South African Housing Gap Sparks Anger as Squatters Seize Homes

Bloomberg.com: Exclusive:

By Janice Kew
May 2 (Bloomberg) -- Sello Timothy Mbamba's dream of owning his own home came true -- and for more than a year he's been too afraid to move in.
Mbamba was one of more than 100 people who won government funding to build one-bedroom houses at Olievenhoutbosch, 19 miles northwest of Johannesburg. When the house was completed 18 months ago, people who were still living in shacks accused him of leapfrogging over them and threatened his family.
``I was worried I'd be killed in my sleep,'' said Mbamba, a 55-year-old unemployed builder. In response, his wife Josephina fled 185 miles north with their son and daughter. Today he lives in a hut patched together from scrap lumber and corrugated iron sheets 600 yards from the house he bought for 4,100 rand ($580).
The fight for scarce homes has triggered violence and intimidation across South Africa, where 12 million homeless black people are still struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid. Although President Thabo Mbeki and his African National Congress have pledged to speed up their building program, the effort has been hindered by anger directed at new homeowners.
Those tensions erupted into violence on April 20, when 150 people barricaded roads with rocks and burning tires near the Johannesburg township of Alexandra to protest housing shortages. That followed incidents in East London and Soweto, where apartheid police massacred hundreds of schoolchildren in 1976.
Mandela's Era
Under Nelson Mandela, the ANC came close to meeting its goal of building 1 million homes in the five years through 1999. Since then, the government has consistently missed its annual housing targets.
The government has pledged to eliminate the 2.4 million-home shortfall by 2014, which would mean doubling construction to 500,000 a year. That would cost a total of 345 billion rand ($49 billion), the Housing Department said.
``Some municipalities have been operating far below what is expected of them,'' because they don't have the necessary personnel and skills to manage housing projects, said Housing Department Director-General Itumeleng Kotsoane.
More than a third of South Africa's 47.4 million people live in poverty, many without access to electricity, clean water and equipped schools.
The waiting list for government-backed homes is about five years, and some people have been homeless since the ANC came to power in 1994, Kotsoane said.
New Target
While extra support is being given to local authorities, the construction of stadiums for the 2010 soccer World Cup further threatens the government's target by reducing the resources available for low-cost housing, he added.
Dissatisfaction over housing may fuel the formation of a new party to the left of the ANC, said Nic Borain, a political analyst who counts HSBC Holdings Plc among his clients.
Under apartheid, legislation forced blacks to live in remote rural areas where jobs were scarce. Many people had to leave their families and travel hundreds of miles to work in mines and factories. The repeal of the Land Act in 1991 sparked a wave of urban migration.
``Government's efforts to alleviate the housing problem are not negligible, but there are so many new settlements springing up'' that its difficult to keep up, said Marie Huchzermeyer, an assistant professor at Wits University's school of architecture and planning.
`Take What is Yours'
Back in Olievenhoutbosch, the 220 government-funded houses, including Mbamba's, were finished in 2005. A local trust used grants to purchase the property, with members paying for the homes and monthly charges for electricity. On Feb. 26, a mob of squatters foiled the latest attempt by trust members to move in.
Local police couldn't guarantee their safety and advised against occupying the houses on the land belonging to the trust called Thathazakho, which means ``take what is yours'' in Xhosa.
People are tired of broken ANC promises of proper homes with running water, said Peter Molelemane, a 54-year-old bricklayer, who lives in a shack half a mile from the trust's houses.
``I've had my name on a waiting list, but I'm not sure how to actually get a house,'' Molelemane said. ``The houses end up belonging to those with money.''
Financial support is coming from South Africa's banks, which agreed in 2004 to make 42 billion rand available for low-income homebuyers by 2008. Less than half of that amount has been provided as banks wait for the government to underwrite part of their lending, said Cas Coovadia, managing director of the Banking Association of South Africa.
Those wrangles have left Mbamba sleeping under iron scraps.
``I've been waiting 10 years for a home,'' said Mbamba, who believes his wife will return when they can safely enter his house. ``I'm angry with the council for making me wait even longer.''

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