South Africa


Helen Zille draws the wrong lessons from N2 Gateway’s failure

A South African woman and baby run with others away from South African police as they fire stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd opposing evictions of their illegally occupied houses in Delft, Cape Town, South Africa 19 February 2008. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

Zille’s misguided conclusions about the N2 Gateway project demonstrate a lack of understanding of the struggles of poor black South Africans and also an unwillingness to grapple with the root causes of the problem.

On Monday, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille pronounced to Daily Maverick readers the failure of the 15-year initiative to upgrade Joe Slovo shack settlement as part of the larger N2 Gateway housing project.

She is right to recognise the failure of Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s flagship project which her MEC for Human Settlements, Bonginkosi Madikizela, has now essentially led for about eight years. Some of her criticisms are valid and should be acknowledged. However, her misguided conclusions both demonstrate a lack of understanding of the struggles of poor black South Africans and also an unwillingness to grapple with the root causes of the problem.

For Joe Slovo residents, the struggle began over 12 years ago when Sisulu decided that the best way to build public housing on land occupied by shack dwellers in the well-located Langa township was to evicted its inhabitants to temporary camps in Delft. When they saw the living conditions in Delft of those initially evicted to make way for the Phase 1 rental flats – for which they did not qualify as beneficiaries – Joe Slovo residents decided to resist.

After years of protest and despite losing a June 2009 Constitutional Court case which ruled in favour of their eviction, national and provincial government eventually backed away from what would have been the largest forced removal in post-1994 South Africa. Joe Slovo residents may have lost in the court of law, but they won the political battle through sheer strength in numbers and through making good on threats of civil disobedience.

Zille’s current pronouncement comes against this backdrop in which former Minister Tokyo Sexwale and current MEC Madikizela yielded to an alternative plan: the upgrading of Joe Slovo to high-density homes for its residents without any evictions.

There are some basic problems with Zille’s line of argument, such as her claim that the 22 residents holding up development cannot be evicted: legally they can, as the Constitutional Court has already ruled. Similarly, its not that those 22 families are the only stubborn intransigents blocking development; there is also a lack of creativity by stubborn politicians overseeing the project who fail to conceive of development beyond top-down planning. Why not build around the 22 families? Why not offer them a subsidised rent-to-buy scheme since their salaries are just above the cut-off point for a free house?

However, one of the benefits of Zille’s column is that it brings forth some of the even more important issues at play, thereby allowing us to engage in a deeper analysis of South Africa’s national housing policy.

Zille, of course, is correct that the problem is not “the selfishness of the intransigents”, but actually land and housing policy as a whole. It’s not merely that a handful of families refuse to move or that there is huge demand for new shacks in Joe Slovo due to the perception that occupying a shack there will pressure government into providing them with housing. The actual issue has very little to do with this. Rather, the problem is structural and comes from the failure of government housing policy in addressing this.

This is where myself and Zille part ways. Anyone who understands the perverse incentives promoted by this system of privatised property under market-capitalism, in which South Africa forms a part, will understand that any housing policy that fails to address this will instead feed the contradictions inherent in this system.

Whereas Zille blames the growing shack dweller population in the Western Cape on the provision of free government houses, this argument makes a key logical fallacy. The demand for housing is not driven by its provision: there is only a limited number of households in South Africa and therefore the need for housing as actually mathematically restricted. The housing demand, rather, is based on two factors: population growth (the minor cause) and inequality (the major cause).

The first is relatively simple to address given a solution to the second (let us not fall into Malthusian fears of overpopulation that have, time and again, been proven wrong. And we should be especially weary of this ideology in a South Africa that is relatively underpopulated).

Rather, it is inequality – both more generally and specifically in terms of land and housing – which is the primary root cause of South Africa’s massive housing crisis.

This is partly because of the concentration of land (both rural and urban) in the hands of very few rich and white South Africans who, through Colonisation and apartheid, have dispossessed millions of Black South Africans; the large majority of which still, 24 years later, have no land or housing at all. The solution in this case is not public-private partnerships, but massive land redistribution as has been carried out for instance amongst the East Asian economic tigers, in Costa Rica, in Kerala (India) and in Cuba.

However, the other cause of the inequality driving the housing crisis is the privatisation and marketisation of land and, by extension, housing provision. As more urban land is sold off to private developers (even when in partnership with government), it becomes further concentrated among capitalists who have no incentive to provide housing for the poor. Private developers may build more homes, but these are invariably luxury homes (even if government policy forces them, sometimes, to mix in a handful of homes for lower income families).

In contrast to what Zille wants you to think, current housing policy in South Africa actually favours privatisation rather than socialisation; even though some poor people are given free houses with title deeds, this property joins the free market after only eight years. Given that poor South Africans living under capitalism endure massive amounts of debt, the perverse incentive here is to pay off your bills by selling one’s only form of wealth: their home. Under such conditions it is only a matter of time before banks and other property developers repossess or purchase their property for peanuts and redevelop it for a wealthier market thereby moving the poor further away from the city.

Whereas Zille’s solution is dismantling bona fide public housing in favour of market mechanisms to solve the housing crisis, this will merely heighten inequality, increase (rather than decrease) real estate prices, and further disposes the poorest of the poor to shack settlements or substandard houses far away from their socio-economic livelihood.

This is the lesson we must draw from the ongoing gentrification of Woodstock and Salt River whose poorest residents are now living “in the bush” in the government built shacks of Blikkiesdorp and Wolverivier.

This is why the Joe Slovo struggle to remain near to Cape Town was both righteous and a demand for better land and housing policies; it was a struggle first and foremost against economic and geographic inequality. But they can’t do it alone. We need a land and housing policy that reverses the government sponsored trend towards accumulation through dispossession. Even more, we need an economic system that protects the land and housing of poor people rather than one that forces them to relinquish it to developers. DM

Jared Sacks is former freelance journalist and activist from South Africa and founder of a children’s non-profit organisation. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University.