HOUSE THE PEOPLE AND BUILD THE ECONOMY

by Dec 1, 2023Amandla 90/91, Editorial

NOBODY WHO LOOKS AROUND South Africa’s cities and towns can deny that we have the most acute housing crisis. Shack settlements constantly increase in number. New land is occupied. Shacks burn down and are rebuilt. Even entire apartment blocks burn down. The endless cycle of impoverishment and degradation continues.

Site and service in Nkqubela, W.Cape. For the Department of Human Settlements, site and service counts as a ‘housing opportunity’.

The ANC government claims to have provided approximately 5 million “housing opportunities” between 1994 and February 2022, according to a May 2022 Department of Human Settlements (DHS) report. But note, these are “housing opportunities”, not houses. Just as job opportunities are not actually proper jobs, so housing opportunities are not actually houses. As they put it: “A housing opportunity can be an actual house or only a plot of land with access to piped water and electricity.” So site and service counts, in their book, as a housing opportunity. 

Destruction of the public sector

As we look at the housing situation, we see the problems of all of our social provision. And most importantly we see the problem of the hollowing out of the state and the reliance on external contractors to provide. It is most striking that, when the apartheid government decided, for its own purposes, to build houses for the black workforce in the late 50s and 60s, it delivered them in numbers, for example, in Soweto. And the vehicle of this delivery? Public sector employees. Workers directly employed by government to carry out work needed by society.

Those public works departments were effective, even if they were not always as efficient as would be desirable. Since 1994 they have been destroyed. There is no other word for the wanton eradication of public capacity.

In their place are the tenderpreneurs. And with the tenderpreneurs, public funds leak away. They leak away on companies who win tenders despite the fact they have zero capacity to do the work. They leak away on partially completed housing.

They leak away on all the corruption that inevitably surrounds the relationship between the incapable state and capitalist business.

People don’t have houses

Meanwhile we are left with an ever- increasing housing deficit. Such a dry technical term – housing deficit. The reality of the housing deficit is what we hear about in more detail in the articles in the feature of this issue. Three and four generations living in one house.

Massively overcrowded backyards. And people living in shacks as far as the eye can see. It is overcrowding, more than anything else, that drives people to occupy land in order to erect shacks. People voluntarily move onto land which initially has no services no water, no sewage system, of course no electricity – and build shacks there. What more evidence is needed of the dire state in which people have been and are living? And in this situation, not everybody is affected equally. The housing crisis, makes women even more vulnerable to violence and abuse. They cannot leave abusive relationships because they have nowhere else to live. Shacks without services force them to place themselves in insecure situations when they must relieve themselves, and without decent housing the burden of care increases tremendously. They fetch water and firewood to cook, and they look after children who become sick because of the dire conditions under which they live.

The government says it’s failing

Meanwhile, what is this government doing? Failing even by its own dismal standards. It’s worth quoting at length from the Human Settlement Department’s 2022 Annual Report about the service delivery environment:

  • An increase of households living in informal settlements,
  • The lack of and inadequate capacity in bulk infrastructure,
  • Delays in the procurement processes.
  • Regulatory and governance incapacity in the land planning process,
  • The constraints associated with availability of funding,
  • Impact of rapid urbanization,
  • Increasing inequality,
  • High level of indebtedness of households. 

It’s all there. The dysfunction of government laid bare. More people are living in shacks. No capacity to provide services. They can’t manage their own processes with any degree of efficiency. There’s not enough money. And so on. These are the excuses for the failure to build houses for South African people to live in.

And fail they have. In their own mealy-mouthed fashion they say, “The impact of the above has been an exponential decrease in the delivery of key programmes.” But the failure is not simply in the delivery. Consider this: “As of 31 December 2022, the government had completed 17,647 serviced sites, or 58% of the total target for 2022/23. Progress against the number of houses/ units completed was slightly worse: 25,115 houses/units were completed at the end of 2022. This is 47% of the annual target.”

It’s not just that they are failing to meet the targets. It’s that the targets are so miserably small and inadequate. It is generally acknowledged that the 2022 census represented a substantial undercount especially of poor households. But even this poor census acknowledges that more than R1.4 million households live in “informal dwellings”.  If we take the national average of 3.4 people per household (and in poor households it will be substantially higher) we still get 5 million people living in shacks and tents. In reality it is millions more. And the Department writes in its report of a target of building 50,000 houses a year 1.4 million people in shacks and they can’t even reach their feeble target of 50,000 houses.

And they do this when their own goal, as expressed in the Breaking New Ground programme, was to eradicate informal housing by 2014. Here we are, ten years later, and the shack settlements are continuing to expand.

Housing could drive growth and jobs

As soon as we scratch the surface of the housing crisis, we find the crisis of jobs. With 13 million people unemployed, most people cannot afford to rent a house, let alone buy one, or to maintain their dwelling or pay for services. Local government provides services on a cost recovery basis because of under-funding from the national budget. Since most people cannot afford to pay for those services, local government tends to outsource their responsibilities including provision of housing in the case of the big municipalities – the metros.

And yet the relationship between housing and jobs has the potential to be such a positive one. As the original Reconstruction and Development Programme envisaged, housing could be a source of decent employment. If five percent of the value of our economy R230 billion (using the June 2023 GDP figures) was allocated to providing housing, hundreds of thousands of workers could be employed in housing brigades to meet the housing backlog. These workers would build the houses, lay the pipes and other infrastructure required. There is precedent for this in the Microbrigada movement in Cuba, although they used mainly employed workers. Engineers would not leave the country because they can’t find work. There would be a huge demand for plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, etc.

Instead of creating slums, government could build mixed housing in the inner-cities for the new artisanal class created by a mass housing programme.

Housing must cease to be a commodity and become a social service. We should be looking at the example of Vienna, Austria, where, as we reported in Amandla! 87, more than 50% of houses are publicly owned.

In turn, shops, restaurants, creches, schools, clinics and community centres would be needed. That would require more workers. Downstream industries would employ more workers to meet the demand for the inputs and the white goods (stoves, fridges etc) that would grow. State revenue would be enhanced by the stimulus the economy would receive from the many hundreds of thousands now employed at a decent wage.

Half-finished houses in Msunduzi municipality in KZN. With the tenderpreneurs, public funds leak away. They leak away on companies who win tenders despite the fact they have zero capacity to do the work. They leak away on partially completed housing.

If such a programme were combined with a mass public transport programme, aimed at uniting the townships built at the periphery of our cities and towns, in a safe, climate-friendly way, it suddenly becomes possible to imagine an end to the cycle of collapse.

To achieve all of this, we would need more state, not less. A different kind of state, which directly delivers social goods and services to the people, instead of trying (and failing) to be project managers of predatory tenderpreneurs. And we need less monopoly ownership over cement, steel and other industries essential for such development. We cannot afford to enrich the few in this process.

In short, we need a fundamental change in the direction of the economy and society, so that simultaneously we can build housing on a mass scale, create large numbers of jobs, build safer spaces for women from GBV, and allow working-class people to live their lives in dignity.

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