Mercury: Meeting people’s housing rights

As usual a politician confronted in the media with specific and concrete details of state behaviour replies with general statements about laws and policies as if the latter are somehow more real than the former…But, of course, a key part of what is wrong is that laws and policies are routinely ignored by the state when it comes to the poor….
Meeting people’s housing rights

February 09, 2009 Edition 1

Mike Mabuyakhulu

AS A person who respects our country’s judicial system, I was initially reluctant to respond to the article titled “Forced removals” by Kerry Chance, Marie Huchzermeyer and Mark Hunter in The Mercury on January 29. However, because inaccuracies tend to gain the status of conventional wisdom if left unchecked, I am forced to set the record straight.

The authors protest about the “worrying new trend of forcing shack dwellers into transit camps – with no clear indication of when or to where they will be moved”.

This, allegedly, is the government’s approach to dealing with slums and slum settlements in pursuing its “technocratic ‘formal at all cost’ approach to housing”. The writers use the case of the shack dwellers of Siyanda informal settlement, near KwaMashu, to highlight this “technocratic” approach to informal settlements.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Essentially, the article makes very broad general assumptions without any factual basis.

The department of housing, which has the stewardship over all housing matters, functions in line with our country’s constitution, which contains the Bill of Rights. The Bill guarantees certain and specific rights and freedoms for all of our people, be they informal settlement dwellers or well-off residents.

One of the guiding principles that the department adheres to is that, in line with the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act, we cannot remove people from informal settlements and not provide them with alternative accommodation, even if we are building them better and adequate housing.

The temporary shelter – or transit camps, as the three writers refer to this arrangement – is precisely that, a time-bound accommodation arrangement for those people who, for one reason or another, must be moved from where they reside for development to take place.

The very reason that people have to move to alternative accommodation testifies to the government’s commitment to improving our people’s lives for the better.

The harsh reality is that, because informal settlements are by their very nature unplanned, it is very difficult, if not in some cases impossible, to develop an informal settlement while there are people still residing there.

If, for example, we were to build our people houses while they resided in their shacks, we would be accused of being a government that does not care for its people.

A construction environment is a hazardous one and we cannot open our people to that danger.

Indeed, chapter 13 of the national housing code provides for the relocation of people where de-densification is needed and where communities are living in hazardous circumstances.

This is in accordance with sections 26 and 26 (2) of the constitution, which provides that the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures to achieve the progressive realisation of this right, the access to housing.

The authors, unfortunately, miss this point. The government states categorically that it does not house people in temporary shelter indefinitely.

When we house people in temporary shelter, as we have done in Lamontville, Cato Manor and other areas, we convene meetings where we inform people exactly how long their stay will be in the temporary shelter.

It would seem, unfortunately, that the writers are not well-versed with the interactions that take place between the people and the government.

The writers also accuse us of fantasising about ridding our province of slums. They go further and suggest that it is the advent of the 2010 soccer World Cup that forces us to chase this objective.

Again, we educate them that it was in 2000 that we formalised our slums clearance programme in the province, a programme that was later adopted by the national government.

At the time we did not know that in 2010 we would be hosting the soccer World Cup.

As for the allegation that the apartheid four-roomed houses were bigger and better than the houses being built by the democratic state since 1996, the authors have only managed to expose their own ignorance about the history of our housing development and the present context of the democratic state’s housing programme.

Whereas the four-roomed houses were meant as temporary housing for migrant workers who did not have rights to own them, the houses being built by the democratic state for the majority of our people are meant to accord our people rights to housing that they never enjoyed before democracy.

The more than half a million people in our province who have accessed these houses agree with us that, indeed, this government intervention has changed their lives.

As we speak, the emphasis of our housing programme is on creating sustainable human settlements.

Recently we signed a multibillion-rand agreement with First National Bank, the major focal point of which is building inclusionary housing.

All this is evidence that ours is not about chasing numbers but about using housing as a leverage for social transformation.

Unfortunately the writers have chosen to ignore all this public information about housing and have decided to spread inaccuracies about our efforts.

We hope that in future they will take a little bit of time to research their subject before they put pen to paper.

Mike Mabuyakhulu is KwaZulu-Natal MEC for local government, housing and traditional affairs.