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SA’s housing crisis: At current rate, it will take eThekwini 100 years to clear backlog

The eThekwini’s Cornubia housing project, one of the city’s biggest social housing projects provide more than 20 000 housing opportunities once complete.Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

The eThekwini’s Cornubia housing project, one of the city’s biggest social housing projects provide more than 20 000 housing opportunities once complete.Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Mar 21, 2021


Durban - South Africa’s housing crisis, described by some as a “ticking time-bomb” grows louder in the eThekwini Municipality every year – with an estimated one million people in need of government-assisted housing.

And with a growing migrant population, mushrooming informal settlements and tens of thousands of people who don’t qualify for free houses or subsidised homes, the Durban Metro faces an uphill task if one has to look at its service delivery track record.

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According to city documents, the eThekwini Municipality has a backlog of more than 440 000 houses to build. However, between 2016 and 2019, the managed to only build an average of 4 000 houses per annum.

This means at the current pace it is building homes, it would take the City more than 100 years to clear the backlog if it had include building the infrastructure around the houses.

“Many people will die before they even realise their right to housing,” Desmond D’Sa, a south Durban community activist, said.

“It is simply outrageous and an indictment of the government”.

According to the eThekwini Municipal Spatial Development Framework 2020- 2021, Durban had approximately 3.75 million persons living in some 950,000 dwellings and this was expected to increase to four million citizens by 2020, and to 4.4 million people by 2035.

According to the report, most of the backlog is experienced by low-income households who earn less than R 3 500 per month.

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Compared to other Metro’s, eThekwini has a very high ratio of housing and infrastructure backlogs relative to the total population. Since 1994, over 199 000 dwellings have been built and serviced.

“The expected delivery trend over the long term for top structure construction is around 3 500 to 5 000 dwellings per annum, and for road access and services connections to full standard is between 3 000 to 5 000 per annum. At the current construction pace, it will require about half a century to deal with tops-structure backlogs, and about a century to deal with infrastructure backlogs”, the report noted.

For the estimated 287 000 people who live in some 500 informal settlements sprawled across the city, the wait for decent housing is too long, said Sbu Zikode, the president Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement that campaigns against evictions and for decent housing.

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Abahlali baseMjondolo president Sbu Zikode Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

“The reality is that a person’s life expectancy is not even 100 years, and that statistic in itself creates hopelessness,” Zikode said.

“We know that the government will never be able to build houses for everyone that needs them, and that is why we have been campaigning for them to release land to people who are willing to build their own houses and for service sites.

“The sad reality for many of our members is that they will never get houses because unless you are close to the ruling party or close to a branch in the ANC, you must not expect anything. The promise of free houses in facts creates a dependency on the government and that is something we do not want. There are many people that are willing to build their own houses but are not given the opportunity to by this government,” he said.

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D’Sa agreed, adding that the City’s figures on how many people needed a house was much more than they estimated.

Many people live in cramped conditions in homes such as these that were built by the apartheid government.

He pointed out that the Cty’s figures only included people that lived in informal settlements and other structures but did not take into account the tens of thousands of people who were still living in cramped and overcrowded conditions with their parents and grandparents.

“If you go into the hostels, for example, you will find sometimes 40 men living in one room in very cramped conditions,” D’Sa said.

“Then we have situations where multiple generations of people are living together. We have grown children living with their mothers and fathers in one room. People are sleeping in kitchens and wherever else they can because there is just no housing for them,” he said.

He said that many people would probably die before the City ever provides them with housing.

“But it does not have to be this way,” he said.

“If they take all the money that has been stolen in the city and recovered all that money and put it into a plan, and get proper contracts and get a proper plan to roll it out discussing all this with the communities that they serve, I can tell you it won’t take 100 years to build. It’ll take less than 10 years. It's been done, all over the world, and it can be done in South Africa.

“The problem is there is no political will among our government and they don't see poor people as people or as human beings. Rather and all they want to see is the costs and recovery. In other words, for every service provided, such as electricity, housing, rents, sanitation removal, they want money out of it. They don't come with a plan that involves people, so people can be a part of the, solution,” he said.

Msawakhe Mayisela, the eThekwini Municipality’s spokesperson, said the City understood the challenges it faced when it came to housing and relied on grant funding provided by the National Treasury, through the National & Provincial Department of Human Settlements, for human settlements programmes.

He said grant funding was limited to resources available at the National Fiscus and reviewed with limitation every year.

The Cornubia housing development situated north of Durban will provide more than 20 000 housing opportunities once completed.

“This, therefore, is the limitation in term of the number of housing opportunities that can be constructed,” Msawakhe said.

Msawakhe said that while the City tried to clear the massive housing backlog it had taken a decision to roll out incremental services to informal settlements.

These comprise communal ablutions blocks (showers, toilets and wash troughs); pre-paid electricity meters for each household, waste collection, road and footpaths access, and basic stormwater controls.

In addition, social and gap housing programmes work with private developers were encouraged to facilitate and develop affordable rental and ownership opportunities for those who do not qualify for fully subsidised housing.

Asked whether the City had a waiting list for people that needed homes and what criteria was used to provide housing for those in need, Mswakhe said there was no general housing list, but the City had assessed all informal settlement.

“Each settlement is upgraded in its location, to minimise disruption to jobs, schools and community cohesion. The qualifying beneficiaries who already live in these settlements are allocated to the houses built in these projects. Where there are more informal structures on the site than houses that can be built, some people are offered homes in greenfield developments like Cornubia.

“Where the land is not suitable for development or there is no funding, these settlements are provided with basic services as described. People with special needs –the elderly, disabled or ill – can also apply for special prioritisation through the OSS Programme.”

Msawhake said the City faced many challenges when it came to building homes.

“Many settlements are built on steep slopes, on land set aside for environmental purposes, or on flood plans and servitudes. The steep topography in eThekwini means that even suitable land is more expensive to develop as retaining walls and other measures to stabilise slopes are costly and not covered by the housing subsidy.

“There is constant growth in informal settlements, with new settlements springing up and existing settlements becoming more dense. We have also seen an increase in extreme weather events which has forced the shifting of funds to emergency repairs and rebuilding after floods and extreme storms across the City. The influx of many people for better opportunities who end up living on most unsuitable land for development increases the risk as these families are exposed to prone flooding,” he said.

Msawhake said that major developments such as Cornubia, Umlazi infill, KwaXimba and Kingsburgh West would ease the city’s housing crisis.

The eThekwini Municipality said that major developments such as Cornubia, pictured here, the Umlazi infill, KwaXimba and Kingsburgh West would ease the city’s housing crisis.

“Cornubia alone will provide more than 20 000 housing opportunities once complete,” he said.

What was the City's message to people growing frustrated with having to wait for years for a home?

“eThekwini is striving to deliver improved access to affordable housing and at minimum basic services for all. This will require a new relationship between the state and the urban poor, one which relies on partnership and social cohesion to create a caring and liveable city which provides an opportunity for all its residents.

“Urbanisation has become a reality and this adds some distress in planned housing time-frames which calls for patience while the City is committed to its vision of making the city a better place for all,” he said.

* Read more Human Rights Day stories here.