New Internationalist

Palaces Toilets, And The Big Boys

Issue 265

Palaces toilets,
and the big boys
The new Government has promised to provide one million new homes within five years.
Alan Morris assesses its chances of hitting the target.

At a recent Residents’ Association meeting in an historically white, middle-class locality in Johannes-burg widespread fear was voiced about going away on holiday. Residents were worried that when they came back they would find their homes occupied by ‘squatters’. Their anxiety was based on reports that a few empty homes in wealthy suburbia had been occupied by squatters. They had also been aroused by recent invasions of land and empty apartment blocks in the Johannesburg inner city.

In the same week as the Residents’ Association meeting, Nelson Mandela launched his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom at one of the most palatial homes in South Africa, that of insurance magnate Douw Steyn. The house is so large and opulent that some of the guests were heard to inquire whether it really was somebody’s private home.

Joe Slovo

‘Life is a terminal illness,’ Joe Slovo told reporters who questioned his ferocious appetite for work despite his evident sickness. He remained at the centre of events in South Africa, as chairperson of the South African Communist Party and Minister of Housing, right up until his death on 6 January 1995 at the age of 68. He described the period since the elections last April as the happiest in his life. ‘What more could one person expect out of life? I could happily lay down and die now,’ he said.

Joe Slovo
PHOTO: VENE MAIER

He arrived in South Africa in 1934. His father had fled from anti-Semitic pogroms in Lithuania. He joined the South African Communist Party at the age of 16 and at 18 served as a radio operator in Egypt during the Second World War. On his return to South Africa he studied law at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, where he got to know Nelson Mandela and, with others, formed the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘MK’).

He was visiting the ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, in Tanzania when Nelson Mandela and others in the MK leadership were arrested and began their long imprisonment. He lived in exile, first in London and then, after the 1976 Soweto uprisings, in Angola. In 1982 his first wife, Ruth First, was killed by a letter bomb sent by South African agents to Mozambique, where she was teaching.

Joe Slovo was a key figure in the protracted negotiations between the ANC and President de Klerk which resulted in the formation of a transitional ‘Government of National Unity’ after elections in April 1994. The close friendship between Slovo and Nelson Mandela cemented the alliance between the Communist Party and the ANC. At the ANC’s Conference in December 1994 he was awarded its highest honour, the Isithwalandwe/Seaparankoe.

‘You cannot build an economy or a society purely on the basis of entitlement,’ he said in one of his last interviews. ‘People have to make a contribution.’ Of his commitment to the Soviet Union he said: ‘I was wrong and I am ashamed of some of the traps I was led into.’ But he was critical of what he called the ‘vilification’ of Lenin.

‘The wretched of the earth make up over 90 per cent of humanity,’ he said in his last report to the Communist Party of South Africa. ‘They live either in capitalist or capitalist-orientated societies. For them, if socialism is not the answer there is no answer at all.’

David Ransom

Housing inequality is the most concrete illustration of the legacy of apartheid. One of its most shocking bequests is the shortage of adequate housing stock in the country. Whereas most white South Africans live in adequately serviced and comfortable housing, the majority of black South Africans – especially that section of the population that in the days of apartheid was classified ‘African’ – lives in overcrowded dwellings that often lack basic services.

Planact, a non-governmental organization that focuses on urban issues, estimates that countrywide about 13 million people do not have proper homes. The late Joe Slovo, as Minister of Housing, said in Parliament that in 1993 there was a total housing backlog of 1,448,476 houses. In 1990 it was estimated that 60 per cent of the 1.8 million African people resident in the Durban area lived in shacks, and in Gauteng (the new name for the area that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria) half of the African population, some 2.6 million people, resided in backyard or free-standing shacks.

In the countryside of the former ‘homelands’ vast areas have become giant squatter communities devoid of the most basic services. A good example is Winterveld, a settlement of about 250,000 people 30 kilometres north of Pretoria. Recent surveys indicate that in this area only four per cent of the population have access to a formal water supply and 0.01 per cent to formal sanitation. Access to electricity is minimal. Trash removal hardly exists and the build-up of refuse in some sections is so bad that, according to one report, ‘access to properties can hardly be found’.

