Lindiwe Sisulu began her 9 July human settlements budget vote speech – dedicated to the housing component of the newly minted human settlements, water and sanitation department – in a congratulatory tone.
“Is it at this point that I am expected to say it is good to be back?” joked the minister. (Sisulu’s post in Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest cabinet is her third bite at the housing cherry). “We have done extremely well in this sector,” she said, reflecting on her experience leading South Africa’s housing delivery.
Her tone stuck in the craw given the news coming out of Durban. At 8pm the night before, two-year-old Khwezi Mlingo burnt to death in her family’s shack at the eNkanini land occupation, according to shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.
A fallen candle, lit after the shack’s self-connected electricity had failed, caused the blaze. “If we had water and electricity the community would have been able to put the fire off. The provision of basic services in the settlement would have saved Khwezi’s life,” said Abahlali.
According to the Housing Development Agency, at least one in every 10 South Africans lives in a shack settlement like the one being built at eNkanini in Cato Manor, Durban.
Despite this, Sisulu mentioned shack settlements only once in her speech and that was to say that the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution might facilitate he policing of shack settlements. Satellite technology, she said, will apparently assist the department to “monitor the growth of informal settlements, invasion of land and also provide us with on-time inspections of our construction sites.”
New technologies, said Sisulu, would increase municipal efficiency with regard to evictions. “We want our municipalities to be responsible to issue notice of illegal invasions. They have a responsibility to deal with and report any invasion within 48 hours to law enforcement agencies and act within the shortest possible time after receiving an eviction order.”
The minister’s enthusiasm for new technological possibilities included a qualification: “I urge all municipalities to be sensitive to evicting families during winter.”
Where Sisulu was silent on shack settlements, she waxed lyrical about the potential of “catalytic projects” – partnerships with the private sector to build new towns and neighbourhoods – which she mentioned six times throughout her speech.
Margot Rubin, a senior researcher in the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the focus on catalytic projects was “extremely concerning.”
The economic sustainability of new towns and neighbourhoods is notoriously low. Various research shows that, in the South African context, homes should be brought closer to existing jobs, and not the other way around.
Rubin said the success Sisulu attributed to catalytic projects – the minister called them “our cities in the making and in the process we have provided more than 4 million houses and housing opportunities” – is misleading. The projects, which are fairly new to South Africa’s housing landscape, have in fact “provided so far relatively few housing opportunities,” she said.
Boost for upgrading
The minister’s silence on shack settlements appears to be at odds with recently increased efforts by her department to train officials and communities around the in situ upgrading of shack settlements through the National Upgrading Support Programme.
A new grant to municipal and provincial human settlements departments will also come into effect in the next financial year, when just short of R3 billion will be reprioritised towards the programmatic upgrading of shack settlements. That amount will increase to almost R4.5 billion the year after.
The boost for the upgrading of shack settlements comes amid recent real-term declines in government’s housing expenditure. While R35.1 billion was spent on human settlements in the 2015/2016 financial year, R32.2 billion has been set aside for this year. Come the 2021/2022 financial year, and that will have further contracted to R31.4 billion.
Blaming bad communication
Communication, according to Sisulu, has been one of her department’s biggest weaknesses. Had its “many successes” only been better communicated, “South Africa would know what has been provided in the space of human settlements.”
The department missed the majority of its 2018 targets.
It only managed to deliver 86 131 of the 112 600 subsidised homes it planned to. Less than half of the department’s intended affordable rental homes materialised, while only 3 535 of the 6 000 targeted social housing units were completed. And of the 327 300 backlogged title deeds the department planned to hand out, only 82 000 eventually were, according to provincial human settlement departments. Despite this, Sisulu said she is confident that the backlog of title deeds can be cleared in two years.
In 2018, the department upgraded only 89 670 homes throughout South Africa’s shack settlements after planning to upgrade 150 000.
According to Abahlali, servicing settlements like eNkanini is a question of life and death. “The recognition of our human dignity would have saved the life of Khwezi and many more children whose only crime is to be raised by impoverished families who are forced to live in shacks.”