Measured in quantitative terms, the government’s housing achievements since 1994 have probably been its biggest success story. Millions of South Africans today have a formal house in which to live and rebuild family-based social structures so devastated by influx control and the migrant labour system. The thoughts in this paper are not intended in any way to detract from this remarkable achievement.
But the question needs to be asked whether the time has arrived for a change of strategy, particularly now that the focus is on land reform and the critical need for black ownership of land to be increased dramatically. There are a number of problems with the present strategy.
- Driven by the ongoing pressure of urbanisation and the inevitable constraints of the necessary bureaucratic controls when the State is providing housing, the backlog seems to continue generating serious tensions with no end in sight.
- By taking responsibility for building houses for its people, the State has the burden of accounting for poor workmanship and corruption when it has limited resources to supervise independent contractors and its own public servants.
- Again, because of the pressures of the situation, there has been a proliferation of rows of matchboxes little different from the programmes of the 1950’s. These matchbox developments are frequently far from work opportunities and public transport so that citizens have to travel four hours a day in expensive taxis to get to and from work.
- Pressure of costs results in little space being reserved for commercial, industrial, education, cultural and recreational activities
One cannot but wonder what many of these developments will look like in 30 years time.
A new vision is needed, one which enables the homeless and landless to build their own residential areas within a clear and well designed framework which lays the foundations for a socially successful community that is integrated into overall spatial planning.
The first step is for government to adopt a much more aggressive approach to identifying land and expropriating it with ‘fair and just’ compensation. With the help of forward thinking town planners, plans for these areas should be developed embracing full servicing of stands and provision of space for non-residential activities and transport linkages to work opportunities.
As serviced stands become available, these would be allocated with full title from day one. It may be possible to develop waiting lists in a way that there is some degree of community cohesion from the start.
The initial homes would be shacks – but the resourcefulness of South Africans would soon result in a variety of formal homes being built, often with materials supplied by local entrepreneurs who have spotted the opportunities created by this model. At the same time, small businesses would mushroom and, provided the State met its part by providing those amenities for which it is normally responsible, in fifteen years there would be a successful, socially healthy community; one in which income levels varied and the variety of structures projected a visually attractive outcome.
There are already practical examples of this sort of development that have happened more by chance than design that are well on the road to success. Two can be seen, one where the N1. passes through Hammanskraal and the other on the outskirts of Mokopane – there are no doubt others.
The State cannot go on building matchboxes – it will lose the battle, backlogs will continue. Equally it cannot go on firing rubber bullets at South Africans that have had enough of living in back yard shacks and are invading vacant land – it will lose this battle as well. Naturally this would not constitute the only arm in the housing strategy. The rehabilitation of inner-city buildings and the construction of multi-storey rental accommodation are important as well. But an ambitious, well planned, self-build housing strategy linked to full title to fully serviced land could be a new growth engine and provide jobs for many currently unemployed.