Every autumn for the past four years, Nyameka Mana, 64, has felt desperate. Her two-bedroom brick house in Mdantsane, East London, has no windows, toilet, taps, ceiling, plaster or paint on the walls. When winter approaches, the house is bitterly cold for her family of 11. The walk to the “toilet” – a bushy, vacant piece of land about 800m away – is icy once winter sets in. At night the family relieve themselves in a bucket. Mana finds this “so painful”.
She is one of hundreds of residents of Velwano in an area known as NU1 who were promised a two-bedroom house with a bathroom and a small kitchen-cum-lounge. But after the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality failed to pay the developer, the project stalled in 2017 with 43 houses unfinished.
“There is a water pipe outside, but it is not connected to a tap. We extract the water using buckets. I feel painful because of this house. I hope for the house to be fixed. Our councillor did come and took photos, but until now nothing has happened. The councillor is saying there is nothing he can do. It is probably beyond him, and he says only the municipality can solve our problems,” said Mana.
Nokhanyo Maja, 60, lives in another incomplete house in Velwano. Maja is upset with the municipality for not completing her house, which has no plumbing at all. She has spent a lot of money on the structure. She bought a sink, toilet and bath, but they don’t work because they are not connected to water. She also installed her own windows. She now runs a creche in the lounge to earn some income.
“This is not nice at all. I am not happy about my house because it is just not right. Somebody must please help us because we are really suffering. I had to do everything so far from my own pocket,” she said.
The Kwanele People’s Movement Agenda 7 has taken up the case of the unfinished homes. Kwanele means “enough” and the collective is a “non-racial, non-sexist, non-tribalist, democratic movement for the people to liberate themselves completely out of the bondage of discrimination, economic exclusion, poverty, unemployment and inequality”, said the movement’s secretary, Sandiso Mzonke Boso, 32.
“Our people, black as they are, having voted for our representatives, seem to be very distant from service delivery. The demands of the people seem to be falling on deaf ears. It looks like the government doesn’t reach the bottom … of the poorest,” said movement chairperson Phumelele Phoswa, 58. “The dignity of occupying safe houses is trampled upon where people continue living in defective housing with little or no proper plumbing, cracks and sagging foundations.”
The movement has previously advocated successfully against overbilling by the municipality when residents were overcharged by as much as R80 000 for electricity and water based on a faulty estimate system.
The Kwanele Movement’s campaign seems to have paid off because the developer, Ruwacon, said recently that it now has the go-ahead from the municipality to complete the remaining 315 houses it was contracted to do, including the 43 unfinished houses in Velwano.
“Completion of these houses will recommence once the nationwide lockdown has been lifted. The current completion date of the houses is 20 November 2020, not considering the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown,” Ruwacon contracts manager Kobus Prinsloo said.
The company was appointed in 2014 to construct 1 459 houses across Mdantsane – 420 of these houses were in Velwano. It has been widely reported that the project did not go well. Ruwacon could not start building on all the sites as some of the land had not yet been legally demarcated by the municipality into individual stands. Then the subcontractors went on strike.
Cynthia Ntambovu, 52, a member of the Kwanele Movement’s housing committee and of the area committee in Velwano, says there is also an existing dispute between the Velwano shack settlement residents, to whom the houses were promised, and the residents of Nkomponi in NU1, who say the former Ciskei Bantustan promised them the land in the early 1990s.
“About 149 people from Nkomponi claimed those houses and were given title deeds, but they aren’t occupying them because the Velwano people had already been promised the houses and moved in,” Ntambovu said.
Prinsloo says construction was suspended in January 2017 after the Buffalo City municipality defaulted on payments and then instructed Ruwacon to stop building while it sorted out general plans. By this time, 229 houses in Velwano had been built. For 43 of these houses, Prinsloo says Ruwacon “was directly instructed by the employer [Buffalo City municipality] to perform only the wet works [walls and in some instances a roof] and was accordingly paid only for that”.
“We have never before and will not leave a project like this if it is in our control. This situation was out of our control, and we were instructed by the employer to suspend until further notice,” Prinsloo said.
Because the unfinished houses were left empty for a time and some were vandalised, the beneficiaries moved in for fear of losing the structures. Today, many do not know if they are in the correct houses and some have no title deeds.
Five kilometres away in NU8, the housing situation is even worse. Here there are only trenches, concrete foundation slabs and a few half-built brick shells that have been overgrown with grass and bush. “This is the only thing we have to show that something was ever going to be built here,” said Simphiwe Nako, 38, the chairperson of the sub-ward committee in NU8, which is affiliated with the Kwanele Movement.
These houses were earmarked for residents of the Francis Meli shack settlement nearby. The developer, Johannesburg-based Siyavuna Trading, was supposed to build 266 houses but did not complete the job. The residents have not been told why.
“Building has supposedly been going on here since 2014. We all know that the issue of non-accountability is part of life in this government, so it is nothing new,” Nako said. When the project started, a steering committee was established, allegedly to decide who got the houses. “Nobody knows how that committee was born. But every time anyone asks why these houses were never built, the steering committee just says building will start next month.”
As if on cue, a project steering committee member arrived and told New Frame that the housing project was still under way and a new contractor had visited recently and promised to start the building work next month.
“The Velwano and Francis Meli cases are the reason why we exist as the movement,” said Boso. “We won’t rest until our people are free from these bondages. We will fight against fraud, corruption, maladministration, unemployment, exploitation, discrimination, inequality, propaganda and any form of administrative injustices.”
Buffalo City municipality spokesperson Samkelo Ngwenya said: “The issue here is related to the claims on the status of the land. As the city we identified the land and construction began and it was later discovered that we have constructed houses on privately owned land, meaning there are title deed holders who are assigned to the plots we have identified for our beneficiaries. We as the city had a contract with a service provider to build 420 houses. Just above 100 was constructed and [we] only allocated 31 houses to our beneficiaries. It was through this process where we identified the title deed owners at a figure of 149. Last year we tried means of finding the owners of the land and only about 70 came back to us.
“Currently there is an ongoing process between us and the provincial housing department to resolve or rectify this matter by doing a housing consolidation project in order to avoid wasteful expenditure. We have suggested that the landowners be given the houses. Once this is approved we will then instruct the service provider to go back to site to complete the houses.”
It is unclear whether Ngwenya is referring to the stalled housing project in Madantsane’s NU8 or the unfinished homes in Velwano. He did not respond to questions asking for clarity.
Siyavuna Trading could not be reached for comment as its phone has been disconnected.