SOCIAL HOUSING IN A COLLAPSED STATE

by Feb 2, 2024Amandla 90/91, Feature

Amandla! spoke with Malcolm Campbell, an architect, urban designer and development planner, based in Cape Town, who has a long history of involvement in the delivery of affordable housing and supporting struggles around housing.

Malcolm Campbell: I have become despondent with the policy approach of the ANC government. I didn’t see it adequately addressing housing need. It exacerbates the problem rather than attempting to solve it. It started with the abandonment of the RDP. In the early 90s, I had studied development planning at University College, London and my specialisation was housing and development in developing economies. And as a Marxist and socialist, I have an attitude that the state must provide formal housing for all. From my studies at that time, it appeared very few states, except for the “Socialist Bloc” countries, had succeeded in that. If you look at the quality of the housing provided in those countries, with few exceptions, it was actually very poor, with environments which were not really conducive to building communities.

At the time, while I was studying, the most successful housing initiative was something that had been pursued by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, shortly before he was assassinated, in the late 80s. He had seen Sri Lanka’s limitations in terms of its finances, and the extent of the housing need. A number of people were housing themselves in very rudimentary kinds of ways, using whatever recycled material they could find. And he took the approach that, rather than the state providing housing products targeting a limited number of beneficiaries, it was necessary to look at how to use subsidies to maximise the impact on a significantly wider range of beneficiaries.

So, instead of building houses, they allowed people to access funds to improve their shacks: new corrugated iron, or replacement of the corrugated iron with brick. It was called the One Million House Programme. It was a very successful initiative because a wide range of people were able to benefit from assistance in terms of improving housing and living conditions.

Amandla!: Was this approach tried in South Africa?

MC: In the early 90s, when Joe Slovo was Housing Minister, this was presented to him as an approach, in addition to building complete houses on greenfield sites on the outskirts of the cities. Why don’t we acknowledge that a lot of people have already housed themselves in informal settlements and backyard shacks? Subsidies could be used, in addition to providing new housing, to give these people a leg up. This approach did not find favour. Of course, politically there are points to be scored if you can demonstrate that you’ve provided so many new houses in areas which are critical to your political patronage.

So they then proceeded with the housing, which came to be called the Breaking New Ground housing policy. They provided 40 square metre housing units for people who earned below R3,500 a month. And generally, these houses were built on greenfield sites – sites developed from scratch. Community and social infrastructure had to be put in, like clinics and schools; roads had to be put in. A lot of money actually went particularly into what they call the civil works – roads and sanitation and the water and electricity supply. At the end of the day, there was very little money left for what is called top structures, which are the actual housing units.

The Breaking New Ground housing policy provided 40 square metre housing units for people who earned below R3,500 a month. And generally, these houses were built on greenfield sites.

So obviously, with that kind of approach, there were constraints and limits to the amount of housing they could produce. If you look at the figures, with the housing need growing every year, the ability to keep pace with that housing need dwindled quite considerably. If you look at every 10 year interval, you can see it becomes more and more a kind of hopeless situation. Then, obviously in this country, the other big problem with getting developers to do housing is that a lot of the money doesn’t land up in the development, given corruption and declining skills levels.

Amandla!: Was it always like this? 

MC: The irony is that, under apartheid, in the late 50s and 60s, the state via its public works programme was able to pursue a policy which was obviously meant to bolster apartheid, but it was a very successful programme of mass house building. This resulted in the kind of housing you see in Soweto and all the former locations all over the country. They set up teams dedicated to building these units, and they were able to get them out quite rapidly and efficiently and quite inexpensively because there were no private contractors who had to make a profit. It was financed directly by the state.

So South Africa did experience a period in which there was quite a successful delivery mechanism for delivering mass housing. When I visited Cuba, I saw their housing brigades. There’s a division of labour with skilled people at various levels, some with experience in design, others in costing, others in managing construction projects, and then, obviously, large teams who actually execute these projects. So they were able to have quite an aggressive rehousing programme, particularly relating to the conversion of existing buildings to accommodate more people.

Amandla!: So does the incapable state we now live with make a difference to our approach to social housing?

MC: This is where we currently are with housing. The state is not able to respond to the demand. Where they are able to respond, there’s no guarantee that the funding will reach the beneficiary communities, given the levels of corruption. But despite this, people are housing themselves. They’re occupying land illegally, setting up structures, and occupying vacant buildings.

