Ridiculous complexity of housing in South Africa

Thembisa Maso in front of her incomplete house. Photo by Mary-Anne Gontsana.

Mary-Anne Gontsana

21 November 2012

Millions of South Africans at the end of apartheid dreamed of living in a house one day. This was the hope offered by the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Eighteen years later there has been progress. The Department of Housing says that over 3 million houses have been built sheltering over 13 million people. But there is a terribly long way to go.

Census 2011 shows that about 2 million households are shacks. That’s about 14% of households. In the Western Cape 18% of households are informal. The province has a backlog of about 500,000 houses according to the Provincial Department of Human Settlements. Many people on waiting lists have no realistic hope of ever getting their promised homes.

For the last two months I have tried to understand the housing system, how houses are allocated and financed. It is ridiculously complicated and even now I do not claim to understand properly how it works. That complexity is a big part of the problem. Many people who are in line to get a house, or who think they are in line to get a house, are left confused by they system or taken for a ride by people who understand the system a little better than them. I have seen how houses are built and left unfinished and how this results in them being vandalised or people illegally occupying them. I have also met people who have waited for a decade for their house to be finished. I have spoken to women who were wrongly under the impression they were about to get a house, but instead their shacks that they currently live in have been relocated to other areas.

To qualify for a house or housing subsidy, you have to be a citizen over 18 and earn no more than R3,500 per month. You can only receive the subsidy once. Millions of people qualify. The government, both nationally and provincially, is unable to meet the high demand for houses. This leads to problems, such as potential beneficiaries fighting with each other to move higher on lists, battles over moving people who don’t qualify to new land so that houses can be built where they currently live and people illegally moving into houses they don’t own, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

I tell the story here of three people who have struggled to get a decent house. Their stories give some idea of how difficult and complicated the current system is.


Former Gugulethu resident, Nobantu (she didn’t want to give her surname) was a beneficiary in a housing project. She put her name down for a home in 1996. But she eventually received the keys to her home in December 2010. “I was a backyarder in Gugulethu and I heard from a family member about houses that would be built here and in Eerste Rivier as part of a government project called Our Pride. I went to put my name down because I needed a house and I fitted the requirements,” said Nobantu. Though there were allegations of corruption surrounding the project, such as people who were not beneficiaries receiving homes and scuffles amongst Gugulethu and Eerste Rivier residents, Nobantu eventually did get her home, but only 14 years after she applied.

“I moved into this house urgently after I was told that there are other people who were trying to move into it illegally. I live with my daughter and grandchild, I am happy to have a house but I feel as though it was a rush job when it was built. The roof and pipes leak, my floor is skew and I have found that some of our keys work with the locks of the other houses. I have reported these things, but it seems that I will ultimately have to find money to fix the problems myself,” explains Nobantu.


At one point Sizeka wanted to tell her story to GroundUp, but then she became reluctant. I have therefore changed her name. She lives in Crossroads and applied for her house nearly two years ago. She received a long and complicated document from the provincial government. It is not written in a way that most people, including me, could understand [The GroundUp Editor can neither understand it - Editor]. It appears to be a printout from a spreadsheet or database. The document states that she is approved for a R55,000 subsidy. But there are no details on when the house will be delivered.

Sizeka understood the document to mean that she would get the house soon, but this is not what has happened.

Instead, she received a letter a few weeks ago from a company called Vula Joint Venture. It has a promising start:

You are hereby being informed that your housing subsidy application for a house in the Boys Town Housing Project, submitted to the Provincial Department of Human Settlements, has been successful. [Grammar and spelling as in the original]

But then there’s disappointment:

Due to limited housing that can be constructed at Boys’ Town and surplus beneficiaries approved; you will be duly informed if you have been allocated a house. [Grammar and spelling as in the original]

Then comes the real purpose of the letter. It informs her “for the final time” that her shack must be relocated. Transportation to help with the move is promised.

Then it gets rude:

The relocations … will commence within 7 days of you receiving this letter. Should you not take up this opportunity for relocation, PDHS [Provincial Department of Human Settlements] has no other alternative but to proceed with legal action against you leading to eviction.

The letter is unsigned. It ends “We hope this meets with your approval. Yours faithfully VULA JOINT VENTURE”. It is impersonal and it contains a legal threat.

Sizeka is moving her shack this week. When she will get a house is anybody’s guess.

An update on Thembisa Maso’s story

Four months ago GroundUp ran a story about KTC resident Thembisa Maso. Maso is a beneficiary of a housing project in Nyanga. She said she has been waiting for her house to be completed since 2001. She was part of the Masizakhe People’s Housing Process project. She says she was part of the project which was approved in 2001. Two hundred and fourteen houses were supposed to be built in total but more than 50 were left unfinished. Some residents finished the houses themselves with their own money. The houses, situated in the Nyanga area, are hollow structures made with grey bricks, with frames for the doors and windows, and no roofs.

Since our original article, Maso’s situation has not improved. She told me, “We want to know what is happening with the project. I live behind my unfinished house in a shack with two of my children. I had to send my other child to live with my sister because we suffer in this shack during winter when it rains. A while ago a man named Giovanni came to inspect the houses. He then brought Kate Jambela to finish the job and he left. But Kate has not done anything. When I try and contact her, the call does not go through.”

