Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) www.seri-sa.org
Since 1994 the South African government, through its National Housing Subsidy Scheme (NHSS), has embarked on the large-scale provision of state-subsidised housing to low-income households across the country. Over 2 million state-subsidised houses have been built since 1994, predominantly in typical RDP or Breaking New Ground (BNG) housing projects. The delivery of these houses has been, and continues to be, an important political drawcard in South Africa, forming part of the post-apartheid project to redress the historical, socio-economic injustices of apartheid.
Indeed, the ‘eradication of the housing backlog’ is as much a political target, as a broader developmental goal.
However, despite gains since 1994 in addressing backlogs, there is still a substantial ‘housing backlog,’ which has become one of the reasons for the mushrooming of local so-called ‘service delivery’ protests across the country in recent years. Housing delivery has become highly politicised and subject to politicking and protest, particularly in the context of medium-to-large state-subsidised housing projects undertaken by national, provincial and local government.
What is this waiting list?
We are led to believe that there is a ‘waiting list system’, with a housing ‘queue’, and that people must patiently wait until their name comes up. First come, first served. It all sounds very fair. If you try to get housing in any other way you are a queue-jumper. Politicians and government officials constantly use this term. To enforce this ‘queue’, Anti-Land Invasion Units have been set up in various municipalities. They use the the queue to justify evicting people from land, houses or buildings they occupy. They are policing a rational, equitable system. Or so they want us to believe..
The reality is that there is no single queue. There is no waiting list. Whether we think of ‘the waiting list’ as a mechanism which simply allocates housing to those who have waited the longest, or whether we see it as taking into account special needs, it simply doesn’t exist.
Instead there are a range of highly differentiated, and sometimes contradictory, policies and systems in place to respond to housing need. These include:
- housing demand databases and the National Housing Needs Register (NHNR), which attempt to respond flexibly to the rapidly changing nature of housing need
- lottery systems, which allocate housing to qualifying beneficiaries by chance, in a manner that has nothing to do with need or the length of time spent on the list; and other,
- highly localised, idiosyncratic and often community-based methods of allocating housing developed to adapt to local situations.
- So there are numerous entry points for getting state-subsidised housing. These include:
- informal settlement upgrading through the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP); this mainly uses residence in a particular geographical area to decide who benefits.
- the emergency housing programme which concentrates on addressing housing crises emerging from eviction or natural disaster.
- partially state-subsidised rental housing
- social housing
- public rental housing in the Community Residential Units (CRU) programme (although rollout of this programme has been extremely slow, with very few units developed country-wide)..
None of these polices depend on the length of time someone has been on a waiting list. While the informal settlement and emergency housing programmes cater for people irrespective of how long they have been registered for a housing subsidy (or whether they are in fact registered at all), they can at least be said to be targeted towards those in the most acute housing need.
Social housing projects do not even claim to prioritise the poorest of the poor, and depend on beneficiaries demonstrating stable employment and income. They do not even require beneficiaries to have registered themselves for housing before the beginning of a project.
It also appears that a very high percentage of people who receive state-subsidised houses either rent or sell their houses for cash, and move back to shacks in backyards or informal settlements to be close to economic and social opportunities.
On top of all of this, there are various unofficial, and often illegal, mechanisms at play. In the first place, there is a great deal of corruption in the allocation of housing, with thousands of public servants managing to get themselves allocated state-subsidised,intended for people in greater need. Secondly, people who would otherwise qualify for state-subsidised housing often take occupation of houses without them being ‘officially’ allocated. This category includes overtly political ‘invasions’ of housing, as well as less formal processes which might involve payment of a bribe, or might just reflect administrative error. Thirdly because of the way the Housing Subsidy System (HSS) functions, it may be that there are people recorded as having qualified for and been allocated a house, who have not been given one. Fourth, even after a house has been allocated, it may be sold or informally transferred by poor beneficiaries in need of ready cash and/or wanting to live closer to economic opportunities elsewhere in the country, or within an urban area.
Housing allocation in South Africa, while loosely regulated by numerous policies and systems, appears to be fundamentally about access to resources and power, and has little to do with individual housing needs The failures of and politicking around housing provision are exacerbated by the fact that the South African housing delivery programme is widely perceived as corrupt. This perception is created not only by corruption that has been exposed over the years, but also by the “clumsiness, opacity, confusion and capriciousness that exists within the housing programme”. Although maladministration, fraud and corruption exist and appear to be widespread, it also appears that much of the anger and confusion – which often culminates in protest – arises from a lack of information and explanation of some very technical and basic processes and systems. So the system is dominated by myths, misinformation and confusion. These have led to protests, ‘illegal’ occupation of newly built or unfinished RDP houses, and court cases.
Meanwhile, there is further tension around the fact that, while the government continues to talk about state-subsidised houses, the Minister of Human Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale, has made statements about the government’s shift away from delivering subsidised houses (indeed, the delivery of state-subsidised houses has decreased substantially over the years)
What is needed in response to all of this is an acceptance that housing allocation is not a simple queue-bound progress, and that the housing waiting list and ‘the queue’ are myths. For too long, this kind of language – invoked by government officials, politicians and courts – has been used as a means to shut down any other avenues being pursued by people to gain access to land and housing. There are in fact many ways into the state system, ranging from being evicted or displaced from one’s home by a natural disaster, through applying for and being given a house in a greenfield housing project, or having one’s informal settlement upgraded to being accepted into a social housing scheme. Public officials, in their words and deeds, need to abandon the language of ‘the queue’, in favour of an acceptance that the ‘allocation’ of housing responds to a range of pressures which change over time, and that this terrain is far more complex and nuanced than the idea of a single waiting list suggests..