A place called home

2012-10-15 00:00

HOUSING. An oddly mechanical term to describe the lived-in spaces in which people cook, play, love, fight and die. Does the government deliver homes or simply cold conurbations of brick and mortar? This underlay Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s concerns when she talked about housing at the KZN Legislature two weeks ago.

Madonsela’s reprimand on the conundrums created by housing included a long list of corruption, unintended consequences and the deepening distress of the poor as contractors slice off big bucks at the cost of decent structures. Nothing new here. Except that between this and previous observations about the state of our country, Marikana took place.

Even as I write it, that sounds tiresome. We’re a society that does not like to hear repetitions unless it’s about the World Cup. We do not like to hear that apartheid, as the racist economic structuring of privilege, continues to be causal. It’s one of the reasons we don’t like Julius Malema. But Marikana will haunt us like the Twin Towers haunt the United States. And housing, or more precisely, home, is fundamental to what happened at Marikana.

Madonsela reportedly said, during a question and answer session following her address, that the government needs to consider urban rental stock because “most people have houses in rural areas”. There are many ways to question this observation. Does she mean we are not a society where 61% of people are urbanised? Does she mean we’re still rural? Or is she talking about urban-rural linkages? The idea that comes to mind is that distant ruralscapes are bound in multiple and complex ways to crowded cities and towns, and that these chains are not just about food and pension flows, migrant remittances, cellphone bills and taxis. They are constructed in lived experiences, in millions of minuscule strategies of survival. Let me give an example.

Sbu Msimang lives on a land reform farm outside Ladysmith. He lives there with his wife and child, two brothers and their wives and children, his elderly mother, younger brothers and his niece born before her mother married. He works in construction on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and comes home for a weekend at month end. When he’s in Johannesburg, he lives in a shack settlement and pays rent. He moved there recently from a corrugated iron shack that leaked when it rained, baked when the son was out, and froze in winter, but the rent was low. Last time he was home, Msimang repeatedly said he was going to leave his job. He can no longer bear to leave home. His mother wants him to complete his marriage ceremony and he needs to save up to a year’s wages to do this. “You go to the money. It doesn’t come to you. That’s the way it is,” she urges him. If he wants to marry, if he wants to support his wife and child, he must leave home and live in a Johannesburg shack.

Can an RDP house or a flat rented from the government solve this problem for him? Maybe, if he gave up the social insurance of a home on the farm, if he were certain he wouldn’t lose his job, if there were enough RDP houses and flats to rent, if his wife and child could go with him. A lot of “ifs”. Poverty is not a statistic: it is the constant threat of being cut loose, of being abandoned. Because if Msimang took his wife and child to live in Johannesburg, his investments in the social relations on the farm would begin to diminish and, as a result, its doors would begin to close.

So, Madonsela is partly right that most people have a home in the rural areas and “just need a place to stay in the city”. But it is more complicated than that. The city may be a place to stay for six months while one looks for work, or a few years while one works and looks for better work, or until one loses one’s job, or until one is pensioned off and the city becomes unaffordable, or until one dies and one’s body is returned home so the spirit can join its ancestors to take care of the living. Or it may become a permanent home, near schools and electricity, and where the domestic burdens of rural wives are eased. It’s not clear what kind of place this is, who will occupy it, when and for how long. So something else is needed, but Madonsela’s solution is too simple to accommodate the complexity of the social and economic strategies that people have to deploy in order to survive.

Which takes us back to Marikana, and what it means, and why people are willing to face death. The mines of Marikana and the mines that continue to fuel and funnel South Africa’s wealth, also continue to expect that Msimang and millions like him must choose between being a husband and a worker, between home and shack. The miners have said no more. This is not just about what kind of houses the government builds and the conditions on which it hands them out. It’s about what our society is and how history continues into the present. It’s about which South Africans get to live in a home and which don’t.

This is the thistle that we need to grasp.

Donna Hornby is a PhD student at the University of the Western Cape.

The Marikana tragedy showed that people are willing

to die to have more than just a place to stay

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