RACE, CLASS AND HOUSING in post-apartheid Cape Town

The current housing policy may be faulted for paying disproportionate attention to recent migrants living in informal settlements whilst falling short of adequately addressing the housing needs of coloureds and Africans who were born and bred in the apartheid-era townships, says ROBERT MONGWE, following research conducted in the Cape Town area.  
   

Owing to significant growth in urban migration since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, Cape Town has experienced an upsurge in a housing shortage, especially for African and coloured people. The estimated housing backlog in Cape Town is between 360 000 and 400 000, and growing at a rate of 16 000–18 000 units per year. This begs the question of whether this situation can be ascribed to housing policies pursued in the City of Cape Town.

The claim is often made that housing policies have tended to benefit one population group (Africans) at the expense of another (coloureds). However, our research shows that the current housing policy could be blamed for not adequately addressing the needs of citizens who lived all their lives in the apartheid-era townships, both coloureds and Africans. This perception of bias in the current housing policy has resulted in intense political discontent among established residents.

The estimated housing backlog in Cape Town is between 360 000 and 400 000, and growing at a rate of 16 000–18 000 units per year.

Political discontent with public housing policy

In the post-apartheid era, housing policy has tended to attract criticism rather than praise. For instance, as soon as a public housing project is announced or undertaken, local communities usually express dissatisfaction with various aspects of the housing allocation process, including the slow pace of housing delivery, the unreliability of the housing waiting lists, and corrupt housing officials who take advantage of the situation in order to put their friends near the top of waiting lists. However, one must acknowledge that the waiting lists are extremely long partly due to the legacy of apartheid housing policies.

On the other hand, the middle classes in the townships and the affluent suburbs are opposed to the construction of public housing adjacent to their own neighbourhoods. The latter are concerned public housing and informal settlements will negatively affect the market value of their homes. Others associate informal settlements and public housing projects with crime, lack of security and other social ills.

The attitude of the middle classes towards public housing programmes has had two main consequences. Firstly, the authorities in Cape Town have ensured that the construction of informal settlements in middle-class areas is prevented, often through court authorised evictions. Secondly, so far the middle classes have lobbied successfully against the construction of low-cost housing near their own suburbs. Consequently, public housing projects for the poor are located far away from places of social and economic opportunities.

Responses from township communities

One of the most stinging criticisms of the current housing policy from the residents of Langa and other similar apartheid-era townships is that the government is providing housing to migrants living on illegally occupied urban land, yet law abiding citizens, who have waited for many years for housing, are being overlooked. In other words, the winners in the current government housing dispensation are the migrants from the rural areas, whereas the urban born, especially those living in Langa, consider themselves the losers.

Others associate informal settlements and public housing projects with crime, lack of security and other social ills.

A serious complaint among the coloured community in Ravensmead is that the government has turned a blind eye to the fact that many of them are impoverished backyard dwellers who are looking to the state for housing assistance. In addition, coloureds indicate many of their community members also live in overcrowded conditions in private homes. Consequently, backyard dwellers associations have emerged among the coloured population to campaign for the rights of those who feel disadvantaged by the shortcomings of the current housing policy.

These challenges regarding housing delivery should be seen against the background of the current massive rural to urban migration. Furthermore, it is important to remember that these afore-mentioned challenges in housing policy are the result of distorted apartheid housing policies, which were focused on catering for the housing needs of the white minority.

What then do these findings suggest?

Firstly, these research findings suggest that concerns with the slow pace of housing delivery and related problems are common among coloureds and Africans. Secondly, that the policy of coloured preference, passed in the 1960s, did not succeed in meeting its objective of adequately catering for the housing needs of the coloured population.

These challenges regarding housing delivery should be seen against the background of the current massive rural to urban migration.

The status quo presents policy-makers with a number of policy challenges. Firstly, there is a need to find politically sensitive criteria for addressing the housing backlogs. Secondly, the conflicts over housing allocations in Cape Town and elsewhere suggest housing policies have to be tailored flexibly to respond to the local environment, and at the same time balancing the interests of competing groups.  In that manner housing policy could be turned into an instrument for promoting nation building and thus overcoming divisions based on class, race and ethnicity.

In conclusion

This short review of housing policy has exposed the challenges that policy-makers face as well as the unforeseen or unintended consequences of certain policy decisions, such as the decision to target mainly informal settlements as the major beneficiaries of housing development initiatives in the post-apartheid period. The tensions between populations that resulted from recent policies suggest housing delivery is not merely about the number of housing units constructed, but also about how housing affects political ideals of entitlement and citizenship in South Africa.

Author: Robert Mongwe, PhD intern, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme, HSRC.