Houses to Die For?

By Jane Duncan · 2 Apr 2010

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Last November, Grahamstown-based media activist Xola Mali produced a documentary about the plight of residents in the Vukani settlement, Grahamstown East.  Previously an informal settlement, Vukani now consists mostly of Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses, which were completed in 2003. Mali interviewed a resident and activist, Nomiki Ncamiso, who sustained injuries after the wall of her RDP house collapsed on her and injured her leg when a mini-tornado struck the town in 2008.

Ncamiso related her despair at approaching the ward councillor for assistance, only to be told that there was no budget to fix the house. Then the Council gave her and other residents black plastic bags to cover the damage. When the Daily Dispatch newspaper interviewed Ncamiso in January this year, she explained that she was still sick and traumatised from the incident. 

Three months later, she is dead. The neighbourhood is in shock. One neighbour pointed to the front of Ncamiso's house – an untidy patchwork of green airbricks and black plastic bags - and said, “she is dead, and now I am scared for my own health and the health of my children.” The Council has housed her neighbour in a railway container since the incident, and the conditions in the container are stifling.

The Vukani houses are only seven years old, yet many of them are manifesting the same structural defects. Either the contractors who built the houses were not aware of construction basics, or they were aware and didn’t care. 

It is hardly surprising that a wall of Ncamiso’s house feel down during the tornado; the bricks at the corners of the houses are laid one on top of the other rather than being staggered, which has weakened the walls and led to large stress cracks opening up close to the corners. No lintels were placed over the doorways, leading to cracks appearing. Many of the floors have gaping holes. 

The roofs sway in the wind, as they have not been secured to the roof structure adequately. The roofs have also not been waterproofed and do not have ceilings, leading to rain leaking down the walls and into the electrical wiring. As the walls have not been plastered, the weak bricks absorb the water, leading to damp. The 2008 tornado has made these structural defects more pronounced.

Resident after resident complained about the condition of their houses. They noted that the asbestos roofs provided insufficient insulation from the weather, which led to children falling ill easily and suffering from fevers. 

One resident moved out of his house as it was uninhabitable. Another resident has secured a creaking wall with wire and – as if requesting divine protection - has placed a picture of Jesus Christ over the crack: as one visitor commented, “Jesus stops his house from falling down.” 

Yet another resident had sent her child to live in a relative’s house for health reasons. When asked how she felt about her house, the resident waved at her house dismissively and said “I do not have a house.”  Disturbingly, some residents also argued that their previous houses, which were mud structures in the main, were sturdier.

Vukani should be euphoric as one of the liberation movement’s objectives that many people struggled and even died for – namely free housing – was realised. Instead, a pall of desperation hangs in the air. 

An elderly resident spoke of his involvement in organising a march in 2003 to demand the building of houses in Vukani. Many are now calling for the very houses that they struggled for seven years ago to be demolished and rebuilt. “What must we do now after all of this, stand up and fight?” he asked, raising his hands as though pointing a machine gun.

It could be argued that a tornado is a natural disaster, and the kind of fate that befell Ncamiso cannot be blamed on the building. But, as has been shown in relation to other natural disasters - the most extreme recent example being the Haiti earthquake - the disaster itself does not necessarily lead to injury and even death, but bad buildings do.

There is some hope for the residents of substandard RDP houses, as media investigations have placed pressure on the government to respond to the problem. The Dispatch’s Gcina Ntsaluba has produced a multimedia report on the RDP housing crisis in the Eastern Cape, which has been nominated for a Mondi Shanduka award. In the report, Ntsaluba told the story of RDP settlements that turned into ghost towns as residents abandoned their homes, claiming that they were uninhabitable. 

The Minister of Human Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale, has reacted with disarming directness to the state of much RDP housing, labelling the shoddily built houses “a national shame.” Some relief is also in sight for the tornado-affected residents; according to the Makana Municipality’s spokesperson, Thandy Matabese, repairs were approved in December last year. However, Vukani is not on the Provincial Government’s rectification list.

It could also be argued that focussing on the problems in RDP housing delivery is churlish, as it detracts from bigger achievements, and in any event the problems have been acknowledged and are being addressed. Also, the houses, with their individual water standpipes and flush toilets, are positively palatial when compared the slums of Kibera. The government’s housing programme should be the envy of other countries facing the problem of mass homelessness.

Government officials are clearly confounded by the phenomenon of rising protest action, in spite of objective improvements in living conditions. Writing in The Star recently, Dumisani Zulu, argued that the quality of life has improved under democracy, and implied that - rather than being genuine expressions of anger - many protests were driven by opportunists seeking positions in local government. 

Clearly, a deeper understanding of the roots of mass protest is required. Free housing is not, in fact, free: as the Dispatch investigation revealed, several RDP housing projects failed because people were given houses, but did not have the income to maintain them. When the cost of living rises in a context of growing income deprivation, people find themselves pressed in a vice of unaffordability. 

In studying the quality of life in Grahamstown, Rhodes university social scientists Valerie Møller and Sarah Radloff, concluded that “...livelihoods rather than access to services may be more effective enhancers of quality of life during a period of rising living costs, and that – perversely - higher living standards might depress rather than enhance quality of life.”

When viewed in this context, it is not difficult to understand why ostensibly better-off communities decide to protest of their own volition, and not at the behest of opportunistic politicians, the third force or other creepy crawlies.

In delivering RDP housing, the government has ignored a key principle of the RDP, namely to promote integrated development. RDP housing rectification is an ineffective form of redress if it continues to be implemented in a policy context where services are treated primarily as commodities rather than entitlements, and where the private sector is relied on, in the main, to provide jobs. 

Also, the 1994 White Paper on Housing’s commitment to ‘width over depth’ (where more, but cheaper, subsidies are provided) is coming back to bite the government. More money is now needed for the rectification of cheaply built substandard houses, which proves the correctness of the old adage that the short way round is often the long way round.

Mass organisation is needed to change housing policy, informed by critical perspectives on the housing and other social questions, as existing developmental state policies accommodate rather than challenge neoliberal orthodoxies. As Patrick Bond observed about urban policy some time ago, changes in policy will not be possible without changes in politics: an insight clearly shared by the outspoken Ncamiso, and that kept her fighting till the end.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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