Striking images of economic inequality

Friday December 16 2016

The rebuilt shacks were separated by a land buffer, with fencing to separate Strand — the wealthier housing settlement — from Nomzamo, South Africa. PHOTO | JOHNNY MILLER

Rising populations and rapid urbanisation are some of the biggest opportunities of our time, economists say. But these global trends present a challenge for city planners to undo the inequality that has been shaped by history.

From Kampala to Nairobi to Cape Town, and Mexico City to Mumbai, more people are moving to urban centres every day in search of jobs. In Uganda, some 40,000 people migrate to Kampala every week, and 60,000 in India and China are joining cities daily.

“The numbers are staggering for the physical and urban planners,” said Francis Kamulegeya, a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers Uganda.

In South Africa, between 1996 and 2012, cities accounted for 75 per cent of jobs created, and the United Nations estimates that 71.3 per cent of the country’s population will live in cities by 2030.

The challenge, according to Andries Carl Nel, the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Deputy Minister, is that urban poverty is increasing in South Africa’s townships, informal settlements and inner cities.

New arrivals in cities are likely to live in slums, partly because of their economic means, but also because of historical policies of apartheid in South Africa and colonial zoning in Kenya, Uganda, India and Mexico that created enclaves for each class.


Unequal Scenes

Although the reality may not be obvious to a city dweller on either side, photographer Johnny Miller has helped capture the divide. Using his Inspire drone, the Seattle-born photographer, who moved to South Africa five years ago, has taken aerial photographs that he refers to as “visual metaphors of inequality.”

From November 7 to 9, Miller exhibited his photo project, titled Unequal Scenes, at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; he said his project started as a hobby but has grown bigger than he imagined, attracting mainstream and social media coverage, and has taken him to several cities around the world.


Hout Bay next to Imizamo Yethu, a settlement in Cape Town. Despite the high gates and concrete fences, separating the rich and poor, residents on either side say they don’t feel safe. PHOTO | JOHNNY MILLER

The most unequal scene taken is of Mexico City’s slum of Neza, a gigantic concrete network of houses, with an over one million population. Kidnapping is routine, so locals are suspicious of anyone filming their residences.

Masked police officers and others riding on pickups mounted with machine guns patrol the area, but locals said, “The more police they saw, the less safe they felt” according to

In Nairobi, the photographer flew his drone over Loresho and Kibera. The former is a community for wealthy and poor Kenyans alike. The rich live in planned, gated communities, side by side with a slum of rusty tin rooftop houses facing all directions.

In Kibera, the houses are made of mud, sticks and tin with rusted roofs. An estimated 2.5 million people call this slum home, and have to live with the noise of a passenger train hurtling through twice daily.

Just behind two lines of rusty blocks is the greenery of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, where one can play a round of golf and enjoy other club amenities.  

Kampala presents equally unequal scenes. As a consequence of colonial zoning, the sprawling slum of Kamwokya lies across the road from the high-end suburb of Kololo with big homes in large gardens, complete with coffee shops and 3D cinema halls in marble-finished shopping malls.

But Miller could not capture the Kampala images after hitting bureaucratic hurdles over flying his drones.

“Drones are still a grey area in many parts of the world. You can fly one in Kenya, but the country is still a long way from appreciating the use of drones for business. And Uganda is even worse,” he said.

Vegetation - a sign of inequality

The images of South African cities are especially emotive; the country has changed little in the 22 years since apartheid ended — the politics may have changed but the legacy lives on.

“I would guess that people feel that there is a human planning element in South Africa that directly arose from apartheid, which makes people feel a combination of sadness, guilt, and impassioned anger. I have seen people get passionate about inequalities in the US as well. I suppose it’s about where your personal story comes from,” Miller said.  

Tin shacks competing for every available space are homes for the poor, while a few metres away, gated homes with paved access roads, greenery, parking spaces and sprawling golf courses are symbols of the opulence in which the rich live.


The Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course, located along the slopes of the Umgeni River in Durban, is still a striking symbol of inequality — an informal settlement of tin shacks thrives just metres away from the tee for the sixth hole, separated only by a low slung concrete fence. PHOTO | JOHNNY MILLER

“The biggest sign of poverty versus wealth was the issue of vegetation. You can see in most of my photos that the wealthier areas have nice green trees and yards. Not so in the poorer parts. That, and the lack of vehicles. You can even see this from a satellite view — the concrete versus green colours,” said Miller. 

At times, the shacks appear like a painter’s brush strokes carefully worked to seal off every open spot on the canvas. Other characteristics of these settlements are dirt pathways and bare surfaces — where they exist — and power lines bypassing the shacks.

Each lost in their own disparate world, the residents thought they knew their neighbourhoods until they saw Miller’s aerial photos.

“I did interviews in Nomzamo. I’ve talked to a lot of people in Cape Town and they’ve told me they didn’t know it looked like this. The locals told me they didn’t know it was this bad.

“Looking at it from an aerial shot is not subjective. It’s like a map. It doesn’t say this or that colour. But it’s an image that tells you why we must see concrete plans to transcend this type of planning.


“A lot of work that is being done is reinforcing apartheid-era planning. I think that the divisions themselves need to be addressed more strongly, specifically the spaces ‘in between’.” 

Bordered by the communities of Stand and Somerset West, Nomzamo is a township 40km east of Cape Town, conceived as an area to accommodate about 500 single male immigrant workers in 1960, Miller writes.

Later, the township grew and now has a population of over 60,000. In an attempt to change things in 2014, the City of Cape Town forcibly removed many people from their shacks to resettle them elsewhere.

The rebuilt shacks were separated by a land buffer, with fencing to separate Strand — the wealthier housing settlement — from Nomzamo.


The rebuilt shacks were separated by a land buffer, with fencing to separate Strand — the wealthier housing settlement — from Nomzamo, South Africa. PHOTO | JOHNNY MILLER

The aerial images are devoid of bias, and they present the gulf between the lives of the wealthy and the poor.

“I have spoken to residents in wealthier neighbourhoods, notably Hout Bay in Cape Town. They don’t feel safe there. And the huge fences and gates attest to that. I don’t think anyone feels comfortable in these environments, rich or poor,” Miller said.

Apparently, the people living in the poorer neighbourhoods are more concerned with their own wellbeing than what they consider “unjustly” living in poverty next to really rich people. 

However, in reference to their rich neighbours they say, “There does tend to be a racial dynamic” that manifests in the poor referring to the rich as “them” or somehow making them “the other,” Miller says of the poor. 


The idea of equality that Nelson Mandela had in mind when he fought to end apartheid hasn’t quite arrived.

One of striking examples of this contrast is the Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course, named after Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum, an apartheid era self-taught golfer of Indian descent.

In 1965, Sewgolum famously beat South African white golfer Gary Player and won the Natal Open — the only non-white to win the tournament.

The tournament was held at the Durban Country Club, and at the time the clubhouse was a no-go area for non-whites. 

Sewgolum received his prize outside the club house, in the pouring rain, while the white players sat in the clubhouse.

Images of him receiving his prize were broadcast around the world, resulting in international outrage and several countries imposing sanctions on South African sports events.

But while Sewgolum’s career was set to take off, the apartheid South African government banned him from local tournaments and withdrew his passport, forcing him to stop competing abroad.

Sewgolum died from a heart attack in 1978; he was aged 50, and impoverished.  

Now, decades later, the golf course, located along the slopes of the Umgeni River in Durban, is still a striking symbol of inequality — an informal settlement of tin shacks thrives just metres away from the tee for the sixth hole, separated only by a “low slung concrete fence.

Visual metaphor

“This is a powerful visual metaphor. It’s one of the most published images in this project,” said Miller, pointing at a picture of the carefully manicured golf course.

It is a long shot, but Miller is optimistic that his photography is making an impact and could change the narrative of inequality that exists in most cities of South Africa, many years after the fall of apartheid.

“The Western Cape provincial government has used these images repeatedly and I just found out that there is a conference that’s been planned for 2018, inspired by the photos and set up by the government,” he said.