The housing crisis

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

As demonstrated in these pages the housing crisis is complex and multi-layered and cannot be separated from the wider social malaise facing South Africa. The causes of this crisis include policy confusion, market-based mechanisms for service provision, and the conception of ‘word-class cities’ as the ultimate goal of urban planners.

It should be noted that the housing crisis is not unique to South Africa. A similar phenomenon can be found across the developing world, from Brazil to India. Millions are flocking to the growing megacities in search of a better future as neoliberal policies force peasants off their land to make way for new mining projects and small-scale farmers are forced to compete with large-scale agribusiness from the EU or the US.

The cost of the neoliberal vision of the ‘world-class city’ is the emergence of new human dumping grounds in South Africa, termed ‘temporary relocation areas’ (TRAs). The most infamous of these is Blikkiesdorp, in Delft, Cape Town. Many of those evicted due to gentrification in such neighbourhoods as Woodstock, or because of decisions to ‘clean up’ the city for tourists for the 2010 World Cup, are dumped into these areas, supposedly for a short period. But, as any Blikkiesdorp resident will tell you, nobody seems to be moving out of these areas and into brand new RDP houses.

At the core of these developments is a vision of a city with the rich walled off from the poor. Considering South Africa’s history this takes an overwhelmingly racial form, with white residents walled off from black residents.

In general the responses to this crisis have been characterised by a lack of imagination or ability to think outside of the current paradigms. For example, there is an insistence on the RDP house as the sole goal of housing provision, rather than considering high- or medium-density housing located closer to the city centres. Government-provided houses are limited to the periphery of urban centres, far away from most residents’ jobs, which is further exacerbated by a lack of affordable and good quality public transport.

Policymakers often view policy as a technocratic abstraction, in which the views, aspirations and agency of those on the receiving end, such as those who receive government housing, are often put aside or left out of the process altogether. Part of the problem is that government refuses to upgrade many existing informal settlement based on the delusional premise that they are only temporary settlements, despite some residents having lived there for decades

As pointed out in Legassick’s introduction to this issue, it is crucial to link seemingly disparate issues to solve the housing crisis, namely the struggle for decent work and the struggle for decent housing. Instead of relying on outsourcing housing tenders to companies more committed to their bottom line than completing their contracts, Government should take the construction of housing into its own hands. Creation of a state-owned housing company should be non-negotiable.

The struggle for housing cannot be separated from the question of land as a whole. As long as redistribution of land remains an afterthought, with the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ principle becoming the scapegoat for a lack of transformation, the housing crisis cannot be resolved. Housing is a political issue, meaning one that cannot be resolved without political will, regardless of how good or bad policy is.

Housing struggles are isolated to single communities. A mass movement is needed, that is powerful enough to link housing struggles across the country and call into question the current neoliberal economic system embraced by parties across the political spectrum and that forces government to act.

As we have seen in Egypt, Brazil and, most recently, in Turkey, a seemingly localised and context-specific issue can give birth to a mass movement almost overnight. It is entirely possible that a single eviction could trigger the birth of a new mass movement or that urban struggles will eventually give birth to a broader struggle against neoliberalism in South Africa.

The housing crisis demands both a total rethinking of existing policy and its failures, and a mass movement capable of challenging neoliberalism in South Africa. So long as government sticks to its current path the informal settlement will remain a permanent feature of South African cities, along with its counterpart, the gated community.

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