Cape Town is a microcosm of SA’s deepening housing crises

Cape Town slum lords are raking in huge amounts of money by renting accommodation barely fit for human habitation. Picture: Supplied

Cape Town slum lords are raking in huge amounts of money by renting accommodation barely fit for human habitation. Picture: Supplied

Published Aug 6, 2023


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past month, countless housing activists marched in the city of Cape Town, demanding the release of eleven parcels of land for affordable housing.

Although the city of Cape Town has announced 6 500 city-wide social housing opportunities, housing lobby groups Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim the City have expressed their disdain at the lack of progress in the development of affordable housing following their annual review of the city’s commitment to the housing crisis.

The City of Cape Town had announced the development of housing on 11 parcels of public land, located in Salt River, Woodstock, and the inner city back in 2017.

Although the city had stated that several housing opportunities were in an advanced stage of development, housing lobby group Ndifuna Ukwazi has reiterated that all 11 pieces of land still stand vacant, with virtually no development taking place.

“After six years,” stated Ndifuna Ukwazi, “the lack of implementation is appalling and unacceptable… we are yet to see the beginning of the construction of even a single social housing unit implemented in the inner City”.

Although the housing crisis has been a consistent feature of modern South African realities, it stems from the 1940’s where apartheid was legislatively implemented, and millions of black and coloured people were forcefully removed from their homes to informal settlements called “Bantustan’s or black homelands”.

They were intentionally located outside of urban areas, on dilapidated, dry, and poor-agricultural land. Ultimately, this was a key strategy by the apartheid government to instil “separate development”.

This resulted in local homeland economies being severely underdeveloped and made farming impossible. When the ANC came into power in 1994, they began developing over 1 100 new home parcels; however, they were still located in the underdeveloped and far-removed “homelands”.

The national housing crisis has been ravaging the nation for decades now, with very little opportunities and improvements in pertinent infrastructure. In 2022 alone, 5 million people were reportedly still living in shacks, in either urban areas or squatter camps.

Informal housing means that innumerable people are subjected to a poorer quality of living, riddled with challenges such as leaking or collapsed roofs, oftentimes with no plumbing, electricity, or proper insulation.

Simple tasks such as washing dishes and washing clothes are made immeasurably harder.

As seen during the Covid-19 global pandemic, environmental factors to infections can wreak havoc on those who inhabit this structure. Extreme weather conditions are often arduous and cause a ripple effect across the household.

Health issues such as sinusitis, tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, meningitis, fever and other respiratory issues are prevalent and expand rapidly in poor infrastructures.

Overall, the maintenance and daily lives of those who live in shacks are consequently tougher due to the conditions of this informal form of housing.

Extreme rains oftentimes cause a total loss of the structure. Shack fires are a serious hazard as well, with 16,705 shack fires, and approximately 36 deaths, recorded from shack fires between 2020 and 2021.

In the recent months of winter, the freezing weather conditions have proliferated the number of shack fires. This past Sunday, about 1 100 shacks were ravaged by shack fires in KwaZulu-Natal, leaving more than 3000 people displaced, and at least one dead.

In Evaton, in the Gauteng province, a baby girl was left dead after a shack fire ravaged her home. In Mamelodi East, also in Gauteng, a father and his two children also succumbed to a fire, when their shack caught alight.

Many of the residents have blamed the lack of water supply in the area as a key factor as to why shack fires spread too quickly and vastly. These are among a plethora of recent cases of shack fires, cases that are not later resolved, mitigated, or addressed in any meaningful way.

Oftentimes when issues of housing are being addressed, they are being understood as an external issue, where squatters are considered to be transgressing into urban and suburban areas.

However, housing is an issue that deeply impacts the nation, and the quality of life for millions of people, one that I’m convinced the government fails to address with the seriousness that it deserves.

A contentious, and now disproved tweet from the ANC in early 2016 claimed that they had built over 5 million new homes across the nation since 1994.

Head of media and communications for the ANC parliamentary caucus, Moloto Mothapo, claimed it’s an error, and they had built about 3 million homes.

At the time, the department of Human Settlements suggested that the accurate number was 2 930 485, between 1994 and 2015.

In 2019, the ANC claimed that they had provided over 4.7 million free houses since 1994. This too was disproved, based on the government providing more “housing opportunities” than actual houses.

When asked, the ANC said that the 4.7 million in fact referred to housing opportunities - which include serviced sites and plots of land - and not houses built.

What is clear here is that for far too long, the government has overlooked the housing crisis in South Africa. In 2023, approximately 200 000 citizens are languishing in homelessness, 34 000 of which are located in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The basic human right to shelter is something that has been side-lined for far too long. Informal housing, particularly in urban cities, is no longer a viable option.

South Africa has the second highest rate of unemployment in the whole world; and as such, many homes are overcrowded and dilapidated. The leadership of this country have had ample time to address this issue and to implement viable solutions, but they have failed.

The people that pay for this are the scores of citizens that are left destitute. The issue of homelessness is intersectional with many of our countless socio-economic challenges.

Citizens cannot find jobs, do not have access to adequate housing, and as such live in poor conditions, cannot afford food, schooling resources, and many other basic needs that are demanded by our current systems.

This is exacerbated by the constant increase in prices and the cost of living. It is no wonder that the sentiment of hopelessness is a predominant feature of modern day South African lives!

The Ndifuna Ukwazi organisation are spot on when stating that the lack of progress when it comes to housing directly affects the poor and working classes, and essentially, it drives them out of well-located and urban areas.

With the national elections nearing, I urge the citizens of the country to consider their votes extensively, to consider the conditions that they are living in, the opportunities (or lack thereof) that are available to them, and ultimately, to consider their quality of life since 1994.

This is the opportunity to have their voices heard, and to have their challenges meaningfully addressed. Yes, informal housing, poverty, and trauma are the legacy of apartheid.

Will it be the legacy of the ANC? It is up to each and every South African to decide this. But more importantly, it is on the onus of the citizens, to actualise the future that they want to see, not only for themselves but those who will come after them.

Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist and an MA Ethics student at UWC, affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.