Put people in charge of housing, plead activists

Waiting lists for houses should be kept away from ANC councillors and overseen by an independent body that reports back to affected communities.

The homes of impoverished and working-class residents that were washed away in the KwaZulu-Natal floods will not be replaced unless an entirely new and democratic waiting list for government housing is compiled. 

This is according to social movements and experts in the provision of emergency housing who are looking for ways to forestall the corruption they believe is about to unfold in the reconstruction of houses in the province.

About 14 449 homes were damaged, washed away or destroyed by mudslides in the floods that occurred four weeks ago. Homeowners with insurance have already made claims worth hundreds of millions of rands.

But shack dwellers have no insurance, and many have been on the housing waiting list for years – only to see councillors leapfrog their friends, family and political connections into new-build houses ahead of them. The prospect of joining another waiting list for emergency housing is a grim one.

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A new public housing waiting list devised by communities without any input from political parties, municipal officials or government-appointed consultants is the only way forward, says Abahlali baseMjondolo president S’bu Zikode, winner of the 2021 Per Anger Prize

He says the shack dwellers’ movement has “for too long been calling for a transparent and democratic housing allocation list”, going back to the 2000s when Mike Mabuyakhulu was member of the executive council for housing in KwaZulu-Natal and Mike Sutcliffe was the municipal manager.

“We have seen councillors and authorities using their discretion on who qualifies. Therefore, the people of South Africa who are not somehow connected to party cronies have not benefitted. Housing mostly benefits those who are loyal members and associated with ANC councillors and structures, just like expanded public works programme jobs,” said Zikode. 

Unworkable solutions

The provincial Department of Human Settlements has begun rolling out temporary two-room housing units to flood victims in Ndwedwe, about 60km north of Durban. These cost R70 000 each and have a 10-year lifespan. But the eThekwini municipality is reported as saying it rather wants empty or hijacked private buildings and unused government buildings in the Durban city centre to be renovated as apartments suitable for families.

Either option is disastrous for shack dwellers, says Desmond D’Sa, Goldman Prize-winning coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (Sdcea). He says moving shack dwellers from a shack destroyed by a mudslide to a temporary unit with a limited lifespan is the same as moving people from shack to shack. And if new family accommodation in disused buildings in the city centre or near the beachfront ever materialises, many of those apartments would likely be allocated to politically connected people rather than actual flood victims.

“The housing waiting list drawn up by the government has over the years only served the ANC. We cannot allow the ANC to continue doing what it has done all these years,” said D’Sa.

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Both D’Sa and Zikode propose the establishment of an independent housing allocation committee that would compile a public list with data captured by residents themselves. The committee would then sign off on every house allocated and report back monthly to communities.

“We need a totally independent body made up of social movements, religious leaders and civil society who are far removed from political parties and from any organisations that have a relationship with the ANC,” said D’Sa. “This must involve actual structures of the shack dwellers in their areas so that you don’t have people who aspire to leadership in the ANC posing as leaders.” 

D’Sa also proposes that all new housing projects be built by communities themselves. They often have many members skilled in construction and would then also have more control of the construction from start to finish.

People-driven approach

David Hemson, an international evaluator of water and agricultural projects and former research director at the Human Sciences Research Council, has been working on a similar people-driven housing waiting list process for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, a town in Bangladesh that houses the largest refugee complex in the world. About one million people live in the Cox’s Bazar camps, which have experienced six fires this year alone. Last year, a devastating fire destroyed 10 000 shelters there.

“The idea is to self-generate a genuine housing list using public software,” said Hemson. “The data would be pure. There would be public scrutiny of it and monthly reports to show how many people had been placed. This is what genuine relief organisations do. Anything else is like putting money in a shredder.” 

Hemson adds that a housing waiting list generated by communities would “solidify community organisation and mobilise relief to target priority areas”.

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“This strategy is to accumulate undeniable need by family name, area and poverty [status] to force the reconstruction to prioritise housing. Existing housing lists are unreliable, subject to arbitrary change and in the hands of politicians. This list will represent self-generated human need,” he added.

There would be an inevitable risk of people entering false information to place themselves at an advantage, but Hemson believes that such problems would be corrected by the public ownership of the waiting list. “Since this list would be open and verifiable, it avoids double dipping and sharing of extra houses among the privileged,” he said.

While the list could start as an emergency initiative to document the housing needs of the most vulnerable people affected by the KwaZulu-Natal floods, it would become an independent register that is continuously updated. “It also provides the basis for a plan, area by area, to budget and provide public housing,” said Hemson.

Political will needed

Zikode cautions that while a new, democratically created housing waiting list is necessary, the main reason for the current estimated backlog of 2.6 million houses is because the government has no political will at all to build them. A list on its own will not solve this burning problem, Zikode adds.

Housing waiting lists are sometimes seen as little more than urban legend. They are not open to public view or monitoring, nobody on them knows exactly how long the lists are or where they are placed, and councillors are known to place their friends and political contacts into new housing developments ahead of elderly people who joined the lists years, sometimes decades, ago.

Marie Huchzermeyer, professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, says shack dwellers are ostensibly allocated houses through the government’s National Upgrading Support Programme, which uses a rapid assessment and categorisation approach to determine the greatest need. But this, she says, has “been contested from below”. 

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“The problem with this approach is it’s done by consultants and not in any discussion with shack settlement communities and their representatives,” said Huchzermeyer.

She also believes it is imperative that shack dweller organisations must be involved “in a process that fosters solidarity between settlements and common understanding about which ones are in greatest need”. Political interference, she adds, sows “competition and distrust” among the members of these communities.

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