We are all aware of the questionable quality of RDP houses. On the other side of housing delivery, we are also educated on government’s politicians and hired guns who deal calmly and brutally with shack dwellers when they dare tread on profitable and centrally-located urban land. But somewhere between these two very obvious evils, is the evil of administrative failings in the RDP system. The administrative failure of government is constitutes a threat to the constitutional right to housing.
At the beginning of 2001, Mr Zulu who lives in Ntuzuma Township in KwaMashu, submitted an application to the local council office for a housing subsidy. His application was part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), that “integrated, coherent socio-economic policy framework” which “seeks to mobilise all our people and our country's resources toward the final eradication of apartheid and the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist future.” His application was not opportunistic – it made sense because Mr Zulu had been occupying the plot for the past four years. Fortunately, his application was swiftly dealt with and his RDP house was built within twelve months of his application.
A large portion of Mr Zulu’s salary is spent on the 30 kilometre commute from KwaMashu to his workplace near the centre of Durban. In between this substantial expense, and over the past thirteen years, Mr Zulu has painted the interior of the house, maintained the house at his own expense, maintained the immediate area around it, including flattening the land to plant a garden. The various trees growing in the garden bear paw paws, bananas, avocado pears and grapefruit. Mr Zulu has also developed the immediate area around the house by constructing a tin hut which serves as ablution facilities. He has also applied, on his own account and at his own expense, for an electricity meter and he alone has remained responsible for this account. The property holds Mr Zulu and eight members of his immediate and extended family.
In other words, this is not an RDP house in the dismal or cynical sense. This is not a place where a man squats, or passes through. It is also not a place which a man rents out to another in order to illicitly line his pockets. This is home in its truest sense, “a place of peace, of shelter from terror, doubt, and division, a geography of relative self-determination and sanctity” (Goldberg). It is also arguably an RDP success story, when juxtaposed with tales of poor infrastructure and corruption.
It is therefore highly problematic that the eThekwini Municipality has failed over the past fourteen years to secure the transfer of the title deeds for this plot of land into Mr Zulu’s name. It is problematic quite simply because in January of this year, Mr Zulu was served an eviction order by the so-called “owners” of this plot, long gone, but who recently reappeared upon discovering their good fortune – that the Municipality did not secure the registration of RDP-allocated land in the names of RDP beneficiaries.
Before you ask, the answer is yes. Yes, the RDP programme (like most housing subsidy programmes) does require registration of ownership and not just unit-building. In fact, the registration of ownership (title deeds) forms part of the first stage in the RDP housing process. This first stage of township-planning involves the establishment of a township, which includes a survey of the land, registering the township at the Deeds Office and cancelling any existing title deeds. Only the second stage relates to the actual construction of houses and the provision of facilities. For whatever reason (political, electioneering, overdressed men and women snipping red ribbons and smiling), the emphasis has always been on units built. This has been at the expense of the first crucial phase, despite the fact that this first stage exemplifies the underlying purpose of RDP, which was to provide security of tenure – that is, something beyond physical shelter. It is also worth noting that even the apartheid structure (albeit in its dying days) provided for the interests and needs of occupiers of land other than owners: The Conversion of Certain Rights into Leasehold or Ownership Act and the Upgrading of Land Tenure Rights Act made provision for the conversion of certain inferior land rights into ownership rights.
In ostensibly democratic, non-racial and constitutional times, Mr Zulu has been living under the dark cloud of an opportunistic eviction application, which application is a fraud committed on the post-apartheid state. He has appeared in court twice already and is scheduled to appear again in April. Like Josef K, he may spend the rest of his life engaged in legal proceedings which essentially make little sense – because of the entrenched notion in South African private law which glorifies title deeds and a legal framework which has yet to grapple with social upliftment programmes such as RDP, Mr Zulu’s matter is constantly being postponed by Magistrates whose hands are tied. He is persistently told that the Municipality must sort the problem out. It appears that Mr Zulu can do nothing to resolve his own problem. The system which made him a beneficiary has also made him a victim and an abused and ignored step-child. (Let me mention that the solutions are not particularly complex. One possibility is that the Municipality make an application under the Deeds Registries Act to compel incorrect holder of title deeds to surrender these so that correct registration may be effected. The other option is to legislate a solution as the apartheid government did.)
I am not part of the legion which objects categorically, ideologically and unthinkingly to RDP. In the context of housing, the RDP system emphasised the vulnerable and specifically, the homeless. To this end, it provided an erstwhile shack dweller with an adequate physical structure, which he turned into a home. However, the home dweller is now facing an eviction occasioned by the administrative failing over a system over which he has no control, and which is wholly unresponsive to his pleas.
Does this mean that when the township in Ntuzuma was planned, it was not registered as a township at the Deeds Office, and so the developers ignored the underlying need to cancel existing deeds? In response to this question, the people need an answer from government. As inhabitants of South Africa, we need to recognise that the state’s violations of the constitutional right to housing are not just perpetrated through raw exercises of power against shack dwellers, but that such violations are also perpetrated when the state does not see to completion its housing programmes. It is important for officials to realise that although the registration of title deeds does not provide an opportunity for ribbon cutting, it is the final step in the vindication of individual housing rights in a post-apartheid framework. However, more vital than the theoretical question is a solution to the problem experienced by Mr Zulu and many other “beneficiaries”. Unless a solution is provided soon, the question will become whether government should have bothered to build houses at all.
(Mr Zulu goes by another name in real life.)