Is Home?

Reflecting on housing in informal settlements
of South Africa 20 years Post-Apartheid
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What is Home?

Reflecting on housing in informal settlements of South Africa 20 years Post-Apartheid
The Video

We cried about Apartheid, but we are crying today still because we see nothing better.

Veliswa Boma wakes up at 4:45 in the morning. Her house, a patchwork of corrugated iron sheets and cardboard panels located on the outskirts of Joza, a township in South Africa, is dark and cold. She rises from the tattered mattress on a dirt floor and squeezes the mattress together to keep the layers from separating as she lifts it and leans it behind a refrigerator used as a cupboard. She then bends to collect the plastic bags lining the floor, shoving them in a corner of her shack near the bucket used as a toilet.

Light creeps through holes in the thin walls and through slits in the two-inch piece of wood barricaded against the opening of the shack to resemble a door. Veliswa's breath clouds the air in front of her as she carries the four damp blankets she slept beneath to the other side of the shack in five steps down, and adds them to the pile of blankets on top of her teenage daughter and her fifteen month old granddaughter, both still asleep in the darkness. Then she slips on dirty shoes, picks up two plastic buckets and walks out into the dull light of the morning to fetch water from the tap ten minutes away.

Twenty years have passed since the end of Apartheid, and Veliswa is just one of the millions of South Africans still in need of proper housing. The forty-three-year-old single mother has been on a waiting list for government housing for close to two decades. Her mother was on the list before her, but died before getting a house, and with each year that passes, Veliswa grows more fearful that she will not get a house in her lifetime and that her children and grandchildren will be left in the same situation that she is in now.


The "Waiting List" is somewhat of a mythical arrangement everyone talks about. The belief is that a "waiting list system", with a housing "queue" exists somewhere, organized on a first come first serve basis. People patiently wait for their name to reach the top of the list, operating on the assumption that the longer a person has been waiting, the better chance he has of receiving a house as one becomes available. Various municipalities throughout South Africa established Anti-Land Invasion Units to prevent people from jumping ahead in line and to warrant the eviction of people from land, houses or buildings that they may occupy.

According to Kate Tissington, a senior researcher at SERI, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, politicians and government officials reinforce this idea and create the illusion that they are policing a rational, equitable system, however, "the reality is that there is no single queue. There is no waiting list. Instead there are a range of highly differentiated, and sometimes contradictory, policies and systems in place to respond to housing need."

In connection with the Community Law Centre (CLC), Tissington and a team of researchers at SERI spent significant time and resources investigating the housing demand and allocation process in South Africa before reaching this conclusion. Their findings, published in a report entitled "Jumping the Queue", Waiting Lists and other Myths: Perceptions and Practice around Housing Demand and Allocation in South Africa shed light into the housing crisis in South Africa and the corruption and misinformation surrounding state-subsidized houses.

While the government has constructed somewhere between two to three million RDP (Reconstruction and Development Program) Houses, the back-log of people waiting for a house continues to grow, as does the frustration of those who are left waiting.



"We're not fighting to cause violence, no. We're fighting for service delivery. We want access to adequate housing, water and sanitation, tarred roads...It's what I fight for now. I'm fighting to see the government change, to see this country change, to make for our kids to be better."

The rotting carcass of three dogs half sunk into the ground lay at the corner of the mound of trash in front of a row of toilet stalls in Sweet Home Farm. A five-year-old boy steps over them on his way to pee, and he does so without seeming to notice. The toilets, sixteen in a row like Porta Potties at a tailgate, are overflowing with feces and trash. Water runs down the toilet basin of the last in the row, collecting into a puddle that flows through the gutter on the side of the dirt road and mixes with the stagnant pools of water left on the road after the morning's rainstorm. Down the street, a group of children splash around in a puddle of water up to their knees, laughing as they slap at the water, splashing it onto each other.

Siyambokola James, the leader of the Western Cape Abahlali baseMjondolo, or Shack Dweller's Movement, an organization started in 2008 to fight for the rights of shack dwellers in the Cape Town, lives seven shacks away from the row of toilets with his wife and two young sons. His shack, made of wood and corrugated iron sheets, is painted white. On the side facing the dirt road, the outline of a two hands folded in prayers is painted in light blue. Siya, as he is known in the community, is fortunate enough to have electricity in his home, meaning that his wife cooks on a stove and his two young boys watch music videos on a television with a static picture while he sits on his brown couch and goes over paperwork outlining a protest he has organized for the following day.

"The Western Cape government is making the western cape into a Spaza shop for them to come and buy votes," Siya says, "then after that, they just disappear." For fifteen years, Siya and his community have been fighting for better service delivery. The municipalities responsible for cleaning and emptying the toilets are supposed to do so on a weekly basis, but a month can go by without anyone showing up.

