Early Failures...

Housing Promises Alleviate Harsh Living Conditions but Not Poverty
July 2005
By J. Daniels

Cape Town, South Africa—Driving along the highway outside Cape Town the tour bus grinds to halt; protestors block the way. They are demonstrating for the houses the government has promised them will replace their dilapidated squatter shacks.

At first glance, the surrounding area seems an endless wasteland, with randomly discarded items strewn over an indeterminate surface. Upon closer examination, the upside-down wheel barrows, concrete blocks, makeshift sandbags hold down a sea of corrugated tin roofs against the wind that blows over the Cape Flats. Wooden poles stretch into the air with so many cables coming off of them: electrical sail rigging.

These are the temporary structures that make up the squatter camps that stretch eastward from Cape Town for miles along the N2, a major national highway. They constitute a sprawling mini-metropolis made up entirely of such improvised shelters, and they typify squatter camps that have arisen outside most major cities here since the nullification of apartheid-era laws.

The post-apartheid government is under increasing pressure to respond to its promise to build 1 million houses every five years, a pledge the African National Congress (ANC) made when it came to power in 1994. So far, it has only built 2 million houses under its highly touted Reconstruction and Development Program.

Government officials say that are responding to the housing crisis as quickly as they can, but they argue that competition for scarce resources limits their ability to expand the program. Meanwhile, the houses they do build are often far from the cities and available employment opportunities. The lack of affordable public transport means that even the government’s successes actually have a negative multiplier effect on the poor: lack of access to resources necessary to survive.
“The 2 million RDP houses, a not negligible roll-out, has exacerbated many problems,” says Jeremy Cronin, the Deputy Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and a leading ANC Member of Parliament. “In the course of this housing program we became too obsessed with a numerical target, and there was too little attention paid to integrated spatial and developmental planning.”

At another point along the N2 highway, one finds hundreds of small, brightly-colored concrete houses. They, too, are topped with corrugated tin roofs, but have proper window and door frames. They are the government-built houses for which the residents of the squatter camps wait. But there are not nearly enough to go round, and they lack many basic utility services.

“The new housing localities are often rows and rows of ‘match-box’ houses, arguably better than un-safe, fire-prone shacks, but they are not part of sustainable communities in their own right,” says Cronin. “There are few if any parks, amenities and space. They remain absolutely dependent on distant localities for most shopping, for work.”

“In order to meet numerical housing unit targets the temptation was to go for lowest cost land, typically far away from city centers, businesses, work places, amenities,” he says.

Today in the townships people find novel ways to earn a living. On street corners women sit in front of low wooden tables or blankets displaying produce. Many have small gardens to provide food for their families and supplement their income. Others produce traditional crafts.

Winding down dirt streets between the tiny houses and shacks, a sign for a small business reads: “Martin’s funerals you can afford.” Further down are metal machine parts piled in front of one shack, a mechanic’s shop. Further still, a man stands at a lopsided wooden stand, covered in blood and surrounded by animal carcasses. He is a neighborhood butcher.

A large concrete building looms in the distance: the Pick N’ Save grocery store. Smaller stalls ring the parking lot. This is the commercial center where vendors sell produce, candies and chips, clothing, shoes, simple housewares.

Adjacent to the vendor area stand a fleet of white minibuses, their side doors thrown open to collect passengers. These are
special taxis that run a specified route from one place to another. They are one of the three main ways people from townships make their way into the cities to work.

Fatima sits at the back of a stall covered by a blue tarp at the Green Point Flea Market in Cape Town. She is a plump and reserved woman. She wears a light purple head scarf, blue flower patterned shirt, and long denim skirt. She is selling carved wooden bowls, statues, and masks.

“A taxi from Khaylitsha to Cape Town is 20 rand per day; that is expensive, yeah, because most people aren’t working,” she says. “ I can sit at market all day and not make anything.”
Fatima says that while public transportation from the townships is convenient, it is expensive. The train is the cheapest way to come to town, but it is not always on time. The best way is to come by taxi, but that can take a while because there is always a long cue.

Beverly, a young shop girl at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Mall in Cape Town waits for a mini-bus. She has to wake up early, at about 7 a.m. in order to get to work on time. She says that in the morning when she leaves and when she comes home in the evening, it is dark outside and not safe. From Beverly’s township a one-way bus to the waterfront costs 15 to 16 Rand and takes one hour and 45 minutes. A one-way taxi costs 7.50 Rand and the train costs 5.50 Rand, both take about 45 minutes to reach the Waterfront. According to parliamentary estimates, 64 percent of all commuters use the minibus/taxis.

“The public transport systems have gotten worse, not better. Poor households are spending an unacceptable amount of their income on transport. Others are simply stranded,” says Cronin.

“Some of these petty-entrepreneurial activities are actually extremely critical to our whole society—the minibus industry being the most obvious example,” says Cronin, “If we are to make townships more habitable and sustainable in their own right, we need to help link them up with the main industrial and retail centers.”

“We are looking at helping to build cooperative forms of organization, at connecting government spending with local productive activities, e.g., local women’s baking coops, or food garden initiatives,” says Cronin.

South Africa currently spends R4 billion per year subsidizing the commuter rail and bus services, transport that Beverly and people like her depend upon to get to work every day. However, trying to control transportation costs is not easy. Buses are owned by municipalities or private companies, the trains are run by public companies, and the minibuses and taxis are run as private businesses within the townships. Each receives subsidies from different levels of government. Cronin says he hopes that the Parliament can act to reform the transport system to make it more affordable, to help improve quality of life in the townships.

“We want to move towards an alignment of spatial planning and transport subsides by bringing them both into the same sphere of government. Secondly, we want to move to subsidizing integrated, multi-modal public transport systems—so that trains, buses, minibuses, etcetera, work together in a single system, rather than competing as is presently the case,” says Cronin. In terms of future housing, Cronin says the government hopes to build closer to cities, providing “medium density housing.” The government also wants to place commercial and industrial centers closer to townships, so that more people can find gainful employment. But there is a rather substantial distinction to be made between hope and ability.


Ann said...

And its only gotten worse:

economic disparity turns quickly into violence.

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Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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