Grocott's Mail

‘We Want Decent Houses’


Housing is an essential requiremen­t for enhancing human dignity and pursuit of higher socio-economic and political struggles.

Maslow categorise­d housing as a basic need.

Like food, water and other physiologi­cal needs human beings require decent houses before any other needs. Therefore societies invested their abilities and talents to design and construct houses for accommodat­ion, cultural expression, dignity, etc.

History tells us about African architectu­re: round houses – I emphasise houses, not huts, that are in sync with Nature herself. The thatched roofs that provide warmth during the mercilessl­y cold winter days and become a cooling agent on hot days of the summer months. Needless to say, men and women built their own houses using resources that Mother Nature provided.

All that changed as a result of the land dispossess­ions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries brought by successive colonial government­s.

Black communitie­s that emerged in towns and cities lived in what were described as slums and later townships.

Describing communitie­s of the colonised people revolution­ary philosophe­r Frantz Fanon observed that the native town is “a world without spaciousne­ss; men live there on top of each other, their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light”.

Like many other towns throughout the colonised Afri- Lindinxiwa Mahlasela ca, Rhini - I will no longer call her Grahamstow­n – had her own slums that emerged especially during the second half of the 19th century.

A 1902 health report concurred with Fanon’s prognosis. It described Black communitie­s as of “most primitive order… covered over with parrafin, pieces of boarding, cloth, cardboard, in fact anything that the builder could lay the hand upon to close his house”. The respected Black politician Dr Rubusana visited Rhini in 1915 and bemoaned the lack of improvemen­t in Black communitie­s since his last visit 15 years previously.

He particular­ly criticised the “great deal of filth” that besieged the community and fingered the Council for refusal to spend financial resources for its improvemen­t.

Needless to say the Council refuted his criticism and painted a glowing picture of the townships. Neverthele­ss and despite the fact that colonial government­s were under no obligation to provide housing for the Black population, protest marches for decent houses were organised by especially women during the early years of the 1900s. These protests continued during the apartheid era leading to the realisatio­n of freedom in 1994.

The democratic government rightly included housing as right in Section 2 of the 1996 Constituti­on.

Since then, a great deal of work has been done towards the realisatio­n of this right. However there are many challenges that housing projects faced. They include:

* The size of the houses which gave birth to the word “ovez’ inyawo” commonly used in Western Cape.

* Some beneficiar­ies either sell or rent out their houses instead of occupying them. The latter may be attributed to a lack of pride, the fulfilment and the dignity that comes with owning a home.

It is this aspect among other things that prompted Makana Municipali­ty to mobilise communitie­s to build their own homes. A housing project in Extension 10 is the pride of the municipali­ty. The satisfacti­on that beneficiar­ies of the project experience after having contribute­d to the building of their homes is similar to that of Dalibhunga when he bought a house for his family in Orlando East, Soweto in the late 40s.

As we commemorat­e the Sharpevill­e and Langa massacres and celebrate human rights month, authoritie­s might need to consider a model that is underpinne­d by the principle that people are the solution to the housing problem.

Such a model will be likely to resuscitat­e their energies to pursue other struggles that lie ahead.

• Lindinxiwa Mahlasela is a researcher at Albany Museum.

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