By Richard Pithouse · 16 Sep 2010
Bheki Cele recently justified his new R4 million house in Pretoria on the grounds that “If the head of Interpol visits me I don't want him to find me living in a shack.” He’s not the only one of us who would prefer not to be living in a shack irrespective of who's likely to be popping around for a cup of coffee. But the money spent on his house could have paid for houses for hundreds of shack dwellers and neither the incredible inequalities in our society, nor the ever more predatory and extravagant excesses of the politicians elected to ameliorate those inequalities, are passing unnoticed.
Along with unemployment, the housing crisis is one of the major social fractures producing the unstable and diverse political ferment at the base of our society. An increase in the housing subsidy was a central demand in the recent strike by public sector workers, housing has been a major issue in many of the local rebellions, the demand for decent housing is central to the struggles of most of the major poor people’s movements and it was often a key factor in the xenophobic pogroms of May 2008.
The African National Congress has built a lot of houses in South Africa. This fact is usually amongst the first to be deployed in defence of its record, but we shouldn’t be blind to the reality that states often build houses as part of a project of social control rather than social justice.
In the 1970s the military dictatorships in Brazil and Chile found huge house building programmes to be crucial strategies for securing their rule by simultaneously achieving the spatial exclusion and fragmentation of the poor and their precarious economic inclusion via home ownership. And, of course, we should recall that there was a time when the apartheid state was building houses at one of the most frenzied rates in the world.
These authoritarian projects couldn’t be more different to, say, the housing co-operative movements that developed out of radical political movements in parts of Europe and have enabled collectively owned and managed as well as well located and designed housing projects.
One of the many reasons why the anti-political language of ‘delivery’ is so damaging to any attempt to think about the human realities of society is that it masks the fact that housing is an inherently political question. What constitutes a decent house, its location, its design, the mode of its construction, the nature of the space in which it is set, who gets to access the house and on what basis and who gets to decide all of this are all deeply political questions.
The evasion of the politics of housing by the ANC in favour of the convenient fiction that resolving the housing crisis is solely a technical question of efficient ‘delivery’ from above has largely resulted in very small and often badly constructed houses on the peripheries of cities. In many cases RDP houses have been built on land that the apartheid state had first acquired to build new townships and the immediate visible difference between apartheid and post-apartheid townships is often the sobering fact that houses built after apartheid are a lot smaller. The allocation of houses and of the contracts to build them has routinely been driven by political patronage rather than considerations of justice or efficiency.
The housing policy of the first post-apartheid government was negotiated in 1993 and drew on the subsidy system pioneered by the confluence of local fascism and American imperialism that brought the Pinochet dictatorship to power in Chile. A decade after the end of apartheid there was some recognition that the subsidy system was resulting in a replication of apartheid style townships in peripheral ghettos and in 2004, a better policy framework was introduced in the form of Breaking New Ground. However across the country there was a systematic failure to implement the substantive content of the new policy that recommends and makes financial provision for participatory and collective in-situ upgrades, instead of forced removals to peripheral dumping grounds.
It’s not just policy that was ignored. In some parts of the country municipalities have routinely acted towards the poor in ways that are unlawful and, in strict legal terms, criminal. This has included unlawful and often violent evictions, demolitions, forced removals and repression of poor people’s organisations.
One of the reasons for the contradiction between the law and formal policy positions on the one hand, and the altogether more grim reality of state action on the other, was that for some years key figures in the national political elite promoted an anti-poor discourse about ‘clearing’ or ‘eradicating’ ‘slums’ that had, in practice, considerably more influence on state officials and much of civil society than the formal policy and legal commitments to which the state is bound in principle.
The date by which the ‘slums’ would be ‘cleared’ was first set at 2010 and then moved to 2014. This was a denialist fantasy on a grand scale but the eradication agenda, led by Lindiwe Sisulu and backed by both Thabo Mbeki and the Polokwane Resolutions, had very real costs. It resulted in the state increasingly responding to squatting as a security issue rather than a popular and entirely rational response to the housing crisis.
Evictions escalated and considerable force was deployed to stop new land occupations and the expansion of existing shack settlements. In some cities basic services were no longer supplied to shack settlements on the grounds that they had been declared temporary and there was a return to the apartheid tactic of forcibly moving squatters from self built or rented shacks to government shacks in the form of transit camps.
Another reason for the contradiction between the reality of state action and its formal legal and policy commitments is that while elite interests were well organised to pressure the party, from inside and from outside, there was no organised national popular movement that could, as was possible in the 1980s, exert a countervailing pressure from below.
The eradication agenda came to a head with the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act, which sought to give it legal sanction and was supposed to be replicated around the country. It was overturned in the Constitutional Court in October 2009 and within months there was a clear shift in the discourse of the state away from eradication and towards an acceptance of the real scale of the urban crisis.
Unlike Lindiwe Sisulu, Tokyo Sexwale’s Ministry openly acknowledges that at the current rate at which it is building houses the state simply has no prospect of moving all shack dwellers into formal housing. The eradication agenda is over. This is progress. Facing the reality of a situation is obviously much better than denying it and then using state violence to try and keep it at bay.
But we also need to take concrete steps to resolve the housing crisis and Sexwale has shown no real willingness to get to the heart of the matter. On the contrary, his recently announced ‘radical plans’ to ‘change the face of housing delivery’ amount to little more than trying to cut out some of the corruption in the existing system, adding police stations and clinics to the peripheral ghettos that he is still building and creating still more space for state backed civil society to substitute itself for genuinely popular participation in housing.
