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Revamp of South Africa's largest city leaves poor battling for housing

by Gillian Parker | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 January 2017 14:00 GMT

A woman stands near squatted housing in the Central Business District of Johannesburg in this 2010 archive photo. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

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Tensions between Johannesburg's rich and poor are being strained by the government's critical neglect of low income housing, say campaigners

By Gillian Parker

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jan 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen South African street vendor Nelson Khethani was evicted from his home in downtown Johannesburg to make way for a new development, he fought a successful legal battle to ensure his family would have somewhere else to live.

Khethani, his wife and hundreds of others were relocated in 2008 to a converted former military hospital with biometric security gates, running water and 24-hour electricity - but the promise of a better life didn't last long.

Now the tower block has patchy electricity, leaking water pipes and sewage in the yard, one of many government-run buildings where conditions have deteriorated as social housing provisions fail to keep up with urban regeneration.

Campaigners argue affordable low-income housing has been a critically neglected component of urban regeneration in Johannesburg with no long-term solution in place. This is widening the divide and tensions between the rich and the poor.

"It became clear that there had been shortcuts with the plumbing and the electricity," says Khetani, flicking a broken light switch and citing a recent two month spell with no power.

"There's no proper management. We phone the city to tell them about the problems. I phone everybody. No-one wants to help. Meanwhile we pay rent. We cry every day."

Even though his previous building had lacked basic services and security of tenure, the informal arrangement had been better and more organised compared with city management, Khetani says.

Virgil James, spokesman for the City of Johannesburg said the administration is well aware of the situation but that there is simply not enough low cost housing to cope with the number of people flocking to the city in search of jobs.

He said there was "no intention" of allowing the city to "fall into private hands" but that municipalities needed to find ways to cover their costs.

"We are faced with a number of people living in dilapidated buildings with illegal water and electricity connections. This puts the city/municipality under severe strain as the city has to cover the costs that extend into millions of rand," he said.

"It will take a lot of discussion to make sure the city works for everyone ... in the meantime, the municipalities everywhere have to cover their costs. They need people to pay for the services they use or the city will deteriorate."


Johannesburg's inner city started to be neglected during the 1980s as sanctions against the apartheid government triggered an exodus of companies and wealthy residents.

"Grey zones" were established where basic utilities such as water, power and waste collection stopped. Uninhabitable areas marked by crime and decaying buildings were called "sinkholes".

Since the end of apartheid in 1991, the African National Congress-led government has pledged to transform Johannesburg and end its reputation as a haven for crime and violence.

Evictions were rife following the launch of an Inner-City Regeneration Strategy in 2003, a policy aimed at enticing investors, businesses and the middle class back to an inner-city area of nearly seven square miles (18 sq km).

Investment and regeneration gathered pace as South Africa prepared to host the 2010 soccer World Cup. Regeneration around Ellis Park stadium in the centre of the city spurred investment in affordable housing, new retail and infrastructure.

Soweto township, southwest of the city, also benefited from investment tied to renovation of the Soccer City stadium.

Since then, former sinkholes have been transformed into smart precincts with spacious apartments and trendy markets where the city's hipsters sip cocktails from jam jars.

Demand is high. A development on Eloff Street has over 300 one to two-bedroom apartments renting at $250-$365 a month, with nearby coffee shops, art galleries and stalls selling cupcakes.

For the majority whose livelihoods depend on proximity to the city, these developments are beyond reach. Half of households earn $228 a month, with 31 percent earning less than $115, according to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).

The City of Johannesburg has made some attempts to provide low-cost housing. The Johannesburg Social Housing Company (JOSHCO) is responsible for providing social accommodation to those earning between $215 to $540 a month. But this is still too expensive for most, say rights groups.

The right to housing is enshrined in South Africa's constitution and arbitrary evictions are prohibited, with the city obliged to relocate tenants facing homelessness.

But as gentrification takes root and land prices soar, families increasingly face displacement to shelters and temporary housing that cannot cater for the numbers evicted.

"The problems with housing rest on the implementation of many of the government's own policies. The ideals are there as is the capacity and the resources but there is little political will to implement," says Edward Molopi, Community Research and Advocacy Officer at SERI.


Protracted legal cases stall movement as the backlog for temporary housing mounts. The municipality is now dealing with 25 applications by developers to evict around 3,000 families.

It is estimated that some 30,000 units of accommodation are required in the short term to address the most vulnerable households, according to the municipality housing department.

"There is a tension between the municipality and the developers. The burden of the cost of evictions and relocations has to be shared," a source from the housing department told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The basic functioning of the department needs to change."

The lack of affordable rental accommodation has allowed informal settlements to flourish with people resorting to "bad" buildings that are unsafe and lack basic services. An estimated 400 buildings have been occupied illegally in the inner city.

Amos Latsoalo stands outside an occupied building on Soper Road where he and 100 others live with no power or running water. The inner city is "only for rich people", he says.

A sign at the property states that the row of houses will be demolished as they are "unsuitable for human habitation". A new residential building is to be erected in their place.

Hillbrow, the adjacent neighbourhood, is one of the most densely-populated areas in South Africa with over 74,000 people in approximately 0.3 of a square mile (1 sq km). Johannesburg prison houses about 10,000 people in a similar amount of space.

Any spare space is up for grabs. Hundreds of paper notices advertising rooms, balconies and shared beds flap against a wall known as the "post office" in Hillbrow. Misspelled notices read "1 men to share a bed plz call me", or "balcon available".

The residents of Soper Road say they don't know where they will go. Some have been promised for four years that they will be moved to temporary accommodation or social housing.

"Johannesburg is emblematic of all South African cities where you see a confluence of very complicated forces," said Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, who says relocations are trickier as the premium on space increases.

"There is a distributional problem because you are dealing with extreme inequality. You can't get regeneration off the public balance sheet. You need private investment (and)institutions."

For Khethani and other residents, the result is the sting of worsening inequality.

"Joburg has failed dismally," he said. "The idea of Johannesburg being a great city is a dream." (Reporting by Gillian Parker, Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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