Poverty Wages and Inadequate Housing

By Anna Majavu · 21 Aug 2012

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Picture: balazsgardi/Flickr
Picture: balazsgardi/Flickr

Last week at Lonmin mines, the ANC saw the consequences of allowing South Africa to remain one of the most unequal countries in the world. The steadfast refusal of the mineworkers to continue their dangerous work without a substantial pay increase, and the consequent massacre of the workers by police are just the start of what is yet to come.

The police killings appear to have sparked a level of outrage amongst the Black poor and working class that could prove to be a tipping point.

For the past few weeks, communities in Cape Town have been blockading major roads and highways in a protest against being made to live for almost two decades since the end of apartheid in shacks, leaky and crumbling homes and generally being treated like animals.

The DA, ANC, SACP and Cosatu’s heads are all still in the sand about the levels of anger on the ground – whether this anger be about housing, water or underpaid and dangerous work. The DA’s responses to any protests are written with the aims of portraying themselves as the victim or protecting white capital, and the tripartite alliance’s responses are now written with the sole purpose of voicing support for their preferred candidate at the ANC’s elective Mangaung conference later this year. It is therefore opportune for the DA to call for an investigation into the Marikana massacre, but not to criticize the mine owners, and opportune for the ANC, SACP and Cosatu to criticize the DA’s failure to deliver, but not to condemn the police massacre at Marikana.

The mainstream media supports this political game. Apart from their focus on former president Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to provide anti-retroviral medicines to pregnant poor, Black women, the media has refused, since 1994, to support the underdog in the story – the Black majority. Food price hikes by white-owned monopolies, the continued obscene profiteering by mine bosses, the failure of public-private partnerships in delivering housing and other services, have been stories largely ignored by the press.

The ANC has wasted the past 18 years in willingly paying back the debt incurred by the apartheid regime, spending billions more on a corrupt and pointless arms deal, dabbling in failed privatization and fiscal austerity experiments and building now-crumbling one room “kennels”.

One of the last reforms the ANC could make to save its bacon would be to roll out decent quality housing across the land on a massive scale, creating the thousands of jobs it has been promising.

Unfortunately, last week’s release of the National Development Plan 2030 by minister of planning in the presidency, Trevor Manuel does not give any hope that this will happen and can better be described as a damp squib.

In the area of housing, the plan is essentially a continuation of the failed GEAR economic policy. It proposes a mish-mash of incentives to get businesses to set up in townships, pie in the sky public-private partnerships and a vague “upgrade” of informal settlements.

While townships clearly need retailers and shopping malls to inject life into the area, and to assist residents without cars to shop close to their homes, these businesses have not led to a big increase of decent jobs in the townships. The staff employed by the retailers are all on casual or “permanent casual” contracts where they work irregular hours and end up with small pay cheques. The increase in the numbers of businesses in townships has not in itself made the townships more liveable – having a decent, permanent job that allows a worker to extend and improve his or her township home is key to that.

The plan also suggests that bank loans be combined with government subsidies and money made available by employers in their housing schemes to create a new kind of financing for working people who don’t earn enough to get a bond outright. This is a variation on the “gap housing” plan that has yet to prove effective. It is also a bit far-fetched given that hardly any employers have housing schemes any more, and that the ANC government has not even been able to get its own long-promised housing subsidy scheme for public servants off the ground yet. To qualify for a the smallest R100 000 “gap” house – which is little better than an RDP house – one needs to earn at least R4000 per month, which rules out most of the population.

And until now, when the DA and ANC governments have promised “upgrades” of informal settlements, they have not meant that they will build houses. An upgrade can mean anything from installing more pit or temporary chemical toilets, to putting in more taps or electricity.

People are desperate for houses above all. Yet Manuel’s plan also reflects the ANC’s unwillingness to move away from the privatized housing programme, where money is given to private contractors to build small housing schemes, instead of being given to municipalities to set up housing departments with properly trained workers. Since the end of apartheid, this privatized system has been used to buy political support and has seen private contractors milk the state of cash, using only the leftover money to build sub-standard low cost houses which are now going to cost R58 billion to rectify.

Human Settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale has shrewdly started to articulate the link between the poor quality post-apartheid homes and the role of the private contractors. Until now, Sexwale has insisted that private contractors who pocket most of the tender money and build faulty homes on the cheap are only corrupt individuals who need to be weeded out. But this month, Sowetan newspaper reported Sexwale tacitly admitting that privatised housing delivery was so flawed that government was "thinking about" setting up its own housing company.

Sexwale’s image was dented by last week’s exposé in the Mail and Guardian, which said he had invested $150 million with Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, who allegedly wooed Democratic Republic of Congo politicians to sell him mining rights in that country only to sell the rights on to global mining companies very quickly at huge profit.

The exposé, while grim, is not the only image problem that Sexwale faces. As he is now in the running for the deputy presidency at the ANC’s looming Mangaung congress, Sexwale will have to do something drastic to overcome the impression that he has failed in his housing portfolio. Sexwale is fond of blaming corruption for the failure to deliver houses on a large scale and the publicity stunt where he spent a few hours in a shack to experience slum life, did not make a great impression on the general public, who saw it as fake.

Sexwale also has the unfortunate tendency of saying things like “it is not an easy thing to build houses" at ceremonies where he hands over keys to a tiny 300 houses at a time. This does not inspire confidence. A new government housing company could be just the thing for Sexwale to improve his image ahead of the next elections.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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