Anyone who at any time over the past 25 years has travelled down the N2 from Cape Town towards the airport will have noticed a 1.5-kilometre strip, dense with shacks, wedged between the highway and the formal houses of Langa, Cape Town’s oldest “township”.
The strip is called Joe Slovo, one of several shack settlements that bear the name of democratic South Africa’s first housing minister.
Over the past 15 years the passer-by will also have noticed that, gradually (very gradually), the Joe Slovo shacks have been making way for three-storey walk-up flats, part of a Project known as the N2 Gateway.
Originally launched in 2004 with the goal of providing 22,000 formal dwellings to accommodate people living in shacks and backyards along the N2 corridor (on condition they qualify as housing beneficiaries), the N2 Gateway was described by the former Housing Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, as the biggest single housing project ever undertaken in South Africa.
It was also one of the country’s first major formal densification projects to replace shack settlements on well-located urban land with convenient access to potential jobs and other urban amenities.
Fifteen years on, we are now just over half way through the Joe Slovo strip, which itself comprises only a small component of the overall N2 Gateway project.
Every time I drive past, I remind myself that it took just one seventh of that time to design, construct and complete the Cape Town stadium in time for the World Cup kick-off – despite major legal obstacles and public objections.
In contrast, it now seems we may have to abandon the Joe Slovo project in mid-stream. The cost and time required for the remaining evictions to clear the land in order to continue building threaten the project’s completion.
At the heart of the problem is the refusal, by a relatively small number of shack-dwellers, to abide by the conditions of the social compact, agreed by all parties.
We have managed to overcome pockets of resistance in the past. But in the end, there is always the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back.
This “straw” is 22 families who simply refuse to move their shacks to make way for the next phase of the formal development.
This intransigence is not a new phenomenon. We have faced it repeatedly, which is one of the reasons it has taken so long to clear shacks and then build each phase, before moving the legitimate beneficiaries back into their formal units.
However, this time the contractors too have had enough. They allege that about R65-million is due to them in damages because of constant delays. The provincial government denies that we are liable for the damages. But even if we were, we simply cannot afford to use precious housing resources to pay damages to contractors. It would make more sense to spend this money on projects where there is a prospect of progress.
So why would people want to block the development?
They do so, not because they don’t want housing, but because they do! The problem is that many of those who refuse to move don’t qualify as beneficiaries in the project, either because they are not registered on the housing database (waiting list); or because they earn too much to qualify for a free house; or because they have already benefited in another development elsewhere, and either “sold” or rented their home to someone else. This means they cannot benefit from state assistance a second time.
In addition, hundreds of people have arrived at Joe Slovo over the past 10 years, especially over weekends and at night, to erect a shack on areas already cleared. Despite repeated interdicts to stop this, the newcomers are accommodated by the local project steering committee and then immediately make the same demands for future accommodation as those who have been in Joe Slovo from the start. There are widespread allegations (difficult to prove) that the new arrivals pay good money to local leaders for the “right” to build a shack on the cleared site.
Partly as a result, the number of people that still need to be accommodated in the remaining half of the Joe Slovo project is roughly the same as the number that lived across the whole settlement at the start. The more we build, the more the demand grows.
And by now, people know how to play the system. They know we cannot force them to move or dismantle their shacks without a court order. They also know that the legal process to undertake an eviction takes years, and when the fateful day arrives, we will have to offer them alternative accommodation.
We obviously make this offer from the start, in an attempt to avoid the long, slow court process. But many refuse the alternative offered, choosing instead to drag the process out, because they can remain where they are in the interim, and hope that our desperation to proceed will force us to offer alternative accommodation in an area of their choice.
There is no incentive to move voluntarily, and every incentive to stay where they are, even if it adds millions to the project costs and violates the rights of hundreds of legitimate beneficiaries, waiting in temporary relocation areas for their apartments, who dismantled their shacks and moved in good faith when asked to do so.
When I feel rising fury at the selfishness of the intransigents, I remind myself that the root of the problem is actually the policy and its perverse consequences.
For example, the requirement that families earn less than R3,500 a month to qualify for a free house has devastating consequences for many. It also penalises individual enterprise and self-reliance.
If you hold down a decent job, and your spouse/partner brings in a second income to a stable family, the housing policy punishes you, especially in an upgrading project like Joe Slovo. In these circumstances, the “alternative” available for you is a serviced site in a less convenient location, further from your workplace (or school) where you will have to pay much more for transport. No wonder many hard-working and diligent people refuse to behave like turkeys voting for Christmas.