Kate Jambela of Jambela Construction confirmed this and said she was indeed working with Giovanni who was an official from the provincial housing department. Jambela claims that the provincial department of housing owes her R5.7 million for various housing projects. Jambela is an urban developer and started her construction company in 2004. Jambela Construction do not get housing contracts directly from the state. Instead the housing department has a contract with the community through the People’s Housing Process (PHP) who in turn contract Jambela. Prospective contractors present to a panel on why they should be awarded the contract and the community members vote for who they want.

Jambela works in Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga and Mfuleni. She employs 125 people. “The biggest problem we have is that our housing contracts are continuously incorrect. For example we are busy now with a contract in Nyanga and already in 2009 we told the department and kept them abreast that this specific group would require a specific foundation type. The department agreed to provide the funding for it. It’s already 2012 now and nothing has been done,” said Jambela. “Today is the first time they are coming to do the site evaluations,” she continued.

Jambela gave me very specific details about Maso’s situation. She explained, “I was the contractor. At the time these houses were left unfinished, the department approved 150. We advised the department in a letter that there are at least 67 more [than the 150 houses we were contracted to build.] Thembisa Maso was in that 67. So the department said we should finish the 150 and then put in an application for the [remaining] 67.” Jambela explained that her company was not given enough money by the department to finish building the remaining 67 houses. “We completed the 150 houses. We put in an application for the 67 and the official, John Thabata, said no, the project was closed and they could not consider more people. As much as we provided proof, as much as I had written to everyone, they refused.”

Bruce Oom is the spokesman for Western Cape Human Settlements Minister Bonginkosi Madikizela. He explained that community members who belong to the PHP elect what is called a Project Steering Committee (PSC), also sometimes called the support organisation. The PSC then chooses the contractors. He explained that the PHP was designed to empower communities. The way it is supposed to work is awarding work to builders and other suppliers and then managing them is done by the community through a PSC. The PSC receive money from the housing department to pay contractors.

He explained, however, that in many situations, the PSCs choose contractors or suppliers corruptly or who cannot deliver. Sometimes the support organisation is not able to fairly represent communities or they “try to manipulate aspects of the housing process.” Oom says that because of these bad experiences, the housing department now takes a greater role in appointing and managing contractors.

The provincial housing department’s Director of Regional Support, Kelly Theunis, confirmed that the provincial department does not enter into any contracts with Jambela Construction. “As Ms Jambela correctly stated she is and was appointed by the support organisation in these projects. She then concludes agreements with the support organisation to build on their behalf. These contracts are however not administered by us and used to happen outside of our processes.”

Theunis sent GroundUp a copy of an example of a contract that a contractor concludes with a support organisation. Attempts to get a copy of a contract from Kate Jambela, have so far been unsuccessful. She has stopped responding to my calls.

Ooms said that a company called Bazi Professional Resource Team has been appointed by the province to assess the Nyanga project Jambela is working on. “At this stage it’s important to allow [Bazi] to complete its investigation and produce a report with recommendations for the way forward, which may very well include dealing with Ms Jambela. With regards to Ms Maso, we can confirm that a subsidy amount of R9,775 was approved in 2001, and paid to the Masiphumele Housing Association (the accounts administrator) for a top structure for Maso. At this stage we are waiting on further information to determine if the money was paid out by the accounts administrator to a contractor for work completed, or whether the money was returned to the Department.”

In a recent article on GroundUp, Jambela was accused of exploiting her employees who are immigrants for the past four years. They claimed that they were dismissed without being paid their wages.

“As a builder, sometimes I go to companies and I negotiate facilities and materials, and I will sit down with my labour and say, ‘Can we finish these houses for these people whilst we are waiting for the department to solve the problem.’ Inevitably we end up being out of profit. So we end up finishing work but we are not paid, then we can’t pay our labour, then we can’t pay the company, but the department hasn’t resolved the contracts, hasn’t resolved the issue. The problem rests with the department to conclude these things,” explained Jambela.

She said they were slowly receiving money for the company and were paying people who needed to be paid. “People think that I have money and [that I am] keeping it for myself. Right now I am in debt as well, I have borrowed money from a bank and there is a possibility that I might lose my house. It is not like I am not paying my employees because I do not want to.”

The different housing mechanisms

The PHP is by no means the only state housing mechanism. Oom explained that there are other mechanisms for providing houses to people living in shacks in the Western Cape:

Oom said that the state used to provide a subsidy of about R7,000 for a house. This was meant to be a starter structure until people could afford to build a better house. The programme has changed over the years and now the aim is to deliver a quality house. The current subsidy levels are approximately R100,000 per house. Oom says the purpose is, “to give people an asset that would increase in value over time, or which they could pass onto their children.”

Housing everyone in the next few decades will be impossible. Organisations like the Social Justice Coalition have emphasised the need to provide services to informal settlements including decent toilets and water. The province also appears to think this is the way to go. Oom says the department is now focusing on providing everyone living in informal settlements with clean running water and proper sewage systems by 2014.

While millions of people have undoubtedly benefited from the state’s housing programme, for people like Nobantu, Sizeka and Thembisa Maso, getting a decent house continues to be a struggle filled with disappointments.