To the Community of Masiphumelele, our neighbours in the valley, the board of Amakhaya ngoku, the leaders in Masi and the officials in the Housing departments of the City and Province. Please read this so that you can not later say you did not know.

Amakhaya ngoku Housing Project needs support or might collapse soon !

When in October 2006 all 400 shacks at the informal settlement School Site in Masiphumelele burnt down in one night, it was a small group of residents from this area who met for several weeks with Fish Hoek architect John Shaw and myself to find a better solution than to rebuild the disaster area with so called starter kits again and again after each fire.

In the beginning it seemed to be an impossible task: No money, no plans, no support from officials. But with a mixture of hope and stubbornness a small group of activists from inside and outside of Masi achieved over by now five years that plans were made, that government subsidies were released and private donations were collected, that 80 procent of the School Site residents moved peacefully to a Temporary Relocation Area (TRA) and a team of professionals was appointed.

Out of 12 planned blocks of flats six have been completed for more than 172 families. The movement of the first 30 families to the first block in September 2009 was hugely celebrated with the MEC for Housing and the then Mayor of Cape Town. It was broadcasted on national SABC TV news and we received congratulations from as far as the Eastern Cape.

Of course, there is no development without conflict.  The 20 percent of School Site residents who refused to move although endless community meetings were held to offer them alternative equal accommodation (which they also refused) caused not only huge delays for construction, but also unacceptable amounts of legal fees to fight for the rights of those waiting on the TRA.  Then some board members accepted people on the waiting list who have never been School Site residents against illegal payments which caused a serious internal conflict and at the end the collapse of the first democratically elected board.

Still, the professionals kept working and the fundraiser made sure that there were enough donations to allow the release of the matching government subsidy. A new board was elected by all beneficiaries (those in the flats and those on the TRA), but from on now each move to another block of flats was contested, partly violently, as always some questioned whether those allowed to move are those in the correct order of the waiting list. From on then the board asked representatives of the beneficiaries to correct the list. But this again was not accepted by others. For the first time a lack of strong leadership became a visible problem.

This worsened when a small group of those who had the privilege to move first into the flats refused to pay rent although they have the means to do so. From day one everybody who is poor because he or she is permanently sick, unemployed or old can apply for rental relief. The condition for the government subsidy is that a modest monthly rent of R 400.- needs to be paid over 4 years for a three room and solar heated flat (40 m2) before you become the owner of this flat which is valued at present at around R 150.000. 

Everybody who moved into a flat had to demolish his/her shack on the TRA (to make space for a future phase 4 land government housing project) and to sign a contract which was explained always in isiXhosa and English to be in agreement with these conditions. Nobody was ever forced to move into a flat.  In fact, we receive every month hundreds of requests by other desparate people who need a house whether how they could have a flat for such a modest rent. But we can’t allow any of them as they are not on the School Site waiting list.

With many home visits, letters and more the board tried to convince those in arrears to pay the rent as this is the crucial condition to make the project sustainable, simply also to pay for maintenance, for the small admin office and water and electricity. Legally there was no way to force them to pay the rent. When more and more residents decided (or were partly also blackmailed) not to pay rent anymore, the board took the painful and again extremely costly decision to apply at the court for eviction towards those who did not pay any rent from day one. This process dragged on for more than a year until all options to appeal were exhausted.

Finally the court granted evictions for 21 flat residents which was executed on 20 September this year. After a certain level of violence and several death threats, the maiority of the board agreed to allow the evictees back in the flats under the condition that they make an upfront payment of R 600 and sign to continue to pay their rent properly from on now.  A minority of board members disagreed, one board member resigned. The 21 families moved back into their flats.

One month later again seven out of the 21 stopped paying rent without any consequences although board members and some community leaders had told them that those who will pay no rent again will be evicted without legal procedure (“as the druglords”).  To date out of 172 beneficiaries in the flats only 30 have paid their rent fully. 31 families are on rental relief. The rest did not pay or stopped paying rent after a while.

The project is still running on the few remaining donations. Contracts with most professionals, even with the project manager, had to be cancelled recently.  Two more blocks of flats for another 60 families are ready for occupation before Christmas. But again, some question the correctness of the list of approved beneficiaries and accuse the earlier democratically elected board members from Masi to favour certain people. This situation is escalating at present.

The protesters (most of them beneficiaries from the flats not those waiting on the TRA – some of them do not pay rent themselves) have now locked the modest office with a chain so that no more admin work can be done since yesterday.  They demand to speak to the remaining board members who refuse to talk to them, not accepting to be more threatened.

The only person still working on site at Amakhaya ngoku at present, next to the few remaining security and maintenace staff members and the accountant, is architect John Shaw (75) with suppoprt by electrician Rob Hughes in order to complete the two blocks for occupation. 

This is were we are now.

The housing officials have informed the community that no government phase 4 housing development on the TRA (which is more than half vacant soon) will start unless Amakhaya ngoku will have completed its promised 12 blocks of flats. Most professionals have left the project and the donors, mostly from Europe, will only continue to support once the present conflicts are solved and also wealthy South Africans do their bit. The “land use agreement” with the government demands from Amakhaya ngoku “to return the land and all its assets” if the project can’t be completed.

Those thousands of waiting for houses as backyarders and in the Wetlands of Masiphumelele keep hoping that an “Amakhaya ngoku miracle” (as still some call it despite all the trouble) might also happen to them after many government promises never came true.  So, do we keep watching how this once called “role model for housing in South Africa” will collapse in front of our eyes ?

 There might be a small last chance if the Masi community leaders of the backyarders and the wetland residents intervene and moderate between the present board and the protesters (and no rent payers) to convince them to work together again and stop threatening or ignoring each other.  And if our councillors and the housing officials don’t keep blaiming Amakhaya ngoku for all its short comings, but also see the potential of allowing finally government housing development to happen. This would take at least some of the continous pressure off from Amakhaya ngoku as the first housing project ever in Masi addressing the poorest of the poor in one of our informal settlements. 

 It is not nothing that the informal settlement School Site has been turned into a beautiful area of flats with proper streets with lights and trees and even a community hall.  Let us never forget how easy it is to destroy a house, but how difficult to build one.

 Dr Lutz van Dijk

Voluntary fundraiser to Amakhaya ngoku