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‘People have died on the waiting lists’: South Africa’s housing crisis casts a shadow over election | Global development

‘People have died on the waiting lists’: South Africa’s housing crisis casts a shadow over election | Global development
‘People have died on the waiting lists’: South Africa’s housing crisis casts a shadow over election | Global development

A picture of Nelson Mandela watches over the dimly lit room where Maggie Mothemba has lived for six years. “He’s like my father,” says the 57-year-old, who remembers the day in April 1994 that she voted for Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa’s first democratic election.

She was then “full of hope” to be on the list for a government-subsidised house to raise her two children – a key ANC’ election promise. But Mothemba is still waiting, along with 2.5 million households languishing in a housing crisis. In 2017, facing eviction from a private rental , she moved into a derelict hospital in Woodstock, a Cape Town neighbourhood, squatted by people protesting the slow pace of affordable housing development.

Maggie Mothemba, 57, moved into Cissie Gool House six years ago. She lives in a small room across from the one in which her adult daughter lives. Photograph: Julie Bourdin

While the government has accommodated almost 5 million households in 30 years, delivery has slowed drastically over the past decade. As South Africa holds a general election this week, campaigners say there has been a failure to redress the effects of spatial segregation entrenched by apartheid.

“There are millions of people on the housing waiting list and many more living in inadequate housing – it’s a massive issue,” says urban policy researcher Nick Budlender, of Ndifuna Ukwazi, a nonprofit which supported the occupation of the Woodstock hospital – now nicknamed Cissie Gool House after an anti-apartheid activist.

At its peak, in 1998-99, South Africa’s government built more than 235,000 fully subsidised houses a year. In 2022-23, the number was 34,000.

According to the Department of Human Settlements, the recent decrease was mainly due to “budget cuts and the Covid-19 pandemic”. “The government will not abandon its citizens, but we fully understand the frustration of those who are yet to be assisted,” spokesperson Nozipho Zulu said in a statement to the Guardian.

Mothemba and her neighbours have grown disillusioned with the ANC and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, that runs Cape Town and the Western Cape province. “We are used to these empty promises. Many people have died on the waiting list,” says Faghmeeda Ling, 57, one of the leaders at Cissie Gool House.

Ling’s family history is marked by evictions, starting with her mother’s forced removal from District Six in one of the apartheid regime’s most infamous mass evictions. She eventually moved back to Woodstock, one of the last few “grey” (racially diverse) inner city areas. But in 2017, Ling’s landlord decided to sell their building. The city offered residents alternative accommodation in Wolwerivier, a settlement about 20 miles from the centre.

Faghmeeda Ling, 57, on her balcony at Cissie Gool House. She joined the occupation of the abandoned hospital seven years ago, after being evicted. Photograph: Julie Bourdin

“What they’re doing with us now is the same as under apartheid, it’s just called by the fancy name – ‘gentrification’,” Ling says.

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Policies have not disrupted “spatial apartheid”, says Budlender: “Our cities were shaped so that the white minority would live in nice, sparsely populated areas close to jobs, schools and services, and the black, coloured and Indian majority would commute in and out every day to service them. And that structure remains tragically unchanged.”

This legacy is at its most visible in Cape Town. While mainly white residents and tourists enjoy trendy restaurants and beachside strolls around the inner city, on the outskirts, the spacious houses give way to tightly packed shacks and informal settlements where overwhelmingly black and coloured people live. The municipality’s housing needs register lists more than 375,000 applicants. Yet, while several projects are under way, 30 years after the end of apartheid not a single affordable housing unit has been completed in the inner city.

The consequences of this “spatial dysfunction” are “humongous”, says Budlender: a 2022 Harvard study found that South Africa’s lowest-earning workers spent more than 37% of their income on transport.

“It is hard to even comprehend the kind of wealth-destroying power of having to pay half your income on transport every day: the way that limits people’s upward mobility, the schools their kids can go to, the jobs they can apply for and keep,” Budlender says.

Ndifuna Ukwazi has been advocating for public land to be released to build social housing. Across the Cape Town municipality, the NGO identified 128 sq km of “underutilised” public land.

The mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, says “various municipal-owned properties in central Cape Town” had already been released, adding that the city has “6,500 social housing units in the pipeline at over 50 well located land parcels”. “Cape Town’s entire spatial policy is aimed at unstitching [apartheid’s] legacy over time,” he says.

The Woodstock hospital “would have long been released for affordable housing were it not for … the building hijacking by Ndifuna Ukwazi,” he says.

Residents have decorated the walls of the former hospital with murals and protest slogans. Photograph: Julie Bourdin

Seven years after the initial occupation, the building now houses more than 1,000 people. In the corridors, named after the streets families were evicted from, colourful murals cover moulding wallpaper. Children play under posters and slogans, a reminder that there remains a threat of eviction.

For Budlender, while “the occupation isn’t perfect”, “it does something that no sphere of government has ever come close to: provide a home predominantly for evictees in well located areas”.

Among residents, hope still runs deep that each family will one day have their own home. “I want to die knowing my children are in a house of their own,” says Ling: “Not going to bed thinking they might wake up to an eviction letter.”

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