A Housing Tour in South Africa

By Beth Maclin

At the entrance to the squatter camp sits a bright green chemical toilet, accented with a gray top and door. A narrow lane winds past it to a collapsing building where three young men lean against two pay phone booths with no phones. The door and windows are gone, and the tin roof protects only half the interior. The path leads into the heart of a cluster of improvised shelters–called an “informal settlement” in South Africa–where poverty confronts a visitor at every turn. From one shack, a young boy around three years old wanders into the tiny dirt yard amidst a few freshly sprouting weeds. He walks up to the bent chain-link fence and grabs hold, just inches from a twist of barbed wire. He wears no shoes, despite the fact that it is winter.

During the past few days, plunging temperatures have shattered fifty-four records across the country, according to the Mail & Guardian, South Africa’s main weekly newspaper. More than 15 people have died. In nearby Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, expecting temperatures to drop to freezing. The boy stands and stares as 11 students from Simmons College snap photographs of him while they shiver under their jackets, sweaters, hats, and socks. The dirt path, sprinkled with shards of glass and cigarette butts, winds past improvised wood and metal shelters–none with an internal source of heat–deep in the heart of Soweto (South West Township), which was created during the 1890s gold rush to house poorly paid black laborers and is now a magnet for impoverished rural migrants. Yet less than a mile away in Diepkloof, known as the Beverly Hills of Soweto, there are gated mansions owned by black families who have risen into the middle and upper classes.
Stark Housing Disparities

Despite the new Constitution’s guarantee of access to housing for all, the stark class disparities in the townships that ring all the country’s largest cities reveal the uneven process of remedying the inequalities institutionalized under apartheid, as a small number have benefited from “black empowerment” programs while the vast majority are still waiting their turn. When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, more than 7 million people—almost all of them black—lacked adequate housing, according to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), itself a product of the new constitution. The ANC pledged to change this.

South Africa’s Department of Housing now claims on its Web site that it has built almost 2.4 million houses in the past twelve years. “Our annual production has grown from 252,000 (which in itself was a record we were proud of), to 272,000 (and still counting), for the past year,” says Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. “We need to tell this good news, it portends a good future for millions still trapped in poverty, and it attests to the fact that the inhospitable firmament is clearing, and there will be better days.”

But while most South Africans say there has been progress under the ANC government, some are growing impatient with what they see as the slow pace of housing delivery, and a growing number worry that the promise of universal access to housing will not be met. “I’m too much of a realist to think that it’s possible,” says Kim Dennett, a white South African tour guide. “People have been waiting for five years on a waiting list for housing. People are made promises of being next on the list, and it’s broken time and time again.”

 “I know a lot has been done,” she adds, “but it’s a drop in the ocean of what is needed.” Dennett also criticizes the quality of government-built housing, calling it “rubbish.” Meanwhile, new community organizations are protesting the government’s slow progress and pressuring it not only to fulfill the promise of adequate housing but to provide everyone with affordable basic services like electrification and sanitation. The fact that the rickety shacks in Soweto’s informal settlements lack such services, while a few blocks away Winnie Mandela’s three-story home sits behind a tall brick wall guarded by high-tech surveillance cameras, is not lost on these activists.

“South Africa actually is the most unequal society in the world,” says Trevor Ngwane, a leader of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which is one of more than a dozen new protest groups that have banded together in a coalition called the Anti-Privatization Forum. “There’s more inequality now than under apartheid,” he says, arguing that apartheid is being de-racialized but not dismantled. “By and large, people are growing poorer, and most resources are being monopolized by fewer and fewer people.”

Apartheid’s Economic Exploitation

Part of the problem, according to ANC critics, is that apartheid was not just a political system that favored some and discriminated against others–one that could be fixed by taking down the “whites-only” signs and giving everyone the chance to vote. It was also an intricate system of economic exploitation that penetrated all levels of South African society and created self-perpetuating extremes of wealth and poverty. Communities like Soweto were used as dumping grounds to relocate black, “colored,” and Asian South Africans driven out of neighborhoods reserved for whites under the Group Areas Act of 1950. This was part of the National Party’s policy of complete racial separation–the essence of apartheid–after it came to power in 1948. Each of the four racially defined groups was given its own designated place to live. Blacks were further classified according to ethnic origin and assigned citizenship in remote tribal “homelands,” which reduced them to the status of temporary migrants while living or working in the cities. But this was not all.

