South Africa

South Africa

Interview: Connie September on sanitation, settlements and staying out of the limelight

When President Jacob Zuma announced last month that Connie September would take over the Human Settlements portfolio in his Cabinet from Tokyo Sexwale, it took many people by surprise, mostly because of September’s low profile. In an interview with RYLAND FISHER at her office in Cape Town this week, she spoke about her background in community organisation and trade unions, her academic pursuits, her plans for the department and the piano lessons that have been forced to take a back seat since her unexpected appointment to Cabinet.

It has been less than a month since your appointment. How have you settled in?

There are all these little things, the administrative things, like filling in forms and getting many briefings, and also talking to many people.

In between that I must still go to inter-ministerial committee meetings and cabinet committee meetings. On Wednesday (7 August) it will be my first full Cabinet meeting.

It is a whirlwind of many things, all happening at the same time – like getting involved with the Marikana housing issue, which is a presidential issue. We went to see for ourselves how things are, and there is some progress in getting human settlements for those workers and communities over there.

In between, there has been an interview or two.

Mindful that there are only a few months left of this administration, we are starting to prioritise what it is that we need to do for the next few months. We are looking for things that can be fixed in a nine-month programme. For instance, if a grandmother of 109 years old has never ever had a house, how do we collaborate with the province? We can’t say that she must stay on the housing list.

It came as a surprise when President Zuma announced that he had appointed you as Human Settlements minister. Some people asked openly: Who is Connie September? So let me ask you that question directly: Who is Connie September?

Connie September is a Member of Parliament obviously. In the 80s she cut her teeth through civics. She was quite involved in CAHAC, the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee. There I got to know quite a bit, in my youngness, about electricity in houses. In some of our houses we didn’t have electricity, so we took up that campaign. When I stayed in Lotus River I joined Logra (Lotus River Grassy Park Residents Association). I also came involved in the Logra Youth.

I started off there. I didn’t start off in the unions. My activism started off in the community organisations, dealing with Wilfred Rhodes, Trevor Manuel, Auntie Vivie and all those kind of people. Some of them were much older than me, and I was this young laaitie doing these things with them.

I was even the Advice Office Forum national secretary at some point and that took me around the country. We dealt with legalities and did a lot of community stuff through these advice offices, including dealing with people who didn’t have houses or any other big or small problems.

That was a big chunk of my life.

I was then asked, because I was in the clothing industry, that we would like to make a change in the industry with the unions who are there. Hence my rapid rise in the unions, not only in the clothing industry, that ended in the September Commission (which reviewed the role of unions) and with me coming to Parliament in 1999.

So, Connie September has been around for a while.

I have been exposed to and played a role in very many different things, both locally and internationally.

When I came to Parliament, I got involved in various committees. I was the ANC’s social cluster convener in Parliament and we worked on the policies that you see in social transformation, from housing to water to sanitation to sports. I convened the cluster so obviously I had to engage with everyone. At that time, minister (Lindiwe) Sisulu was the ANC’s cluster convener at an NEC level and we had to work together. I got to know this office a little bit because I used to come here often to meet with her. (Sisulu used to be minister of housing).

I was instrumental in driving those policies. We were very much a part of driving the policies that you saw at Polokwane. We were part of preparing the policies of housing then, human settlements now.

Some people say that you don’t have previous housing experience. What do you say to that?

What housing experience are they talking about? At an academic level, I studied engineering. I started off by studying various things with Warwick University and then I narrowed it down, moving to the Da Vinci Institute. I hold a master’s degree in technology. But the background is all these other things that I studied.

At a political level, I went through the mill about the issues that are required at a community level. At a policy level, I was part of the formulation of the policies.

I’ve never built a house myself, if that is what people would want to know, but I have experience at all these other levels.

There is another part of human settlements which deals with sanitation. I was the chairperson of the portfolio committee on water who drove the programme for the eradication of the bucket system in the informal areas in 2005, 2006 and 2007. We had to work with housing and others because the concept of human settlements means that you have to engage with everyone else. In order to eradicate this method of sanitation, you had to work with your counterparts in housing, because you can’t build a toilet on its own. It has to be part of a house. Dignity had to be given back to people, through human settlements, housing and sanitation, which is something that I worked on.

I’m not a person who you will find in the media every day and that is probably why people would ask: who is this person? I’m very happy just to continue doing my work and making sure that the task that is set aside, is done. That’s pretty much how I have worked over the years.

How do you feel to follow in the footsteps of someone like Tokyo Sexwale, who had a very high profile he brought to this portfolio? You’re almost the opposite?

I’m not sure what you mean by opposite.

You said that you don’t have a high media profile. We don’t find you in the media every day, whereas someone like Tokyo Sexwale, you would find in the media every day, not only related to this portfolio but also related to other things.

People come and go. In 1993 I found myself having to walk in the footsteps of Jay Naidoo and people like that when I became the Cosatu president. I had to concentrate on what was required of me to do. I would pretty much take the same view in this instance, because it is sometimes wrong to think that we must work in the shadow of each other instead of focusing on what the issue is at hand.

