style of their communicative praxis: their articulations and deliberations, their reflections and intercessions. My narrative approach draws on what anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman (1996:172) describe as “experience-near” research, as it “interprets patterns of meaning within situations” while also putting forth (p.12) a “liberating distance” that stems from an “appreciation of shared human conditions.” Similar to the Kleinmans’ focus on the interpersonal and experiential, Michael Jackson (1996) calls for anthropologists to engage in a project of “radical empiricism,” which he describes as “a methodology and discursive style that emphasizes the subject’s experience and involvement with others in the construction of knowledge” (Narayan 1993:680). With these insights, I privilege the ethnographic context of lived experiences as I frame my observations and conversations—frequently presented as stylized field notes—through the intonations of the Point Place youth: the rhythms, cadences, and modulations of language and bodily practice that inflect their life stories with feeling and emotion, with sentiments of more than mere survival.

For organizational clarity, I have divided the book into three ethnographic parts. In part 1, “Street Life under a Roof,” I discuss my methodological and analytical entrée into the world of street shelters, which began in the year 2000. At the time, I was participating in a social service program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. Professors at the university asked me to investigate a children’s shelter in the city center, which they were considering as a site for internship programs. The shelter had an unsavory reputation, so before they involved students, they wanted to make sure that children were not kept there by force.8 Over the course of my investigations, I learned the opposite to be the case: far from a site of detention, it was one of routine eviction, with male adolescents and younger females consistently rejected from the premises. In 2002 these same youth—deemed too old, unruly, or sexually promiscuous to gain access to the welfare services of the state—introduced me to shelters of their own making.

Chapter 1, “Shelter Hopping,” traces the institutional displacements and disenfranchisements of Durban’s street youth population. It follows their movements from shelter to shelter as they attempt to establish a semblance of stability in a precarious situation of state-sanctioned evictions and arrests. Here I introduce close associates, including my research assistant, Ofentse, who make regular appearances in ensuing chapters. I also outline the centrality of Point Place as a viable yet problematic housing option for older street youth and females. Chapter 1 thus sets up the overarching narrative of Street Life under a Roof, in which youth look to each other to mitigate the hardships of their urban poverty.

Chapter 2, “Standing (K)in,” draws on an analytical framework of “relatedness” to present the everyday attachments—the kinships, friendships, and (p.13) sexual partnerships—of the Point Place youth. To convey the fluidity of these relationships, I refer to the idiom of ukuma, which in isiZulu means “to stand.” Sometimes the youth in this study “stand for one another” (ukumelana), while at other times they “stand in the way” (ukumuma) of each other. Their various enactments of ukuma speak to the hierarchies of urban survival as well as to the commensalities. Hence, while this chapter details the conflicts that occur within Point Place—as seen through a court case drama—it also reveals the practices of solidarity that maintain the Point Place youth on a day-to-day basis. With ukuma at the forefront of its investigations, it shows how youth negotiate their standing in society precisely through their relationships with one another—as kin, friends, and lovers.

Part 2, “Domesticities, Intimacies, and Reciprocities,” conveys the material and emotional exchanges of love and survival on the streets. I present chapters three and four as companion pieces, meant to complement each other through the respective viewpoints of the Point Place females and males. These chapters continue to focus on the relationships of the Point Place youth while also bringing in broader concerns framed by the socioeconomic and political inequalities of the global AIDS pandemic. At the time of this research, international drug companies restricted the South African government from importing generic and thus affordable drugs to treat HIV/AIDS. Subsequently, the majority of the South African population did not have access to antiretroviral treatment, which also could have helped reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. In this context of massive life disparities, chapters three and four discuss the sexual intimacies of the Point Place youth. I argue that the debilitating effects of HIV/AIDS are not a manifestation of youth degeneracy or irresponsibility, but rather should be seen as an outcome of inequality, dependency, and love.

Chapter 3, “Love, Betrayal, and Sexual Intimacy,” takes up the challenge of understanding why the Point Place females, who are aware of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, agree to unprotected intercourse. Certainly material circumstances impinge on their capacity to negotiate condom use, yet this does not fully account for why they distinguish different sexual encounters with different degrees of risk. In short, the Point Place females use condoms with boyfriends who reside outside the building but not with boyfriends who reside within the building. Their construction of “outside” and “inside” boyfriends links up to notions of trust and, more specifically, to acts of nakana,9 which in isiZulu means “to care about or take notice of one another.” The Point Place females repeatedly cite the ongoing support of nakana—with its emphasis on domestic companionship and reciprocity—as the motivating reason for why they agree to condom-less sex with their Point Place (p.14) boyfriends. This in turn opens them up to the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which they view as acceptable when compared to the perils of being unloved or forsaken on the streets.

Chapter 4, “Love, Respect, and Masculinity,” discusses nakana from the perspective of the Point Place males. Like the females, they, too, link nakana to love and acts of reciprocity, which they also connect to a shared living space. While chapter 4 discusses nakana in relation to categories of sexual exchange, chapter 5 considers it in relation to models of masculinity. Specifically, it addresses the production of patriarchy inside Point Place, where the males set up a paradoxical living arrangement. Because they do not trust the Point Place females—whom they deem sexually promiscuous—they select girlfriends from outside the building. They bring these girlfriends inside as rooming companions, creating a situation in which an “outside” girlfriend becomes an “inside” girlfriend and therefore a figure to be distrusted. To protect themselves, the Point Place males resort to disciplinarian tactics meant to control the behavior of their sexual partners. Condoms, from their perspective, indicate failure because their girlfriends—deemed trustworthy before entering Point Place—should be HIV free. In this context, unprotected sex is an affirmation of nakana as well as a successful dominant masculinity.