A central commitment of the new Government is to ensure that over the next decade all of South Africa’s population is adequately housed with access to decent services. This is an enormous task. From the late 1960s it was government policy to restrict the building of housing for Africans in the metropolitan areas. In addition the new Government has to contend with a situation where 5.7 million – 70 per cent – of South African households earn less than 1,500 rand ($375) a month and thus do not have the financial means to acquire a home of their own.

At one point Tokyo Sexwale, the Premier of Gauteng Province, endeavoured to go it alone and implement a housing policy drawn up by a major construction company. Unsurprisingly this placed the resolution of the crisis in the hands of large construction companies. Sexwale claimed that the plan would ensure that about 250,000 houses were built in the Gauteng region annually. The unilateral unveiling of the plan and its unattainable expectations created a good deal of acrimony between Slovo and Sexwale, who eventually withdrew the plan.

Slovo felt that the Government could not leave the delivery of housing solely to the large construction companies. ‘There is clearly a significant role for big developers,’ he said, ‘both in terms of building houses and in terms of imparting construction skills to emerging black entrepreneurs in all of this. But I think we just recognize that the cause of social transformation in South Africa will not be served if we leave it up to the big boys, who simply drop housing on communities at 1,000 rand ($250) a square metre.’

When they were elected there was much talk by the ANC of delivering one million fully serviced, brick-and-mortar homes over a five-year period. The figure has been retained but quality targets are now far more modest. The proposal now is to deliver ‘starter homes’ rather than fully completed units. A starter home to the value of 15,000 rand ($3,750) will consist of core foundations, maybe one room and basic services. The rest will have to be completed when the occupant can afford it.

Even some ANC MPs are not happy with this. Limpho Hani, wife of the late Chris Hani, said in Parliament that she was worried that the poorest sector of the population would end up ‘with a serviced site plus a large toilet and I do not believe this is what we fought for’.

Despite such criticism the Government is likely to stick to its policy. So far progress has been slow, although resources have now been allocated to various provincial authorities for the development of 90,000 sites.

Delivery is also threatened by a rent-and-service boycott which has gripped many of the African urban centres over the last decade. The Government has stated that unless the boycott of payments is resolved it will be impossible to attain the goals of the new housing policy. To break the back of the boycott, says the Government, it will only embark on housing projects in those areas where residents are paying for services.

In return for mortgage guarantees from the Government, financial institutions have agreed to resume lending to low-income households. Because of the limited funds available for housing, the Ministry is pinning its hopes on the private sector to provide much of the capital required. In an agreement signed recently the banks pledged to provide 50,000 loans a year to low-income groups, equivalent to two billion rand ($500 million).

The hinging of housing finance on breaking the service boycott is the weakest link in the Government’s housing policy. According to the Deputy Minister of Provincial and Constitutional Affairs, Mohammed Valli Moosa, payment for services slumped in 1994 from 33 per cent in January to just 19 per cent in July. An official in control of a massive new site-and-service development called Doornkop, alongside Soweto, said only one per cent of residents is paying the 45 rand ($11) flat-rate charge.

At a housing summit in the impoverished township of Botshebelo in the Orange Free State, Joe Slovo got all the major players to agree to a new housing accord. The accord calls for – indeed is premised on – an end to non-payment. Whether the delegates will be able to convince their constituents that payment is now the way forward is far less certain. The culture of non-payment appears to have become an indelible feature of the South African urban landscape.

Future support for the ANC partly depends on its ability to make an impact on the massive imbalances wrought by apartheid. Housing provides one of the key challenges. The death of Joe Slovo in January is a setback. But if substantial progress can be made here, despite all the difficulties, then the ANC as an organization and the country at large will have taken a big step forward.

Alan Morris teaches at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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