SOUTH AFRICA: Government housing project excludes poorest of the poor

Monday, November 5, 2007

Thousands of the poorest residents in Cape Town, South Africa, are facing eviction from an informal settlement to make way for a government housing project.

About 20,000 residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement near Langa, a township about 15km from Cape Town along the N2, the main access road to and from the airport, are opposing their forced removal to Delft, about 20km northeast of the city, because they say it would reduce their standard of living further and make it difficult and more expensive to travel to the city for work.

The multimillion-dollar N2 Gateway housing project, situated adjacent to the highway, will change the first impression hundreds of thousands of international visitors have of the city - which reaps hundreds of millions of dollars from tourism - as they will travel past a formal housing estate rather than a squatter camp on their way to the city.

Attempts to evict Joe Slovo residents met with violence in September 2006 and housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu then took recourse through the courts, seeking sanction to remove the residents to allow the project to be completed. Cape Town's High Court is to rule on the issue next month.

In the wake of the clashes between Joe Slovo residents and police, the housing department issued a statement saying temporary relocation was necessary so the area could be redeveloped before the residents were rehoused there.

However, the co-ordinator of Joe Slovo's anti-eviction task team, Mzwanele Zulu, told IRIN the Joe Slovo residents were feeling betrayed by the government, which had not kept its promise to provide affordable housing for the squatters.

He said in 2005 some Joe Slovo residents agreed to move to Delft after fires had destroyed their shacks, on condition that they would return to Langa and be accommodated in formal housing once the first phase of the project had been completed.

A blueprint for slum eradication

However, this agreement was not fulfilled and, consequently, the remaining residents were unwilling to leave their homes to make way for phases two and three of the project, Zulu said.

"In May of last year we were all told we had to move to Delft because the government was going to build us affordable houses where our shacks were. But these new houses will be bonded and rented houses and people must earn between R3,500 (US$500) and R7,000 (US$1,000) per month to qualify to get a home.

"Most people who live in Joe Slovo earn less than R1,500 (US$214) per month, so they are automatically excluded: they are evicting the poorest people in society as part of their plans to eradicate informal settlements and waiting lists [for low-cost housing]," he said.

South Africa has a housing shortfall of about 2.2m dwellings and, like most of South Africa's major cities, Cape Town's informal settlement population continues to expand as people are drawn from poor rural areas to the cities in the hope of employment.

According to Cape Town's latest estimates, more than 400,000 units are needed to eradicate slum dwellings in the metropolis, and that number is expected to grow by about 16,000 annually.

The latest statistics from the Department of Housing's 2007 Community Survey reveal that 14 percent of the Western Cape Province's population are still living in informal settlements.

The N2 Gateway project was launched by the housing minister in 2005 to reduce Cape Town's housing backlog, as part of a combined national, provincial and local government effort in response to the housing crisis.

It was touted as a blueprint for slum eradication that could be rolled out across the country. "We intend to get this right, and signal government's commitment to provide shelter to the homeless in as short a timeframe as possible," the minister said.

But within a year, the project, managed by the state-owned company Thubelisha Homes, was beset with problems ranging from inter-governmental infighting and cost overruns to a lack of consultation with residents and strikes by construction workers.

In 2006 the Cape Town mayor, Helen Zille, who is also the leader of South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), expressed grave concerns about the project, saying it was flawed and had become "a poisoned chalice".

Following the mayor's public criticism, the national housing department ejected the city council from its role as one of the project's three partners for voicing its concerns outside of official channels.

The allocation of housing in the project was then transferred to the Western Cape provincial government, which is controlled by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, rather than the city council, which is controlled by the DA.

Poor sidelined by property prices

Zille told IRIN in an interview that her original assessment of the project being "bad policy" was unchanged, because it was pushed through ahead of the 2005 local government elections. The Western Cape Province has been hotly contested since South Africa achieved democracy in 1994, and the reins of local government have see-sawed between the ANC and DA.

"The reason things went so wrong on the project is that it was initiated too hastily, without proper building plans or financial modelling. It was built using existing housing subsidies for Reconstruction and Development (RDP) houses [a now defunct programme launched soon after the ANC came into power], which at the time were about R40,000 per unit.

"But the multi-storey flats at Joe Slovo cost over twice that. In other words, they did not factor in the greater construction cost of high-density housing when budgeting for the project. As a result, the funds dried up, and the project incurred cost overruns that could not be paid.

"The [construction] companies wanted to sue the state, but it was found that they had not signed contracts with the city or anyone else. In the end a deal was made to rescue them from bankruptcy, but it brought the project to a halt," Zille told IRIN.

Zille said huge expectations had been created among poor communities after the government announced that 22,000 housing units would available for the slum dwellers, but to date only about 2,000 have been delivered, despite the project being scheduled for completion in 2006.

"The pick of these [houses] were promised to the Joe Slovo community, especially to the victims of the fire there a few years back [which destroyed about 5,000 shacks]. So the project is now being met with massive opposition from the people who had been promised homes," she said.

Members of the Joe Slovo anti-eviction task team believe the real reason behind the government's about-turn on providing the poor with affordable housing is the booming propertry market.

Cape Town's property prices are among the highest in the country because the city is an international tourist destination, which has resulted in an influx of foreign investors paying high prices for housing, often well beyond what most South Africans can afford.

The latest 2007 First National Bank Residential Property Barometer revealed that Cape Town housing costing less than R600,000 (US$85,700), has experienced the highest property growth rate in past year, when compared with other major cities like Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban.

The land occupied by some of the city's informal settlements has become extremely valuable in recent times and, rather than make it available to the country's poorest residents, politicians and the private sector want to cash in on its potential, said anti-eviction task team co-ordinator Zulu.

"The bonded houses in the N2 Gateway project will cost between R150,000 (US$21,500) and R250,000 (US$35,700) and private sector banks will make loans available to people who can afford the repayments - which is not the residents of Joe Slovo."

Source: IRIN