Mercury: Housing ‘a cause for concern’

Housing ‘a cause for concern’

October 06, 2008 Edition 1

Mercury reporter

A MAJOR housing study released today has raised concerns about apparently high levels of state repression and perceptions of political patronage and rampant corruption in the eThekwini’s municipality’s housing system.

While pointedly commending the municipality for its zeal in building a “considerable number” of houses for the poor, the 200-page report into housing rights and slum eradication in Durban raised several worries. These concern the standard and location of new houses, methods used in evictions and the municipality’s reluctance to properly consult and communicate with those affected.

The report, compiled by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, is being released to government departments, NGOs and other organisations.

It says that South Africa as a whole has witnessed a disturbing shift in recent years; from a pro-poor and rights-based discourse regarding shack settlements to one that is more security-based andis sometimes anti-poor.

It cites the KZN Slums Act as a worrying consequence of this shift.

The eThekwini Municipality is building a significant number of houses, but many are of a poor quality and are being built far out, “in a manner that entrenches rather than ameliorates the structural injustice that is the legacy of apartheid spatial segregation”.

There is also credible evidence to suggest there has been severe, violent and unlawful repression of shack dwellers’ organisations, with Abahlali baseMjondolo being a particular target. Unlawful evictions have continued “since the compilation of this report, but there has been a marked decline in reports of state repression of shack dwellers’ organisations. There has also been a clear improvement in the willingness of the city to negotiate directly with shack dwellers’ organisations”.

Among many other recommendations, it moots the idea of independent investigations into allegations of corruption and patronage.

Several development professionals, and one person who had worked in the municipal housing department, complained that the housing process was distorted by party political interests. Academic research had reached similar conclusions.

The centre was told that projects were being blocked in areas not seen as “supportive”. Contracts and access to housing had been directed to people seen as being “supportive”

David Ntseng, of the Church Land Programme, said “the government is obsessed with authority and control . . . it is destroying its political credibility among the poor and destroying their livelihoods by forcing them out of the cities”.

Local shack dwellers’ organisations had reported severe and unlawful police violence against demonstrations. There were widespread perceptions of corruption and political manipulation of housing projects. The centre was given numerous accounts of requests for bribes to be included on housing lists and to avoid eviction.

“People reported paying cash bribes as well as other bribes, such as chickens. In one instance a young woman reported that she had been asked to provide sex to a municipal official in exchange for being placed on the housing list during a forced relocation.”

Most of these accounts named the same official who has now left the housing department.

However, it was clear there was a widespread lack of confidence in the integrity of municipal officials.

“Moreover, given the apparent credibility of the many allegations of corruption, it appears that the department’s oversight and auditing strategies may need to be radically reworked and, quite possibly, handed over to credible independent agencies with an investigative capacity.

“If the claims of rampant corruption are a matter of perception more than reality, this can be addressed by making the process as open and transparent as possible. The secrecy that currently surrounds it clearly encourages rumours,” the report states.