The relentless pressure for land and housing

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Although Julius Malema might have struck panic into the hearts of segments of the population when he stopped just short of calling for the slaughter of white people, the sound byte that should really have caused their concern was that of the EFF leader allegedly rallying the faithful to take up unoccupied land back in 2014.

This utterance certainly affirmed everything that had been written about Malema’s proclivity for rabble-rousing, but also suggested that here was a man who, more than his political rivals, seemingly had his ears attuned to the views of the poor and working class. Following charges filed by the civil rights group AfriForum, Malema has since been hauled before the courts on charges of contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act of 1956. Amid the legal wrangling that has followed, going all the way to the apex court, the gist of the issue – namely land and, by default, housing – remains the pain in the proverbial for the marginalised.

From the slums of Cape Town to our Colesberg backyard, access to land and housing — as well as apartheid spatial planning, which reduced black residential areas to sprawling, unsightly labour dormitories far removed from economic hubs — continues to dog the nation long after the abolition of legalised racism. In 2017, in an apparent attempt to save face following Malema’s calls for the expropriation of land without compensation, the ANC resolved to ‘pursue land reform with greater determination’, which led to debates and public hearings across the country the following year.

Six years on, however, Nelson Mandela’s commitment to housing being an ‘unbreakable promise’ seems to have been placed on the back burner by those who’ve since taken up the baton. There has been a marked slump since the upsurge of state (RDP) houses following the first democratic elections in 1994. Worse still is how inadequate housing sets in motion a domino effect that sees the state hurtling to put out unnecessary fires, often quite literally.

Earlier this year, a devastating fire in Durban’s Kennedy Road informal settlement saw some 1101 homes reduced to cinders. A few months ago, in what has been described as one of the deadliest fires in South Africa’s history, some 77 people perished when another fire engulfed an abandoned building in the Johannesburg CBD. More fires have since been reported in our informal settlements. And if you turn on the news in winter, chances are you’ll see how this all pales in comparison to the fires that have been ravaging the shantytowns of Cape Town through the decades.

With at least 4 297 informal settlements across the country, according to the Department of Human Settlements, this problem as well as its attendant socioeconomic consequences pose serious challenges. Despite government instruments such as the Urban Settlements Development Grant and the Informal Settlements Upgrading Programme Grant aimed at mitigating the problem, informal settlements continue to burgeon.

Here in Colesberg, the situation is scarcely different. In fact, if you bring up the housing topic with people of a certain generation, you can expect drawn-out sighs and pained recollections of the ‘rent office’. That apartheid building, a solemn, foreboding blockhouse situated in ‘eDrayini’ – a borough of Kuyasa – would see throngs of sullen black residents line up to pay the despised rent spawned by the ‘Black Local Authorities Act’ of 1982, which allowed black townships to elect town councillors. Resident Xolile Mrwarwaza recalls how hard the authorities came down on non-payers, often locking them out of their homes.

Dr Sipho Mbuqe

Dr Sipho Mbuqe’s seminal dissertation entitled Political Violence in South Africa: A Case Study of ‘Necklacing’ in Colesberg is inarguably the most insightful literature about the violence, turmoil, and socioeconomic realities in the township in the 1980s. Although nowadays he rubs shoulders with the intelligentsia in the US, out in the streets of Kuyasa he is known by his clan name, Mnune. A grootman raised in a two-room apartheid state house; whose intellect would pluck him out of South Africa’s bush league universities into a pristine American institution where he would place a barely-known town in the platteland front and centre of his PhD thesis, which was published by Duquesne University in 2010. He is currently Assistant Professor of Diversity and Inclusion at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

‘Houses,’ he wrote in his thesis, ‘had big rocks on the roof to prevent the wind from taking the shanty houses’ roof away, yet people had to pay rent, which never matched the value of the houses. Inside the houses at night, people slept from the kitchen floor to the bedroom, because extended family members lived under the same roof, irrespective of the number of occupants.’ A rent increase in the early 1980s would ‘become a central feature of civic black resistance in the 1980s’.

Although the lives of townsfolk have improved in some meaningful ways since those barbaric days, there are those who feel the new dispensation has, quite literally, left them out in the cold.

eParkeni has already reported on the hardscrabble of people from the Old Location, waiting for years on homes promised to them in the Ou Boks Project. Some of those homes are now a dilapidated catastrophe, apparently earmarked for demolition. Countless more residents never even made the shortlist, and only God knows when and if their day of dignified housing will come in their lifetime. But this has seemingly always been how much of Colesberg’s peripheral townships came into being – people grew gatvol of waiting, and simply found pieces of vacant land on which to put up a structure.

Residents are also impatiently taking up land in Masiphakame, colloquially known as Toilet City, the first of the promising post-1994 housing projects. In recent years, informal structures and livestock encampments have popped up there overnight. One resident who wants to remain nameless laments about how the system ignores the plight of the poor. As a casual worker, she says she can’t afford going through the formal process of buying an erf. So, like her neighbours, now numbering in the hundreds, she just demarcated a piece of land to herself and started building.

Because these communities often take on a life of their own, the municipality has since come to the party, building toilets and installing taps. In due course, some of the corrugated iron shacks have been turned into formidable homes of brick and mortar. A popular and profitable shisanyama business has emerged from the rubble and despondency.

If we are to take the Umsobomvu Municipality at its word, not all is doom and gloom. According to a media statement released last month, the Council ‘has resolved to dispose a total of 265 sites to accommodate members of the community who do not qualify for RDP housing’. The municipality further stated it would engage with the community as soon as it had decided on the pricing of the sites. In the interim, they have begun to prepare access roads to the earmarked areas.

In the bigger scheme of things, though, this will hardly make a dent in the overall housing shortage. Not when population figures continue to rise, and with them severe unemployment. Even if these prices turn out to be dirt-cheap, they will still be beyond the means of ordinary people. As such, it is wishful thinking to suppose that in the absence of meaningful government assistance with building houses and granting access to land, residents will not be illegally taking up unoccupied land.

Khayelitsha, Kuyasa’s residential gem of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, when Eskom was a thriving parastatal, its housing programme for employees lead to the establishment of Khayelitsha. In a township where the most lavish houses were usually state-built and further extended by the owners, the new, modest homes at Khayelitsha were a sight to behold. Perhaps that era could be referred to as the time that Kuyasa Township was modernised.

However, although there has been a flourish of new houses, the intervening years have also seen a lot of informal structures creeping up. These are the so-called Plakkerskampe; grim outliers along the N1 Highway and secluded parts of the township. And more are popping up throughout Kuyasa.

Common sense would dictate that the powers that be deal with this issue in a reasonably proactive way. Instead, and regrettably, they are employing reactive bureaucratic strategies, which create fertile ground for the likes of Malema to exploit the desperation of people on the ground. We have seen violent images of the Red Ants evicting illegal squatters in the big cities. Here, the situation seems a lot calmer, but every day, someone is unlawfully erecting a structure, and eventually this will catch up with everybody. Only then will we see why it’s wise to have one’s finger first and foremost on the pulse of the poor and working class.

FEATURED IMAGE: Roads meant to service new residential stands being prepared alongside the Riemvasmaak township.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap