World Cup host needs to live up to its promise of better housing for the poor

Since the fall of apartheid, the South African government has initiated a massive effort to improve the housing situation of millions of its marginalized citizens. South Africa’s commitment to housing was presumably such a priority that the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution (1996) embodies this commitment:

1. Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.

2. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of this right.

3. No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.
Over the subsequent years, many township residents have lost faith in the government’s efforts to fulfill the goals stated in the Constitution. Residents have grown weary of the repeated promises to improve services and perform site upgrades. In the past few months, riots have broken out in several townships in response to this government failure.

Things are so bad that many live in squalid conditions with no access to clean water, sanitation and electricity. Residents have increasingly voiced their displeasure with the government’s effort (or lack thereof) to change their living conditions. Just two months ago, residents of Mamelodi East (40 miles from Soccer City Stadium in Pretoria) and Oukasie (60 miles north of Johannesburg) took to the streets to protest. This protest and others like it have turned violent with clashes between protesters and police forces. The protests now threaten to spill over in the weeks ahead, possibly jeopardizing the carefully crafted image of the host nation during the World Cup.

Many blame the World Cup for the government’s misplaced priorities. In their opinion, the country would have been better off spending the funds allocated to the massive build up for the World Cup on the aforementioned housing-related issues. Instead, residents of the townships and settlements have been told to wait and be patient. Unfortunately, many are skeptical and openly question the change that has been promised by the post-apartheid ANC government. To the poor, these new stadiums and roadways are an epic waste of public funds; funds that would have been better spent on fulfilling government promises of better housing and services. Their frustration is understandable. Imagine being within walking distance of a new state of the art athletic facility, while living in a shanty town with no access to clean water, electricity or sanitation. As the twentieth anniversary of the fall of apartheid fast approaches, many are beginning to question the commitment of the government towards the issues of the poor.

As if the decision to build new stadiums wasn’t bad enough, construction of new stadiums has resulted in the displacement of people previously living on the some of the sites. This displacement is compounded by FIFA’s refusal to relax their ban on local merchants selling their goods within close proximity to the stadiums. FIFA claims that this is to protect the advertisers that have paid millions to become official sponsors of the games. Unfortunately, this negatively impacts the ability of these merchants to earn a living. Prior to the World Cup, these merchants had been selling their wares outside the stadiums without much of a fuss. It’s easy to see where the frustration is coming from.

This is not to say that the government has ignored housing issues all together. In fairness, the South African government has made significant inroads in constructing millions of dwellings, even though there are plenty of complaints that the dwellings are sub-par. As many governments in the throes of massive housing generation have discovered, it is difficult to build enough adequate housing. Not surprisingly, the South African government has fallen well short of their target of building 300,000 dwellings a year. Surely, at least in the short term, the World Cup has not helped. It appears that the government has focused far too much on the construction of new housing as opposed to focusing on site improvement and upgrades. Far too often, various governments have had to learn the hard way that they alone cannot provide an adequate level of housing for all their citizens. It is imperative that South Africa not repeats the mistakes of the past.

Government as Providers of Housing

Historically, government intervention in housing has produced mixed outcomes. In the 70’s and 80’s governments in developing countries would plan and build housing estates on their own as a subset of the government apparatus. Often this approach proved unsuccessful because governments would aim too high in their efforts to build housing they were proud of. Essentially, they would commit one of the cardinal sins of real estate development; they would build without carefully assessing demand.

Time and time again, the role of government as housing provider for the poor has been unsuccessful, mainly due to government’s lack of expertise in the field of housing finance, development planning and construction. Frequently, governments would worsen the problems of the people they were trying to help, often engaging in slum clearance and displacement from central locations, and disruption of social and economic networks. But most importantly, governments could not meet, or even come close to meeting, their own self-imposed targets for housing creation because their approach was unsustainable.

To a certain extent South Africa is learning this lesson now. As many are starting to realize, the ANC’s failed promise of adequate housing for all (a lofty and difficult goal under any circumstance) is sowing the seeds of frustration.

To help mitigate this frustration, the South African government should stop imposing ineffective and expensive top- down housing model and focus more attention on implementing more cost effective bottom up consensus building measures. This would curtail the resentment that some residents feel as a result of the governments focus on the World Cup.

Instead of promising new housing and under-delivering, it would be more prudent and effective if the government became more of a facilitator and approached the development agenda from a more holistic viewpoint. Since they cannot house the poor, they should be enablers and make it easier for the poor to help house themselves.

This would be a win-win scenario for everyone. The enabler role would allow the government to curtail spending, spread aid so that it reached more people, and better focus their aid at the people in need (the poor). The poor will in turn feel empowered and be able to better improve their living condition.

If the South African government can afford to spend so lavishly in preparation for the World Cup, and mobilize so quickly in order to meet FIFA deadlines, surely it can do the same when it comes to implementing better housing strategies.

A house is more than just a home; it is the foundation upon which many things are built, from better health to education. If South Africa is serious about correcting the ills of the past it is imperative that the government fulfill its promise to help the poor.

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