Sexwale is silent on the real issues that could make a real difference. He is silent on the urgent need to put the social value of urban land before its commercial value. He is silent on the equally urgent need to channel resources away from elite projects and towards basic needs. He is silent on the need to really democratise housing and to wrench it, firmly, from the hands of the party’s patronage networks. He is also silent on the need to support people to occupy land and to develop services and build for themselves when the state cannot meet their housing needs.
And, while he cozies up to big business and state backed civil society, he remains culpably silent on the political repression faced by the independent shack dwellers’ movements that have been trying to build a national network of poor people’s movements that are accountable to no one but their members and that could, in the words of the Landless People’s Movement, “use the weapon of mass struggle to rediscipline the parliamentarians.”
Sexwale is clearly an improvement on Sisulu and the end of state support for the fantasy that the eradication of shack settlements is imminent, is a good thing. But an adequate response to the housing crisis requires a lot more than this and, by any serious measure, he has failed his apprenticeship in this job.
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Houses have been a challenge to African communities for a long time in the history of Africans in South Africa. One of the main reasons for the people to join the liberation movement and to support it was to get land and houses. We remember that when white settlers wanted Africans to work for them, they used the 1894 Glen Grey Act, 1913 Land Act, 1952 Pass Laws, 1950 Group Areas Act and othe sanctions that all Africans in the rural areas must pay the hut tax, taxes for domestic animals were also introduced. This made sure that there is no freedom of movement for the Africans in South Africa.
The prolitarianisation of the Africans meant that while the Africans were the majority, less land was given to them during this colonisation. The Africans who went to work in the mines, manufactories and agricultural mines, had to leave their families unattendant. This does not mean that those who left the rural areas were housed properly in urban areas. There were forced removals that were forced through the Group Areas Act. We were not allowed to stay in the so-called white areas and where we stayed it was called a black spot. The black spots were constantly removed. Most Africans particularly men were housed in hostels or compounds. Women were not allowed in hostels and compounds. Those African migrants who were working in urban areas were also housed in rented houses meaning that as Africans we were not allowed to have our homes in urban areas. Our homes were only in rural areas not in the cities.
Squatting is not a new thing in South Africa, as men were not allowed to stay with their wives in hostels and compounds, they wre building shacks so that they can accommodate their families. Also women who coming to work in the cities were building shacks because they never had a place to stay as they wre not allowed passes in the first place. The growth of women employment was growing in manufacturing industries like textile and retail but because they were homeless they forced to build shacks. I just remember that there was squater camp in Cape Town called Crossroads that was continually bulldozed and shacks removed but also people continue to build their shacks. Later in the 1980s people of Crossroads managed to get a donation to build houses hence the new township called New Crossroads between Nyanga and Gugulethu.
The houses that were build for rent for Africans were too small and when we were strggule for houses, we used to call these houses match boxes. In Western Cape there was a formation called Cape Housing Action Committee (CAHAC) which was later transformed into United Democratic Front (UDF). I remember that Trevor Manuel was once the secretary of CAHAC. It is unbelievable that the government that Trevor Manuel was the minister in have build houses smaller that the houses built by apartheid regime. These RDP houses are less comfortable that the apartheid houses for Africans. I just rem,ember the slogans of ANC in 1994 when they were saying we must vote for the ANC because they are going to build houses for us.
If the government was building houses for the African people we were going to see the eradication of shacks in urban areas because most Africans stay in squatting camps. Even these coming local government elections we are going to be promised houses so that the majority of the aquaters can vote ANC while there is not going to build them houses. I do not necessary mean that the real ANC must build houses but what I mean is that the ANC government must come with policies that encourage building of houses not by the tenderpreneurs. I suggest that the government must have the national building construction that is going to build houses for the people. These BEE or ZEE companies are not building proper houses for human beings to stay hence I propose that this housing construction be under public enterprises. Of course we do have problems with parastatals but the problems are not grounds for not instituting the construction company.
Cement is not imported but mined in South Africa so as we propose nationalisation it will mean that the cement mines will nationalised under the control of workers themselve and those who transgress be highly punished even if it means life sentence because no one must be allowed to play with peoples' resources.
There must be proper infrastructure for these houses not like the apartheid housing. The storm water drainage in the apartheid township is not conducive because when it is raining heavy the pipes are blocked. Even sanitation is not proper because it was made for fewer people due to influx control. Now that the influx control was abolished too many African people are coming to old townships hence sanitation is also limited and drains are blocking. It is becoming more expensive to stay in the townships because they were built far away from places of work.
We need to continue where we left off during the apartheid struggle and demand proper edequate houses for all. Surely those houses cannot be smaller that the four-roomed houses built under apartheid. They must not be far away from places of work. We need to stop dual housing whereby other people will have a house in rural Eastern Cape and a house in Western Cape. We must not allow people to have two houses in different provinces. Of course if one have money he can have many houses as they wish but government will not be allowed to build a house for someone who has a house. A proper house must be build so that one can also have land to plough organic crops. I have seen some houses built without even a yard surrounding a house. These houses are built for people who will never own a car because there is no space for a car in the surounding yard. These houses cheap some of they have cracks and others are falling already.
In order to have these houses we must a strong mass based movement that must first demand the houses and see to it that the houses are properly built. We cannot rely on a capitalists government to build a proper house for the working class. In Cape Town we are trying to bring all the communities that are fighting for houses together so that we can build a strong movement for houses. The councilors do not consider the housing waiting list when they issue houses but driven by greed for money. The xenophobic violence of May 2008 was influenced by the fact that the councillors were giving houses to those who bribe even foreign nationals were bribing the councilors to get houses, this is the case of Alexander in Gauteng.
(Media Coordinator of Social Movements Indaba, Ny 57 - 96, Gugulethu, @ 073 279 4165, these are my personal views)