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New houses are not enough

Comm 328: Huan Rights in South Africa (2007)
Paula Bettencourt

Cape Town, South Africa

Low lights cover the walls softly, creating an atmosphere of quiet. Hand-drawn lines, in bright colors crisscross the floor, detailing streets and places that defined a long-gone community.

Picture by picture the walls give face to a lost people. Panel by panel their stories are told. In the back, a woman sits alone stitching letters and numbers with deep purple thread upon pure white cloth.

"People are dying before they can come home," says Menisha Collins, the seamstress at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. She is a former resident of District 6 herself, forcibly evicted with her family under an apartheid-era ethnic cleansing policy known as "black spot removal" when she was a young girl. Now, she volunteers as a motivational speaker for the former residents when they visit the museum. Meanwhile, she stitches the names and messages of visitors into panels that become part of the exhibit.

Since the forced removal in the 1960s, the infrastructure of District 6 has been completely demolished. Most of the area remains an empty field near the port city's bustling industrial center. The current government of the African National Congress (ANC) has promised restitution of District 6, but so far only a handful of families has been able to move back in.

The legacy of apartheid has left communities like District 6 broken and thousands of nonwhites without permanent homes, creating a housing crisis that is exacerbated by rapid urban population growth.

This growth comes from a continual influx of people from the poorer rural areas to the city looking for jobs and better living conditions. Yet poverty affects the city, too, and it threatens the stability of communities both old and new.

These factors diminish the government's ability to build the homes promised in the urban areas under the country's 1996 Constitution, and, after twelve years of the "New South Africa," a sense of crisis still pervades many black and "colored" communities, instead of security.

When the diverse community of District 6 was dismantled, it was divided along racial lines, and people were placed into townships according to the apartheid state's racial designations—European, Asian, "colored" (mixed race) and African. Those residents with the economic means were able to move into decent homes and buy property, but the mostly black majority was forced out of their houses into informal settlements.

Such forced divisions happened across South Africa after the far right National Party came to power in 1948 and imposed the draconian system of racial domination known as apartheid (separateness). The NP government, some of whose leaders had supported the Nazis in World War Two, criminalized interracial coupling and marriages, as well as living in the same areas. This split up families and communities.

Once all the racial groups were separated and relocated from District 6, the buildings and structures were destroyed. This meant that new housing would have to be constructed on top of the old homes, but disputes over this held up such redevelopment, and the area remained vacant for decades.

Apartheid finally ended in 1994 when the ANC came to power in the first multi-racial national elections in South Africa's history. Two years later, a constitution was ratified that guaranteed everyone not only political rights under the law but also economic, social and cultural rights. In doing so, South Africans sought to rectify the wrongs of the past.

Among other things, the post-apartheid constitution guaranteed a right to access to adequate housing. The national parliament went on to pass a law committing the state to build one million houses every five years throughout the country. However, according to Human Rights Commission chair Jody Kollapen fewer than two million houses have actually been built in the decade since then.

These new homes go to people living in the temporary homes who are waiting upon a very long waitlist, Kollapen says. However, once these permanent homes are received, they are difficult to hold onto.

Gertrude Square, an activist with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Valhalla Park outside Cape Town, fought the government three times to keep from being evicted, and she has continued to fight the government for others in her community as well. These evictions arise because people cannot both pay their rent and cover the cost of basic necessities for their families, she says.

Her housing problems began with her inability to pay rent, due to the cost of transportation to her job and the need to buy food and pay school fees for her children on her modest income, she says. This resulted in her being evicted, which she at first avoided by borrowing money from others to pay back the municipality that manages much of the rental housing in black and "colored" townships now, much as it did during apartheid.

Square says that after the third time she was evicted, she worked with government officials to understand the poverty element to the housing issue, and her rent was finally reduced. Aware that she was not the only one in this situation, she says she helped found the Anti- Eviction Campaign for her community as a part of a rapidly growing new activist movement that is challenging the ANC government to follow through on its promise to end apartheid not only in politics but throughout the wider society.