Blacks were shunted into the most difficult and dangerous jobs, from construction to gold-mining, paid bare subsistence wages and blocked from organizing themselves, even as the best jobs were officially “reserved” for whites. Much the same was true for education, which was designed to prepare each group for its station in this draconian social experiment. The continuing impact of these policies and the economic gaps they entrenched is evident on the walk through the Soweto settlement. Along the dirt path, cushioned by overgrown grass and brush, the Simmons students come to a bridge over a small stream. To one side are red shirts, blue jeans, dingy white underwear, and other items hung out to dry in the cold, fall air. More wet clothes are rolled in a ball to the side, awaiting space on the line.

The tour guide, a Sowetan himself, calls this an example of the relationships among the different classes in Soweto: lower class families wash the clothes of the middle and upper classes to make money. Each group depends upon the other. What he does not say is that this was also true of the symbiotic relationship between whites and blacks throughout apartheid. Now, as then, the contrasts in the living standards produced by this skewed relationship are dramatic.

From the bridge, visitors gazing in one direction look back at a sea of tumbledown shacks, surrounded by overgrown grass, one with the clothesline tied to its side. On the other side of the bridge, within 50 feet, is a prosperous middle-class community of paved streets, well-tended lawns, and spacious two-story wood and brick homes. At one house, Joshua, a pensioner, unlocks the 10-foot high gate to his yard and invites the students to enter. His sits on a stool on his back porch, which is itself more than twice the size of a typical shack. He does not wear a jacket, but keeps warm with a paraffin lamp. He says that a small outbuilding nearby—his summer kitchen—now serves as storage with winter on its way. Inside the freshly painted, four-room house, which has electricity and running water, the students peer into one of the bedrooms where a woman watches over a sleeping baby, its bare feet sticking out from beneath a soft cotton blanket. “I was surprised by some of the better areas, like Diepkloof,” says Dennett later. “It looks like mine or some of my neighbors. The squatter camps got me the most. You see those shacks and children. I mean, it’s cold outside. Imagine living in a shack.”

The Promise of the Right to Housing

Its insistence that access to housing is a right makes South Africa’s Constitution one of the most progressive in the world. It also stokes high expectations among South Africans for what their government should do for them-—and when. While the focus on human rights in the West is often limited to individual civil and political rights, South Africa has embraced a commitment to a broad range of economic, social, and cultural rights, from housing to education, health care and a safe environment–what human rights professionals often term second and third generation rights–to mark the evolution in the global human rights movement. The difficulty comes in determining how to interpret the government’s performance.

Some, like the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, say the government has done nowhere near enough. SAHRC Chair Jody Kollapen says it is more complicated than simply counting the houses that have been built and the number of people waiting for them because what has been promised is not houses themselves but access. “When you use the term access, it’s wider,” he says. “If it was housing, it would suggest that you have the right to housing, and therefore the state has an obligation to make housing available, whether it’s now or progressively. The right to have access to housing is interpreted as being the right to have an environment that enables you to acquire a house–whether it’s a house that’s built by the state, whether it’s access to a housing subsidy, whether it’s access to land. So it’s broader in terms of providing the enabling environment for someone to have access to a home, as opposed to limiting it to the right to housing.”

Nearly 900 miles to the southwest—just outside Cape Town, the country’s legislative capital–lies Langa, one of the oldest black townships in South Africa. Like Soweto, it houses people of radically different social classes, where the government is challenged to move people out of informal settlements and into permanent housing. An empty field is littered with garbage and the remnants of dismantled shacks, torn down to make way for new government-built housing. To one side are the five drab two-story wooden apartment buildings, which look even dingier beneath the dark, rolling clouds that signal an impending storm. On the other side is a massive, sprawling shack settlement. Two young men stand in the dark in their 15-by-10 foot tin shack. Black garbage bags and pieces of tarp are tacked on the roof and sides to keep the rain from leaking inside. There is no running water. Meanwhile, only 100 yards to the rear and closer to the heart of Langa, stands an evenly-laid brick road lined with homes that would not seem out of place on the Mediterranean-bright yellow and orange townhouses with late model cars in front of almost every one. The glow of an overhead light spilling over the edges of one window frame reveals a family whose members appear at ease and comfortable.

It is these kinds of stark contrasts, visible to most South Africans on a daily basis, that fuel the growing impatience among the poor for fulfillment of the promise of safe and secure housing for all. But government officials say they may have a long wait. “The right to access to housing can be realized only subject to the availability of adequate resources. Given the limited funds allocated every year in the budget for this purpose, it will take many years before the housing backlog will be eradicated,” says the SAHRC in a recent report. “Moreover,” the report says, “the large number of people who live in informal housing, or who have no access to housing whatsoever, also poses a serious challenge to the state, which is constitutionally obliged to formulate programs taking account of this reality.

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