In contrast, indigent families who qualify for free homes often find they cannot afford to live in them. So many move back into a shack (sometimes in their own backyard) and let their houses. It is quite routine for foreign nationals, who don’t qualify for state-sponsored housing at all, to rent houses (sometimes to run viable businesses) while the legitimate beneficiaries move back into shacks.
Once beneficiaries have abandoned their homes, they cannot evict the new occupants either, without going to court; and when they find themselves caught up in the next shack-upgrading project, they can’t be assisted a second time – so it makes sense to block progress. And so it goes.
Then there is the political abuse of the housing allocation process, often by politicians, who slip friends and relatives on to the housing list, even where they don’t qualify. While we have worked very hard to eradicate such corruption in the Western Cape, it still raises its head now and again.
The entire system, from start to finish, is an invitation to break the law and to find new, innovative ways of doing so, rather than earn an income and becoming self-reliant.
Take the 22 families refusing to move in the current phase of Joe Slovo. With the land around them now cleared, they are thumbing their noses at the interdict in place to prevent newcomers. In fact they are actually extending their shacks, in order to accommodate others. They know that when the courts finally grant an eviction order, the state will have to offer an “alternative” to their lodgers as well.
Their actions, although illegal, make perfect sense within the incentives of the current policy framework.
It is no wonder, in these circumstances, that we have faced at least 20 forced land invasions in the province over the past three months. Sixteen of these have been successfully prevented by the City’s anti-land-invasion unit working with the police; but every attempt has had serious social consequences, including a toxic race dimension in the face-off between communities.
So what to do? The first thing we have to accept is that government housing hand-outs in South Africa (and the criteria attached to them) have caused at least as many problems as they have solved. The only other country where government still provides some free housing is Colombia, and that is done through a lottery system. This side-steps the complexity and unintended consequences of South Africa’s qualifying criteria (although housing lotteries no doubt bring their own problems).
In all other countries of which I am aware, state assistance is geared to making housing more affordable (rather than free). South Africa has started on this road, very tentatively, with limited success.
Many people support a policy of government-provided serviced sites (where people get free access to land and basic services such as water, electricity, sewage, and roads), so that they can build their own dwellings. But, given the rate of urbanisation, this would result in huge stretches of low-density urban sprawl, making infrastructure provision and public transport unaffordable. As one observer put it:
“We could end up with shacks from Cape Town to George.”
Apart from the negative social consequences, it would also destroy the irreplaceable fynbos biosphere.
Urban densification is the only way to go – but the big blockage is cost. Multiple-storey buildings are expensive, and only affordable (at scale) if people are prepared to pay something towards their housing. Many such projects have failed because people are not. Within the current policy framework, their refusal is rational. Who would want to pay for a flat when others are getting a free house on their own piece of land?
Furthermore, the system facilitates non-payment, again because of the time it takes to get an eviction order, and the political costs attached to it.
An interesting feature of low-cost housing is that tenants are more prepared to pay rent to a private sector landlord (who is less amenable to political pressure) than to the state. The City of Cape Town’s vast housing estates have a very low rent-payment record that hovers around 30%.
Given all these factors, it is clear that the role of the state should be to make housing more affordable – but not to play the role of the primary provider of free housing.
The state has many levers to improve affordability: it can transfer state-owned land to private-sector-driven housing projects at massively discounted costs, on condition the benefit is passed to the end user; it can offer a range of subsidies for infrastructure; reduce or even abolish transfer costs; provide part-subsidies to make bank-loans more affordable; and offer rental vouchers.
This approach would mobilise all available housing resources (in the public and private sector, including contributions from individual families) to help solve our housing crisis, rather than the grossly inefficient and wasteful system we have at present, which actively discourages people from contributing towards the cost of housing, while encouraging them to break the law.
This type of approach would open an alternative door for hundreds of thousands of people currently on the “waiting list” to enter the formal housing system. And those who are unemployed and indigent would qualify for a serviced site and assistance to construct their own dwelling.
There would, in other words, still be shack settlements, but their number would be greatly reduced. And we would be able to focus on policies to grow the economy so that people can get jobs and contribute something towards the formalisation of their housing.
There is no more complex policy terrain than housing, especially in profoundly unequal societies. South Africa has learnt many lessons but we are still, as yet, nowhere near a sustainable solution.
A necessary step is for government to understand that its key role in housing provision is to facilitate and incentivise large-scale private sector entry in low-cost formal housing, using subsidies to make the end product more affordable, rather than free.
That will require a massive mind-set shift in South Africa. But over the past 10 years, I have learnt it is the only way to go. DM
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.
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