The Guardian: South Africa’s ‘insidious’ housing problems happening in Britain

South Africa's 'insidious' housing problems happening in Britain

Housing campaigner Lindela Figlan finds similarities in the treatment of poorer British citizens and slum dwellers in South Africa

In the world's second most unequal country, South Africa, millions like me live in informal settlements without toilets, water or electricity – never mind decent shelter.

To fight against this we founded Abahlali baseMjondolo, which roughly translates as "the people of the shacks" to resist illegal evictions and campaign for the right to housing for all.

Visiting the UK, I have understood the same insidious denial of this right is also happening in Britain. My trip has highlighted our common struggles; how much the UK can learn from what is happening in South Africa and the persistence and determination of our movement in the face of attempts to close us down.

Groups I met in London explained how the UK government is capping benefits and the Local Housing Allowance, which could force nearly a million people out of their homes, boroughs and even their cities. This is akin to the South African government policy of moving people out of shack settlements in the cities to transit camps – known as "the tins" because people are housed in containers. People are told they will be there for a few months, but many spend years there, miles from where they work and their children's schools and without health services.

In Brighton and Wales, I spoke with people fighting the new squatting law that will leave thousands homeless because squatting in a residential building is now a criminal offence. This is despite a shocking 720,000 properties left empty in England alone.

An enduring memory of my visit to Britain will be the cold, yet more than 60,000 British households are homeless. The housing waiting lists in both of our countries are getting longer; some 1.7 million people are on the waiting list for social housing in Britain, while 2.2 million wait for South African homes.

Underlying the UK housing situation is the same assumption held by policy makers in my own country: where you live should be determined by how much money you have. Through selling off social housing, relaxing the rules on new housing developments and the caps on housing and benefit, Britain's rich and poor will face the risk of becoming segregated in the same way we are in South Africa.

As a movement of shack dwellers, we have taken the South African government to both the constitutional court and the high court – and we have won these battles. We continue to organise pickets and demonstrations, even though police have fired on our legal marches. We train our fellow shack dwellers to know their legal and constitutional rights.

Our movement has weathered a violent physical attack on our leadership, which meant numbers of us lost our homes and all our possessions and were forced into hiding because of death threats.

The police massacre of miners at Marikana was a step change in the authorities' willingness to repress South Africa's citizens. Our movement continues to be led by its members amid the common belief in the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being, a right shared by British citizens.