Tokyo Sexwale will never be Connie September, and Connie September will never be Tokyo Sexwale, but what brings the two of us together is that both of us have been charged, or are now being charged, with how to roll out human settlements.

Do you think your time in the union movement prepared you properly for a role in government?

Cosatu is one of the greatest training colleges, because the federation always took a view and continues to take a view that it must equip its membership properly. Cosatu offered many training opportunities. There was not a week that went by without people being put through some training course.

The membership of the federation afforded me the opportunity to be part of its leadership. I had to serve on Nedlac and I was part of engaging the different stakeholders at Nedlac. If there were bills that came to Nedlac, I was part of that. I was part of all the labour legislation that came through at the time, so too the Equity Act. I even had to bring the Holidays Act to Parliament.

I gained a huge amount of responsibilities and skills, for which I thank Cosatu and its membership very much.

How do you remain true to your union roots as a representative in government? There is a perception that labour leaders change and have different priorities once they become involved in government.

I am an ANC Member of Parliament. I am not a Cosatu Member of Parliament. Cosatu is not represented in Parliament. The things that the federation stands for must always remain dear in your heart. Most of the people who do not have basic services in this country are the poorest of the poor, the heartbeat of the federation. To stay true to the goals of the federation is too bring about that change that they are asking for. For instance, I have been given an opportunity to work on a project to get houses for people in the mining industry.

But also, all the different packages that are in housing enables you to deal with different people in this society. There is a rural fund that helps you in the rural areas to give people access to some funding, which keeps you true to the earth.

There are workers in the public sector who cannot get a breaking new ground house or cannot get money from the bank, but they will be able to access money through what we call the gap programme in the department. You engage through the different services that we have.

It is your responsibility to make sure that millions of farm workers can have access to sanitation and water as well.

It is through your programme as a minister that you can keep yourself true to that which workers are generally asking and would want to have.

There are now two people with links to Sactwu in Cabinet. But these two people also have links to Grassy Park. Does this say anything about the calibre of leadership coming out of Sactwu or out of Grassy Park? Or does it say something about the qualities Ebrahim Patel and you possess?

It is probably the qualities of the two individuals. But I think we must give the credit to Grassy Park also. If you look at the kind of organisation that we had there, it was an organisation that was focused on the community. My first response from those comrades was “Viva Logra Viva”. They claimed responsibility, and rightfully so, that a product that came from them has been given an opportunity to be in the Cabinet.

I think the qualities of the individuals, but there were also good training grounds that were given in the movement at that time.

You also have two Western Cape women heading up a very important government department, with Zou Kota as your deputy. Is this an indication of how seriously the ANC is taking the Western Cape?

I would imagine so, that the ANC continues to take the Western Cape very seriously. It brings it across in many different ways and it will continue to do so.


It’s almost 20 years into our democracy and the housing crisis seems as serious as it has ever been. What do you think needs to be done to solve the housing crisis?

It will be good to unpack what the crisis is. Where is this crisis? Is it at the level that we have never rolled out any houses in this country? No, that is not the case. Is the crisis that people require finances to get them into houses? Yes, that is a crisis. That crisis is between those who don’t have at all, those who have a little bit but require somebody else to assist them, those who have a little bit more but need some leverage from government to help them to engage with the banks, and then there are those who can absolutely afford it.

The crisis is in between this.

Government’s programme is, on the one hand, rolling out houses where people get these houses for free. When they get these free houses, we must think about how it is going to be possible for them to pay the basic services, because they have to pay for water, electricity and so on.

This crisis that you are referring to is in many different ways. It is not separate from the crisis of unemployment and the fact that we have to create more jobs in this country. They are all intertwined with each other.

It is a crisis also of land. If we want to roll out more houses, we have to acquire land and, as you know, with the celebration of the 1913 Land Act, it has its own crisis and that is that we still need to roll out a lot more allowing the land to get to its people. We have an absolute relationship with that crisis also.

As we roll out houses, we have to bear in mind that we have to change the face of Apartheid. That is a different crisis in itself. We cannot perpetuate the face of Apartheid by building houses only in the former Apartheid areas. That is where our nexus with land comes in. We need to get land in different places so that our people can get closer to their work.

Are we doing something about it? Yes, of course, because it is not just a matter of rolling out houses, it is also a matter of how we address these different dimensions that are there, whether it is a bigger conversation through our entities with the banks, whether it is the entity that we have that deals with land, whether it is an entity that deals with closing the gap market, and whether it is an entity that can just help in ensuring that people come up to find a different way of securing houses, because the waiting list is the waiting list, and what do we do about it?

We are encouraging different forms of creativity. For instance, we have great success stories, in this country, where women have built houses and those houses have been very good houses.

Do you feel comfortable when you look at the quality of low-cost houses provided under democracy? Could we have done better?

Indeed we could have done better. In fact, those who assisted government at that time must bear some of the responsibility for how they have built these houses.

I would imagine that we have learnt quite a lot from 1994 onwards, when we said we needed to build a million houses and we started out towards building those houses, but when we looked back, we saw the quality.