"We want government to engage with us," Siya says, "to provide electricity, water and sanitation, adequate housing and tarred roads."

He has met with numerous members of his local government stretching back through each regime. Every election year, politicians come to visit Sweet Home Farm and promise change, but in the past 15 years, those promises remain empty.

Protests are increasing all across South Africa as people become more and more frustrated with their living conditions. Not all of them are preplanned or follow the proper government procedures. Frustrated with the lack of service delivery, township residents sometimes resort to burning toilets or marching down major roads in an attempt to draw attention to their cause. According to police estimates, the number of protests continues to rise each year and about one-quarter of these protests turn violent.


"I would sleep here, right on the ground if I could. You can take the people out of District Six, but you can't take District Six out of the people."

Abubaka Brown stands on the sidewalk off Roeland Street. To his left is the campus of Cape Peninsula University Technikon outlined with the backdrop of Table Mountain. To his right is a small development of new white townhouses enclosed in a high fence at the bottom of the field of overrun grass spreading out behind the seventy-nine-year-old man.

"My house was right over there." He says, pointing to an empty space a few yards ahead of him as he tries to recreate the memory still raw after five decades.

Prior to Apartheid, District Six was known as the gateway to the city. Located at the foot of Table Mountain and overlooking the harbor and the City Bowl, the cosmopolitan area was home to Cape Malay and Xhosa residents, as well as a number of Afrikaans, whites and Indians and was known as a thriving multiracial neighborhood.

In 1966, the Apartheid government passed the Group Areas Act, segregating people into racial groups and making it illegal for people of different races to live in the same area. On February 11, 1966, District Six was declared a white only area and everyone who was not white was ordered to leave. Abu was in his early twenties when his family was forcibly removed from their house in District Six. He was one of over 60,000 people relocated from his home and sent to a township on the other side of Table Mountain known as the Cape Flats.

Since the fall of Apartheid, the South African government has supported the pledge to rebuild District Six and return the land to those who were removed. Abu, still residing in Mitchell's Plain, a township in the Cape Flats, travels an hour by bus to get from his home into town at least once a week to visit a friend who recently moved back.


The process of restitution for those removed has been long and difficult. Nearly ten years passed before work began on the first development, a lot of only 24 houses built in 2003 and promised to former residents over the age of 80. Former president Nelson Mandela handed over the first keys to returning residents on February 11, 2004, the 38th anniversary of the day the district was rezoned. The government unveiled a plan that would allow over 1,600 families to return to their roots within the next three years, however, to this day less than 150 families have actually moved back.



"These people wouldn't let their dogs sleep in a place like this, but us, they forced us here and then forgot about us."

“This is a dumping ground for people,” Badronessa Morris says as she is sitting in one of the tin housing structures in Blikkiesdorp with her daughter and two grandchildren.

“People are dying here every day. Gangs are taking over. Old women are getting raped and beaten. People are getting killed for their pensions. Girls are young as twelve are getting pregnant!”

A heavy breeze rolls by, rattling the tin walls and blowing dust and sand into Badronessa’s house. Music from down the street fills the silence with an eerie melody, a stark contrast to the palpable uneasiness.

Blikkiesdorp is a Temporary Relocation Area (TRA) in Delft, South Africa, created in 2008 by Helen Zille, the mayor at the time, as a temporary solution to the need for immediate housing. The name, a nickname donned by its residence, translates in Afrikaans to “tin can town” appropriately labeled for its make up of row after row of tin-box houses, each 18m long. The irony of Blikkiesdorp is the police barricade at the entrance and the high fence enclosing the tin box houses. Despite the 24 hours surveillance and the enforcement of a curfew, Blikkiesdorp is known as one of the more crime ridden areas in all of South Africa.

In its first year, about 4,000 people were placed in the TRA, many against their will, but most were assured that they would only have to stay for three years before a permanent housing solution was arranged.

By 2014, the relatively small area is over six times the size, as a reported 25,000 people now live in Blikkiesdorp, with more added each day. The first residents (those still alive) still live in their shacks.

“I’d rather live on the street than to live here in Blikkiesdorp,” Badronessa says. “I’d give anything to go back to living on the street.”

The street she refers to is Symphony Way, a road running through Delft that Badronessa, as well as about 150 families, occupied for nearly 2 years beginning in 2008.

Like thousands of poor South Africans, Badronessa grew up in the life of a backyarder. She moved from place to place, renting shacks in the back yard of other people’s houses, waiting for her government issued house. In December of 2007, she was one of 300 people who received a letter from a man named Frank Martin, a Democratic Alliance Councilor, and City of Cape Town mayoral committee member, granting her permission to move into a development of houses that were part of the N2 Gateway Project.

