The real housing story

The spate of urban land invasions is not just a response to homelessness by groups of poverty-stricken people.

THE NAME BREDELL conjures up images of desperate people prepared to spend nights on the bare winter veld to hang on to their illicit claims to land, women stripped naked in protest at government's attempts to evict them, over 100 other people arrested. The dramatic confrontations between government and thousands of land invaders on the farm Bredell, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, made national and international headlines in July.

Early media stories described despair, homelessness and landlessness, many with supporting accounts of the pitiful plight of old ladies and children huddling in the winter chill. An editorial in the Sunday Independent complained about an "all-too-quick reversion to the kragdadigheid (oppressive power) of the past". Journalist Max du Preez even compared the comment of land affairs minister Thoko Didiza that the people at Bredell "should go back to where they came from" to the infamous remark by a former minister of police that the death of Steve Biko "left him cold".

But what else could Didiza have said without encouraging further invasions? The news of the Bredell invasion on the East Rand prompted the press to report other large illegal settlements sprouting in and around Johannesburg and neighbouring towns. Gradually a different picture began to emerge, one involving widespread civil disobedience. Some of the invaders have stubbornly ignored eviction orders and alternative offers of sites. A source within the Metropolitan Council of Johannesburg told the Citizen (July 31) that the council does not have the resources to keep removing land invaders who keep coming back. No sooner had the Bredell invasion disappeared from the front pages than even larger land invasions started to occur on the Cape Town Metropolitan fringes, one of these involving a blockade of South Africa's major coastal highway in protest against police action. In Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth, seven people started to sell plots of land on July 29 and had sold 165 before the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Council gained an interdict to evict them.

Clearly some form of social contagion is at work. Here and there posters have appeared praising Robert Mugabe and the economically suicidal farm invasions in Zimbabwe. The South African government has targeted some illegally occupied land and acted promptly to clear it, but the invasions are like a smouldering bush-fire that no sooner doused in one place ignites in another. We may have to accept that the flames of land-grabbing are spreading.

The immediate image of the land invaders is of huddled masses of poor, desperate people who want only to find some hovel in which to lay their heads. Many of them are just that. They, however, provide the cover for the others. The minister of land affairs claimed that some of the invaders at Bredell were moneyed entrepreneurs who wanted the land for businesses such as shops and shebeens (informal taverns). "Some of those people who bought are rich," she said. "They simply saw the cheap land as another bargain." The police backed up her view.

Besides this category are people in a variety of circumstances who are not without choice. The neediest are poor tenants exploited by township residents charging R200 to R300 per month for a tiny backyard room or a garage. Others have housing in a township but want to escape the crime, grime and social decay to find a quieter environment to bring up their children. Yet others want to be minor landlords, subletting their township houses or existing shacks for far more than they would pay for housing in an illegal shack settlement. And then there are those who use the invasion to jump the queue of the official housing waiting list. It is certainly not all a matter of need and desperation.

The Bredell invasion, or more correctly, the latest Bredell invasion, was triggered by a local Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) ward councillor, Daniel Ngwenya, possibly acting in concert with two other party office bearers, who might or might not have been acting as fronts for their party. Land was sold illegally at R25 per shack site. What happened to the roughly R150,000 collected is not known, but it is not that mysterious.

The government lambasted the PAC, who in turn claimed that a local ANC leader had done exactly the same in an earlier settlement on the same farm. This account was repeated by a squatters' leader, who said that a few thousand members of his local civic movement had paid ANC officials R12 per site on the same farm some months earlier (City Press, July 8). Soon reports appeared in the press associating other local ANC leaders with illicit land sales in various places. Some of them, belatedly perhaps, are being investigated. Clearly there is big money to be made in a situation where state authority is hugely over-extended.

But it is not only about money. There is political capital to be made too. Farmers have told me that land invasions are more often than not organised by factions within trade unions. Now a new Landless People's Movement, supported by a radical NGO, the National Land Committee, has threatened systematic land invasions unless the government meets various demands by this month, including the scrapping of the security of property rights clause in the Constitution.
Government action against illegal squatting could be more consistent, but in the latest events it has acted promptly and sent clear signals, very much with the damage to investor confidence that Zimbabwe has suffered in mind. In Cape Town, the ANC and all other political parties have taken a common position against land grabs.

The disquieting irony for the government is that urban land invasions are occurring despite the fact that they follow what is arguably its most successful delivery programme. In seven years, it has provided over one million new houses. As housing policy guru Cedric de Beer and other experts such as Professor Dan Smit of Natal University have pointed out, this performance outstrips any other assisted housing programme in the world (Business Day, June 26). Yet the roughly calculated backlog is slightly more than the million homes already provided. The glass is half full for the government but half empty for those on the waiting lists.

Worse, delivering the second million houses will be much more difficult than the first. Construction costs of the cheapest houses have risen to well beyond the level of full state subsidy; tens of thousands of people provided with assisted housing have defaulted on their repayments and probably most of the beneficiaries do not pay their basic service charges.

The biggest problem for the government, however, lies in the expectations that the successful delivery of housing has created. It may have done too well. Of the one million houses provided or being provided, fully 80 per cent are "pure subsidy" houses - in other words they have been given away, without requiring any contribution of savings or "sweat-equity" from the beneficiaries. One million free handouts amounts to a formidable "demonstration effect" - it has created the widespread assumption that government gives things to the poor and when it fails to give things to all the poor it must be "defaulting".

One cannot make land invaders feel in the least bit apologetic when most of them know several people who have been given a R17,000 house on a plate and are not paying their rates, water accounts and in some cases electricity to boot. From their perspective it is legitimate to try to force the hand of what is seen as a sluggish or inconsistent government, and one that does not necessarily persist in the removal of all illegal squatters when the eyes of the world are averted.

In several recently commissioned surveys I have found that most poor people do not expect to get free delivery of anything unless the local or central authorities set the precedent. Those who think that free housing or services of any kind are a basic or revolutionary right are a very tiny minority. The 1999 research by the Helen Suzman Foundation into non-payment of service charges (Not So Close To Their Hearts) showed very clearly that many people who could afford to pay do not do so because the authorities allow virtually all their neighbours to get away with defaulting.

A few years ago the government had grandiose notions of building bigger and better housing with full services for everyone. Since then, to its credit, it has learnt some tough lessons. Now it is beginning to realise that the expectations and ambitions of its citizens also have to be managed. On July 31 housing minister Sanki Mthembi-Mahanyele launched a National Savings Scheme with the words, "Our aim is to make sure that the beneficiaries do not depend solely on the government's capital subsidy but get homes through their own efforts as well."

Managing expectations means that the genuinely destitute have to be offered very low cost alternatives, and site-and-service schemes must be a part of the answer. But even in such schemes, healthy residents must be very firmly required to build their own solid and fireproof structures over time, with assistance in the form of low cost building materials. This has been successful in Botswana and other countries in the region.

Any appropriate housing policy will be usurped if opportunists feel that they can get away with illegal activities. Managing expectations must also mean calling to book the rate-busters; the people who rent out their homes and claim new assisted housing; those who steal electricity by making illegal connections or use more than the new poverty allocation of free services, as well as crooked local politicians, other "invasion agents" and fraudulent entrepreneurs. Getting tough only with the invaders in high-profile situations will signal inconsistency and encourage civil disobedience, undermining trust and confidence in the country at home and abroad.

Professor Lawrence Schlemmer is director of the
Helen Suzman Foundation.