Her fight with the government did not stop with fighting eviction from the homes in Valhalla Park. Square says that after years of waiting for more homes to be built on land that was undeveloped and getting the answer that the government did not have the money to build houses, the community came together in 2003 to build an informal settlement on its own. But the government responded with force.

"They came with the whole police force and the army. They demolished the structures and shot rubber bullets and beat us," says Square.

After the government secured a court order to demolish the new settlement, the community went to court to fight for approval to build on the land, and after three years, she says, they won.

The second fight over the informal settlement was to get water and water facilities to the families living in this settlement. The newly built informal homes had no access to running water, and residents were using untested and possible harmful water for all their needs, she says. After being told that the government was not required to install pipes, the group took action again.

With panties in hand, Square says she led the women to do their washing by using the local civic center's water facilities. The government and media arrived when their panties were line-drying out in the open. Their victory came soon afterward.

"Clean running water is a necessity, not a luxury," says Square decisively. But her concerns do not stop there.

The Constitution guarantees access to "adequate housing" not just houses, Square points out. This may include clean running water, four walls and a roof, but for many it is more than that. A person without access to jobs or transportation can easily lose access to a house since the house itself is not guaranteed.

Most informal settlements are close to the industrial centers where much of the employment is, so transportation costs from there are lower than from outlying governmentsanctioned developments. Some settlement residents can even walk to their jobs, she says. But new construction often occurs farther away, and, like many of those now in Valhalla Park, potential residents often do not want to move there, even though they are eager to get new houses.

"They do not want to move out of the homes they built, for without their jobs they won't be able to keep the new houses anyway," Square says. Nor do they want to lose the community ties they have built up where they are now.

But these improvised communities are not the only ones threatened by post-apartheid developments. Bo-Kapp, a centuries-old Malay community in the heart of Cape Town, is also fighting for its survival, according to community activist Shereen Habib, who says the problem there is not the government but newly unleashed market forces.

Bo-Kapp sits on a lush, scenic mountainside that rises behind the city center and provides spectacular views of both the coastline and the looming bulk of Table Mountain. Skilled slaves that Dutch colonists brought to Cape Town from what is now Indonesia, India and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific built the homes themselves. But this is not all that makes this community significant.

Bo-Kapp was one of the only mixed racial communities that survived the policies of apartheid. Its infrastructure and history were saved from demolition through the united efforts of residents and sympathizers who challenged the government on historical grounds. But the community is now under threat from another source.

"What apartheid could not do, globalization is doing now" Shereen Habib says softly, as she looks out to the horizon. There is not just anger in her voice, but anguish, too. She says that since South Africa became a true democracy, rich South Africans and foreigners seeking holiday getaways have been buying up homes and land that had been passed down from one generation to the next. Now, these new economic forces are dispersing the community.

"They become summer homes—the people do not live in them," says Habib. However, residents are coming together here, much as in Valhalla Park, to defend themselves against this threat to their community.

Some were selling their houses because the area is prime real estate, says Habib. They were being offered huge payments that they could use to help their struggling families. But once the community began organizing itself and educating its members on the impact this had on their unique heritage, much of the sell-off stopped. Nevertheless, it is still a fight, she adds.

When Habib recently went to an elderly woman's house to visit, she says the woman told her that her property taxes had increased again and again as the property values went up. But her income, minimal as it is, stayed the same.

"People are finding it harder and harder to pay the rates," Habib says. To combat this new threat, she says she is working to bring even more tourism to the area to add income for residents and help them balance the rising costs of living—all to preserve the integrity of her community.

Across the city, Menisha Collins works to put District 6 back together by pushing the government to keep its promise of restoration. "There are plans in the works right now," she says, as the long panel on restitution hangs to her left in the museum.

To Collins, the empty field where District 6 once stood needs to be filled with houses and the families that used to live there sooner rather than later. Many people are waiting in shacks for these new homes in the place of their old ones, she says. But, she adds, all miss their old their community and need it back to put their own lives in order and to let go of the pain and anger from the past once and for all.

"We were rich in spirit of the community," Collins says softly with tears in her eyes. "We were poor, but we were happy."