Whereas parts 1 and 2 largely focus on the intragenerational fellowships of the city, part 3, “The Power of Home,” presents the intergenerational rifts that characterize the home situations of the Point Place youth. In many respects, these rifts reflect the demographic losses of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, as the province of KwaZulu-Natal has the highest HIV prevalence and incidence rates in the country, leaving it with the largest number of AIDS orphans, too. Bereft of material and emotional support, many of these youth—like the Point Place youth—have taken to the streets. Yet, while the impact of HIV/AIDS is profound in KwaZulu-Natal, it tells only part of the story about the estrangements of kinship in the home. Chapters six and seven detail the fragility of these ties, linking the moral dominion of the home to the perceived immoralities of the streets.

Chapter 5, “Residing with the Spectral,” reveals the psychological turmoil of street life under a roof. Rather than speak of their losses outright—the losses of kin, friends, and lovers to the violence of poverty and HIV/AIDS—the Point Place youth speak of uGogo, a ghostly grandmother who torments youth to their death by enticing them to jump out of windows. From their narratives of despair and destruction, I explore the various significations of uGogo’s presence. Why does she appear to some youth and not others? Is she a witch? An ancestor? A drug-induced hallucination? To answer these questions, I privilege a symbolic analysis of uGogo, linking her floating associations (p.15) to a broader discussion of spirituality, witchcraft, and death in post-apartheid South Africa.

In chapter 6, “Homecomings,” I travel to the townships and rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal to understand the home situations of the Point Place youth. Here I meet their kinsfolk, who explain the reasons for their children’s departures. While acknowledging the material constraints of their homes, they also refer to infractions from the past. They speak of unsuitable marital alliances, inactive lineages, and unfulfilled filial obligations. In short, they refer to the estrangements of kin, which include not only the living but also the deceased—or the amadlozi (ancestors). Chapter 7 thus presents the power of the home through the intervening authority of the amadlozi. From these ties of kinship, it investigates the possibilities of reconciliation, of youth returning to their homes to appease the conflicts of the past and to extend the lifelines of their lineages.

The conclusion to the book summarizes the major themes of Street Life under a Roof, emphasizing the connections between everyday relatedness and companionship—or nakana—on the streets. It also presents the endings to the stories of the Point Place youth. Notably, a substantial number of them are still seeking shelter in the city center. Chapter 8 thus reviews the housing options for the urban poor, noting the lived disparities between political rhetoric and practice that make the basic right of dignified life, including the right to shelter, an unlikely reality for South Africa’s older street youth population. (p.16)


(1.) Local newspaper headlines, which appeared a few days later, sum up these initiatives as well: “Joint Plan of Attack Pledged against Murky Underworld” (Newman 2004b); “Dodgy Areas to Be Tackled One by One” (Newman 2004a); “eThekwini Declares War on Crime” (Metro 2004). The Daily News in its coverage of the summit reported, “As the municipality steps up its no-holds-barred campaign to ruthlessly enforce the city’s by-laws, more than 400 buildings in the [central business district] alone have been identified as ‘sick’” (Madlala 2004).

(2.) The Gini index measures the level of inequality, in terms of income or wealth, within a country. A Gini coefficient of zero indicates perfect equality. In 2009 the World Bank reported the Gini coefficient for South Africa as 63.9. The income share of the highest 10 percent was 51.7 percent, while the income share of the lowest 10 percent was 1.2 percent. GINI Index (World Bank estimate), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI, accessed March 19, 2013.

(3.) The apartheid government—associated with white minority rule—came into power in 1948 with the election of the National Party. Known for its discriminatory policies, the National Party implemented a regime of racial segregation that affected all aspects of political, social, and economic life in South Africa.

(4.) This figure reflects an expansion of the unemployment rate to include people not actively searching for a job.

(5.) The expanded unemployment rate for black South Africans is 46.3 percent, compared to 10.2 percent for white South Africans. The expanded unemployment rate for women is higher, too. For black women it is 52.9 percent, compared to 8.1 percent for white men (Statistics South Africa 2012b:51–52).

(6.) As a caveat regarding ahistorical, atomized, and romanticized notions of youth agency, anthropologist Deborah Durham (2008:154) cautions against using the concept too generally. Rather, as she writes in relation to youth, “We must ask what kind (p.186) of agency they might have, how they come by it and exercise it, and how their agency relates them to others and to their society.”

(7.) Mandrax, the brand name by which methaqualone is known in South Africa and Europe, is a potent barbiturate. (The U.S. brand name is Quaalude.) To make their high cost-effective, street youth will crush the Mandrax tablet and sprinkle it on top of dagga, which they light and smoke through the stem of a broken glass bottle.

(8.) This request coincided with the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, which prompted a citywide “cleanup” campaign, including the sweeping up of children into street shelters. The 2000 conference also was defined by the political stance of South African president Thabo Mbeki, who denied that there was a causal link between HIV and AIDS. President Mbeki’s denial had profound implications for street youth, who, as I discuss in subsequent chapters, rarely seek HIV testing.

(9.) I drop the prefix uku- to make the verb stem nakana distinguishable to the English reader. Except for the monosyllabic verb stem ukuma and its related concepts, ukumelana and ukumuma, I drop the subject prefix uku- with verbs I discuss in subsequent chapters as well.