One of the things that you see now is the different ways in which people can build houses.

More importantly, we must continue to step up the entity that deals with quality, how it functions and what it keeps its eye on when it speaks about quality. When they dig the hole to lay the foundation, are they there to make sure that it is a qualitative foundation?

I would like to engage the entity, and I am seeing them later in the week, on how they should become aware of the different ways in which one can deal with quality. I want to set up a conversation between them and the South African Bureau of Standards, the body that deals with quality issues, so that they can learn from each other.

If our attitude is that South Africa will not send fruit out of the country that is not of a qualitative nature, our attitude must be the same with houses. We will not build a house that is not qualitative for people to live in, because then all that you do is to contribute to the health problems in this country.

You spoke earlier about your priorities in the light of next year’s elections. Can you maybe just expand on that? You mentioned one priority, that people who are elderly, and still on the housing waiting list, should get houses. What are your other priorities that you want to achieve in the next nine months or so?

When we went to go launch the houses in Danville in Gauteng, one of the things that was very striking was the people to whom we were giving houses. It is a non-racial project and that is good, that is what we would want to have. We must continue to maintain the non-racial character in rolling out services to everyone.

But what was very stark was the ages of those people that we gave houses to. Almost all of them were over 50. That is the other thing that I would really want to deal with. I’m not saying the youth must not get anything…

Were some of these people getting houses for the first time?

They were getting it for the absolute first time. We have a big category in this country of people who are over 40 and who do not own houses.

But here is the other thing. As we give houses to our people, the final ownership of that house is when I have the title deed in my hand. I would like us to work a little bit more on this aspect of title deed.

People must be able to say: it is mine. When we spoke about houses, security and comfort, it is mine. My title deed has been sorted out. We have quite a few challenges in that area.

A big issue also is the subsidy for people earning up to R3,500 per month. Are there plans to increase this subsidy in line with inflation and also with building construction costs?

The building construction costs come mostly to the department. If we build a house and give it for free to people, then those costs come to us. That’s a separate category. When we come to another category, for instance rental stock, then of course there are different categories.

Even if you want to change the subsidy to inflation, it depends on which subsidy, because there are different subsidies in the department. There are those who don’t pay at all and there are others who get a subsidy. All of that is reliant also on what your income is.

Some people are really amazing. They save up and then they say, just give me a loan for the rest, so the issue of inflation does not arise because they have made some means themselves already.

Inflationary stuff, that’s the domain of the Treasury. They discuss whether they should make those movements. We don’t deal with that.

Realistically, if at the end of nine months you had to have a report card, what would you need that report card to say you have passed?

We must bring dignity to our people through fast-tracking the backlog in sanitation. It is not a desirable situation, and something has to be done in a very short space of time to deal with sanitation.

The second one would be to deal with the different challenges in the different provinces. The challenges in Northwest differ from the Free State because the backlog might be higher, while Free State might be higher than KZN, and so on.

We want to make a difference in the rural parts of our country and to settle people in a humane way.

We need to be true to the idea of human settlements and, as we build houses, we must not build ghost towns. We must embrace the concept of human settlements that says that as we roll out houses, there must be a road, there must be water. We cannot build houses that do not have basic services. We must make sure that we do environmental stuff also.

People think that we must just build little matchboxes and we can’t plant trees there.

The children that are going to stay in these houses also need recreational facilities. That requires a good conversation with other ministries and I have already started the process of engaging with the other ministries that we rely on to roll out the services.

The track record of having this entire integrated approach will be good.

I also want to see how we can refocus the entities that are there, so that they can play a more meaningful role in terms of rolling out services for our people.

This month is National Women’s Month and on Friday it is National Women’s Day. How will you be celebrating National Women’s Day and National Women’s month as a department and as the minister?

The department has a programme. The deputy minister is very much involved in youth and women projects. They will be handing over houses in Oudtshoorn.

The big Women’s Day celebration is in Mpumalanga so I will probably land up there. I was also invited by a church and I think that was very nice. I will go to their event too.

Generally speaking for Women’s Month is to see whether we can make a difference to those women who are not young any more. They really need to feel secure in this country by having a house of their own.

Do you have a special message for women in National Women’s Month?

Women in South Africa have a proud history of resilience, and my message is that they must not lose hope and faith in this government that their needs will be taken care off. They remain the backbone of this country. South Africa will be judged on whether it changed the lives of women, because if it hasn’t, it means that the country has not succeeded in addressing the issues of its society. Our indicator will remain the girl child and women.

Continue to partner with the Department of Human Settlements, and continue to bring out your innovative ideas about how we can roll out more houses. My message to women is that I have decided to bring dignity back for them, by lifting up the backlog of sanitation that we have in this country.

Finally, what do you do with your spare time? Do you have any spare time?

The spare time that I had then is getting a bit neglected now. I’m a music person and I have taken up playing the piano, but this is taking a bit of a knock. There is not much of a spare time to talk about at the moment.

Photo by Clarissa Sosin for Mail & Guardian.