Sexwale's silence

2010-09-17 00:00

BHEKI Cele recently justified his new R4 million house in Pretoria on the grounds that “If the head of Interpol visits me I don’t want him to find me living in a shack.” He’s not the only one of us who would prefer not to be living in a shack irrespective of who’s likely to be popping around for a cup of coffee. But the money spent on his house could have paid for houses for hundreds of shack dwellers and neither the incredible inequalities in our society, nor the ever more predatory and extravagant excesses of the politicians elected to ameliorate those inequalities, are passing unnoticed.

Along with unemployment, the housing crisis is one of the major social fractures producing the unstable and diverse political ferment at the base of our society. An increase in the housing subsidy was a central demand in the recent strike by public sector workers, housing has been a major issue in many of the local rebellions, the demand for decent housing is central to the struggles of most of the major poor people’s movements and it was often a key factor in the xenophobic pogroms of May 2008.

The African National Congress has built a lot of houses in South Africa. This fact is usually among the first to be deployed in defence of its record, but we shouldn’t be blind to the reality that states often build houses as part of a project of social control rather than social justice.

In the 1970s, the military dictatorships in Brazil and Chile found huge house-building programmes to be crucial strategies for securing their rule by simultaneously achieving the spatial exclusion and fragmentation of the poor and their precarious economic inclusion via home ownership. And, of course, we should recall that there was a time when the apartheid state was building houses at one of the most frenzied rates in the world.

These authoritarian projects couldn’t be more different to, say, the housing co-operative movements that developed out of radical political movements in parts of Europe and have produced collectively owned and managed as well as well located and designed housing projects.

One of the many reasons the anti-political language of “delivery” is so damaging to any attempt to think about the human realities of society is that it masks the fact that housing is an inherently political question. What constitutes a decent house, its location, its design, the mode of its construction, the nature of the space in which it is set, who gets to access the house and on what basis, and who gets to decide all of this are all deeply political questions.

The evasion of the politics of housing by the ANC in favour of the convenient fiction that resolving the housing crisis is solely a technical question of efficient “delivery” from above has largely resulted in very small and often badly constructed houses on the peripheries of cities. In many cases RDP houses have been built on land that the apartheid state had first acquired to build new townships and the immediate visible difference between apartheid and post-apartheid townships is often the sobering fact that houses built after apartheid are a lot smaller. The allocation of houses and of the contracts to build them has routinely been driven by political patronage rather than considerations of justice or efficiency.

The housing policy of the first post-apartheid government was negotiated in 1993 and drew on the subsidy system pioneered by the confluence of local fascism and American imperialism that brought the Pinochet dictatorship to power in Chile. A decade after the end of apartheid there was some recognition that the subsidy system was resulting in a replication of apartheid-style townships in peripheral ghettos and in 2004, a better policy framework was introduced in the form of Breaking New Ground. However, across the country there was a systematic failure to implement the substantive content of the new policy that recommends and makes financial provision for participatory and collective in-situ upgrades, instead of forced removals to peripheral dumping grounds.

It’s not just policy that was ignored. In some parts of the country municipalities have routinely acted towards the poor in ways that are unlawful and, in strict legal terms, criminal. This has included unlawful and often violent evictions, demolitions, forced removals and repression of poor people’s organisations.

One of the reasons for the contradiction between the law and formal policy positions on the one hand, and the altogether more grim reality of state action on the other, was that for some years key figures in the national political elite promoted an anti-poor discourse about “clearing” or “eradicating slums” that had, in practice, considerably more influence on state officials and much of civil society than the formal policy and legal commitments to which the state is bound in principle.

The date by which the slums would be cleared was first set at 2010 and then moved to 2014. This was a denialist fantasy on a grand scale but the eradication agenda, led by Lindiwe Sisulu and backed by both Thabo Mbeki and the Polokwane Resolutions, had very real costs. It resulted in the state increasingly responding to squatting as a security issue rather than a popular and entirely rational response to the housing crisis. Evictions escalated and considerable force was deployed to stop new land occupations and the expansion of existing shack settlements.

Another reason for the contradiction between the reality of state action and its formal legal and policy commitments is that while elite interests were well organised to pressure the party, from inside and from outside, there was no organised national popular movement that could, as was possible in the 1980s, exert a countervailing pressure from below.

The eradication agenda came to a head with the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act, which sought to give it legal sanction and was supposed to be replicated around the country. It was overturned in the Constitutional Court in October 2009 and within months there was a clear shift in the discourse of the state away from eradication and towards an acceptance of the real scale of the urban crisis.

Unlike Lindiwe Sisulu, Tokyo Sexwale’s Ministry openly acknowledges that at the current rate at which it is building houses the state simply has no prospect of moving all shack dwellers into formal housing. The eradication agenda is over. This is progress. Facing the reality of a situation is obviously much better than denying it and then using state violence to try to keep it at bay.

But we also need to take concrete steps to resolve the housing crisis and Sexwale has shown no real willingness to get to the heart of the matter. On the contrary, his recently announced “radical plans” to “change the face of housing delivery” amount to little more than trying to cut out some of the corruption in the existing system, adding police stations and clinics to the peripheral ghettos that he is still building and creating still more space for state-backed civil society to substitute itself for genuinely popular participation in housing.

Sexwale is silent on the real issues that could make a real difference. He is silent on the urgent need to put the social value of urban land before its commercial value. He is silent on the equally urgent need to channel resources away from elite projects and towards basic needs. He is silent on the need to democratise housing and to wrench it, firmly, from the hands of the party’s patronage networks. He is also silent on the need to support people to occupy land and to develop services and build for themselves when the state cannot meet their housing needs.

And, while he cozies up to big business and state-backed civil society, he remains culpably silent on the political repression faced by the independent shack dwellers’ movements that have been trying to build a national network of poor people’s movements that are accountable to no one but their members and that could, in the words of the Landless People’s Movement, “use the weapon of mass struggle to rediscipline the parliamentarians”.

Sexwale is clearly an improvement on Sisulu and the end of state support for the fantasy that the eradication of shack settlements is imminent, is a good thing. But an adequate response to the housing crisis requires a lot more than this and, by any serious measure, he has failed his apprenticeship in this job.

• Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


6 myths about male cancer

It is important to be aware of the most prevalent cancer diseases amongst men in our country.


You won't want to miss...

Who are the highest paid models of 2017?
10 gorgeous plus-sized models who aren't Ashley Graham
5 top leg exercises for men
10 best dressed men of 2017
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.