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"District 9" puts spotlight on South Africa's housing crisis

Movie shows shacks for aliens, where many blacks still live 15 years after apartheid.

The alien "prawns" from outer space are confined to shacks in a Johannesburg township in the movie "District 9." Black South Africans who live in the township homes in Soweto hope that the attention from the movie will help them get better dwellings. (Photo courtesy TriStar Pictures)

SOWETO, South Africa — For Solomon Baloyi, acting as an extra in the sci-fi film "District 9" wasn’t much of a stretch.

Baloyi played a security guard tasked with evicting aliens from their squalid shacks. In real life, he lives in that neighborhood. In fact, one of the helicopter scenes was shot in the clearing next to his makeshift house, in between the mounds of trash, scrub and tin shacks that make up the Chiawelo area of Soweto.

"District 9" is now a box office hit and images of Chiawelo have been seen by moviegoers around the world. The movie's sweeping shots of the grim, grimy areas that are cordoned off for the aliens have inadvertently drawn attention to South Africa's housing crisis. Fifteen years after apartheid, millions of black South Africans still live in squatter camps and are growing impatient for better living conditions.

In "District 9" Chiawelo is depicted as a place so dire that it is only fit for alien refugees who landed in Johannesburg from another planet. But for Baloyi, 47, it is the place where he has lived since 1987 when he built the tiny home from scraps and crumbling bricks.

“This place has been a nightmare,” said Baloyi of his neighborhood, not the movie. “There has been a lot of violence and also even children have been raped. Because of poverty people fight amongst each other.”

Baloyi and his neighbors see the irony of living in what was shown in the movie as only habitable for aliens, they say they feel lucky. They believe that the success of "District 9" will draw attention to the conditions they live in and put pressure on the South African government to help.

“My house is terrible … just look at this thing,” Baloyi said. Five people including an infant live in one room behind crumbling walls and broken windows repaired with plastic bags and packing tape. Cloth rags are stuffed into the crack under the front door, which has been hung upside down.

“The rags prevent the rats from coming in,” explained Baloyi. “There are many rats here. Big ones, just like a cat! They can kill you also, while you are sleeping.”

"District 9," directed by South African native Neill Blomkamp, has reached blockbuster status with its mix of science fiction and themes drawn from the country’s apartheid history, as well as the more recent xenophobic violence in South Africa’s townships. The $30-million film has grossed more than $90 million so far and topped the U.S. box office on its opening weekend before going on to success worldwide.