And it’s very important that we are able to assist in organising communities in these initiatives. In that way, we put pressure on the state to come to their assistance. What it means is that the emphasis is no longer so much on the house as a unit, as a product. The emphasis is increasingly on providing infrastructure that supports positive housing environments. The provision of physical infrastructure: trafficable access ways (I won’t call them roads), a system for removing sewerage and refuse, and a water supply that everybody can access. And then there’s the kind of social and community infrastructure ensuring that there’s access to health care, to schools, to educare centres. And importantly, the economic infrastructure ensuring that people have access to jobs or opportunities where they can earn an income.

So I think that is very much where the emphasis should be placed at this juncture unless we are able to achieve the kind of political change where the state is able to take greater responsibility for the provision of housing. That will still remain a political demand which we have to raise quite strongly.

The battle over Tafelberg School property in Cape Town. Lessons can be learnt from Occupation Movements such as Reclaim the City.

Amandla!: What you’re describing sounds remarkably like what was called site and service. And if I recall, the debates of the early 90s, site and service was rejected by progressive forces, because it was inferior to what we wanted. So are we now settling for what we wouldn’t have settled for before, because things are just in a worse state? Or were we wrong, or what? 

MC: When we were opposing site and service schemes, it was in a period where the state had capacity and the means to provide formal housing. So we rejected site and service out of hand. The situation has now changed. Not only are the resources not there, they’ve been squandered, and housing need, in the interim, has grown exponentially.

And the capacity to deliver housing at scale is no longer there either. I mean, it’s very interesting, the state is now starting to award major, multi-billion rand infrastructure projects to Chinese contractors. We see this trend all over Africa, where all major infrastructure projects are being done by the Chinese and local capacity is actually being lost.

The irony is that, under apartheid, in the late 50s and 60s, the state via its public works programme was able to pursue a very successful programme of mass house building. This resulted in the kind of housing you see in Soweto.

The current thrust of progressive struggles around housing has been to pressurise the state to move away from these RDP houses on greenfield sites on the outskirts of the city, with the emphasis being placed on creating higher density, well-located housing opportunities within the city – in inner city areas where there’s already a social and community and economic infrastructure that they can tap into.

And the state has been slow in responding to this, attempting to deflect it to the private sector to buy into the institutional – and social – housing policies. The private sector has largely turned its back on it because it’s not profitable enough for them. In some instances, the state has set up what they called special-purpose vehicles. These are entities created by the provincial government or the local government, which act relatively independently of these governments. But even that has not worked very well. Fortunately, there have been initiatives, although limited, by NGOs who have pioneered some ground-breaking inner-city affordable housing initiatives, from which important lessons can be learnt, as well as lessons to be learnt from Occupation Movements such as Reclaim the City.

Amandla!: So effectively, what you’re saying is we are in a different and worse situation than we were 30 years ago, which is an interesting and depressing reflection. It comes froma place where, as you say, both the capacity and the political will of the state to aggressively address housing need has dwindled. 

MC: Correct, and it is further compounded when projects are procured, Here one has to contend with rent-seeking. The development of the black bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie in this country has been on a parasitic basis. They don’t create value. They extract value from those who create value.

Amandla!: It occurs to me that, just as we tendto think of land as a rural issue, we think of housing as an urban issue. But housing presumably is also a rural issue. 

MC: Interestingly, I’ve been involved in a rural housing pilot scheme in the Eastern Cape, with the Development Bank of South Africa. At the time, it had been established that, if people are given a housing subsidy, many people would rather invest in the rural area of their family origin. So rather than build a house in the city, in one of the locations, they would rather spend that money and build a decent home in the Eastern Cape or wherever.

An advantage is that in the rural areas, in order to provide housing, you don’t have to spend money on roads, and sewage systems and waste removal. And so all that money can go into the unit. And not only that, you can supply solar panels and you can supply a 5,000-litre water tank, so they can store water. So suddenly, they get much more out of the subsidy than they would get if they were living in the city.

In addition, it was contended, that the city is quite a hostile place for kids, and for old people. So a lot of workers would prefer having the elderly and the kids schooling in the rural areas, where it’s safer and less likely to be subjected to negative influences. It would be interesting to test whether this argument still holds today.

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