Thrilled, Badronessa left her shack and occupied a house. Construction on the houses terminated before completion, leaving them in an unfinished state, many missing door, windows and plumbing. But to the families who had spent their lifetime in shacks, and had been waiting since the end of Apartheid for a house, the new homes were a dream come true.

Their joy was short-lived. On Christmas Eve trouble began. Police showed up with weapons. They told people that they needed to leave their homes because they had been occupied illegally, and they violently attempted to evict the families on the day before Christmas. The families were permitted to stay due to a last-minute high court interdict preventing the government from eviction without first obtaining a court order.

Within a few weeks, the families received another notice to leave, informing them that the councilor who invited them to move into the houses had done so without warrant. There had been a mistake, and everyone needed to leave immediately. The families stayed and tried to fight for their right to the houses.

On February 19, 2008, police showed up again. At around 6am they entered the housing development and began kicking in people’s doors and forcibly removing them from their homes. They carried people’s furniture from their homes and threw it on a large flatbed truck. They shot rubber bullets at those who fought back, shooting a reported 20 people including a three-year old child who was shot three times and nearly lost his life.

With nowhere to go, 136 families carried what was left of their possessions to the street and set up tents and shacks. Despite the efforts of the City of Cape Town to move them into the nearby TRA, they set up an informal settlement on Symphony Way, forcing the government to block off the road to traffic.

The families remained on the road for 21 months, the longest running protest campaign in the history of South Africa. However, as the country prepared to host the 2010 World Cup Soccer Tournament, pressure to get the homeless off the street led to the Western Cape High Court granting an order of eviction of the Symphony Way families and forcing them to relocate to Blikkiesdorp.

Immediately, the lives of the Symphony Way families changed. They were scattered across Blikkiesdorp with thousands of other people also placed in the township.

At the age of seventeen, Badronessa's son was recruited by the Gifteds, one of the most dangerous gangs in South Africa. Badronessa's sent him to live with another family member outside of Cape Town in an attempt to save his life. "On the street, the children could be children, but here there's too many gangsters," she says. "You have to keep your eyes on your children at all times, or you will lose them. They threatened my son and it took them three days to control him."

Other families struggled to survive and to adjust to life in an area with increasing crime. Doreen Lewis, also part of the Symphony Way families lost her son to tuberculosis in 2013, a disease spread quickly through the unattended toilet facilities shared by as many as four families.

Bahiya Claasen, another member of Symphony Way, became active in the fight to persuade government to relocate her and her community after waking up one morning to find an elderly woman lying naked on the side of the road after being pulled from her house, raped and brutally abused.

"Those people (the government officials) they wouldn't let their dogs sleep in a place like this. Their dogs. No." Bahiya says as she sweeps her hand in front of her, then points to her chest with her thumb, "but us, they moved us here and left us."

"In South Africa, you have to fight for a house." Doreen says. "Even if you die tomorrow, you have to fight for a house for your children. I'm not going to give up hope. I will fight till the end but I want a house for my family."

"There's no such thing as freedom here," Bahiya says. "It's like we live in a concentration camp."


"Home, to me, is the people that are in the house."

Rosemary describes the years after she moved to Cape Town with her family as a young girl as very heavy times. She suffered a major trauma that changed her life and questioned her will to survive, however, through extraordinary circumstance she found a way to not only persevere but to spend her life giving children a second chance at life as well. Despite the hardships she faced, Rosemary became a foster mother, built a home in Khayelitsha, the second largest township in South Africa and adopted children affected by HIV and AIDS. Many of the children she adopted were given little to no chance of surviving at the time she took them in. Her most recent child came to her in a plastic shopping bag after his parents threw him in the trash. Through the help of nonprofit organizations and private donations, Rosemary has been able to build her house into a home that she hopes will continue to make a difference in her community even after she is gone.

Lucindico was a teenager living outside of Gautang when he lost his mother and his grandmother within the same year. He found himself unsure of where to go and a facing a future that many young South Africans encounter as he prepared for an unstable life on the street. Fortunately, the young man’s grandmother had a friend named Zalphina who in ran a children’s home in Cape Town. Zalphina took Lucindico in and cared for him, providing him with a family and the support he needed to stay out of trouble and finish school. Transitioning from life as an only child to one in a house of over forty children was not easy and it took time for Lucindico to feel at home. He is now enrolled at a local college and is extremely grateful for everything that Zaphina has done for him. His hope is to one-day return the favor to his adopted Mama and the family that she built.