Social movements and the struggle for shelter: A case study of eThekwini (Durban)

Diana Mitlin, Jan Mogaladi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The needs of informal settlement dwellers across towns and cities in the global South are acute. While much emphasis has been placed on income poverty, for urban dwellers affordable access to improved secured accommodation and basic services such as water and sanitation is essential for well-being. In part due to the lack of such access, urban citizens organize in multiple ways to address these needs and to press for state investment and redistribution. South Africa, despite relatively high levels of income and a state with redistributive capacity, is no exception. Indeed, this country is particularly interesting for those seeking to understand effective approaches to addressing housing need because of the efforts that have been made and the resultant scale of state investment in the housing sector. This paper draws on the experiences of urban social movement organizations in South Africa to understand better how shelter needs can be addressed. We reflect on their goals, strategies and activities and explore what this means for themes discussed within the social movement literature. The research has a specific focus on the city of eThekwini/Durban primarily because of the scale of social movement activities there.The paper describes the core concerns with respect to shelter as elaborated by social movement activists, staff of other civil society agencies and officials. While there is a broad consensus about the shelter problems, there is less agreement about solutions. The discussion summarises the shelter objectives and core strategies used by the social movement activists, and considers the success they have had. This includes reviewing their understanding of what success is and how success is achieved. Movement organisations have been able to secure access to the housing subsidy scheme for their members. However, their progress has been limited. The paper concludes that there is a primary focus on what is offered through state programmes and policies despite evident shortcomings. While there is an awareness of the misfit between available programmes, the needs of movement members and more general shelter needs, no fundamental challenge is being made to the dominant approach. A second finding is that while movement members and leaders have an explicit focus on material improvements, underlying their motivations and some of their strategies and actions is the more fundamental goal to be treated as equal citizens. In this dimension, movement organizations seek both recognition of their citizenship as well as the redistribution of state resources. Third, we argue that while social movement progress is related to the political opportunity structures, it also depends on the ability of movement organizations to manage the emerging opportunities, particularly their relationships with the state, professional support organizations and other movement organizations. Relations shift between contention and collaboration to improve negotiating positions, secure access to shelter and achieve greater political inclusion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-39
Number of pages39
JournalProgress in Planning
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2013


  • EThekwini/Durban
  • Housing policy
  • Low-income shelter
  • South Africa
  • Urban social movements


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