Kenneth Gardens is Durban’s biggest low-income housing estate and offers subsidised housing to between 1500 and 1800 residents in Umbilo. Initially built for low-income families who were categorised as “white” under apartheid legislation in the 1940s, the 286-unit estate transformed radically in the 1990s with the dismantling of harsh segregation laws. Because of its unique history, “it now presents an unusual housing delivery space” that “sits outside of the usual racially-segregated, low-income housing developments that characterise South Africa’s landscape,” notes scholar Kira Erwin, who grew up on the estate.

A Unique History of Social Diversity

The estate’s seven-decade history is documented in a book entitled “Voices of Resilience: A Living History of Kenneth Gardens Housing Estate in Durban.” The book, written by academics, Monique Marks, Tamlynn Fleetwood and Kira Erwin, explores the profound impact of “social housing, identity formation and change, urban planning, and state regulation.” It archives the oral histories of those who lived, or still live, on the estate many of whom shared intimate moments of struggle in their lives. Vulnerabilities, personal stories, and intimate moments are at the fore of this important archive but resilience and adaptability emerge through these narratives far more significantly than hardship. Erwin writes:

“Through the narratives, we come to understand how a subsidised rental apartment becomes home, and how relative strangers can form a neighbourhood based on shared circumstances, proximity and an urban planning design that fosters familiarity and belonging.”

Voices of Resilience, published August 2020, documents the living histories of Kenneth Gardens.

Celebrated documentary photographer, Cedric Nunn, took photographs for the project and aimed to capture everyday moments that signify life on the estate. He is renowned for documenting life during apartheid and the subsequent transition to democracy. Of Kenneth Gardens, he shared:

It is with all of its issues and complexities quite an extraordinary space and one that evokes passion, usually with people that are engaged with it.

Community Looms Large in Kenneth Gardens

While things are not always easy at Kenneth Gardens, a can-do approach prevails amongst residents. The Kenneth Gardens Youth Society was formed by a group of youngsters with the key aim to clean up the estate and challenge negative stereotypes about it. The group meet every Sunday and engage in several beneficial activities such as removing old furniture and rubbish, and planting vegetables, fruit, and trees. They aim to create a plant nursery and eventually sell their produce.

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Kenneth Gardens Youth Society members: Zwakele Gcwensa, Andile Hlatshwayo, and Mo Msibi.

Other social projects include a weekly Wellness Clinic which is run by Durban University of Technology’s Homeopathy Department and the Carrot and Peas Soup Kitchen that is run by volunteers. All of these projects bring the community together and showcase the power of connection and resilience amid even the most challenging of times.

This book is bound to fascinate anyone with interest in Durban’s history, spatial politics, community histories, and the small intimate moments that interlace to build a collective history of community and connection. Kenneth Gardens as a place – while illuminating the lasting inequalities of the apartheid regime and the socioeconomic disparities that continue – also offers a beacon of hope and speaks to the power of collective action and togetherness. Commenting on the lessons the book can offer us, Erwin revealed:

“It is a history from below about living in state-subsidised housing, but it is also a book that piques the sociological imagination more broadly. For us, how the narrators of these stories negotiate difference and diversity whilst finding ways to live together and support each other, holds important lessons for all South Africans in how to build commonalities within, and across, our various social fractures.”

Voices of Resilience is available from a number of leading bookshops, some libraries, and Universities. For more information, please contact the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology.

Images courtesy of Berea Mail, Building Global Bridges, and Urban Futures Centre.

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