It is impossible for government to address SA’s housing crisis on its own. We need a carefully structured, co-ordinated approach by both the public and private sectors


Housing and homelessness are challenges almost everywhere in the world. The reasons for the lack of affordable housing are numerous – ranging from the consequences of war to individual issues affecting society. Mainly it is the consequence of the lack of earning power, often caused by inequalities in society, such as in education and skills as well as opportunity. There can be no question that decent housing must be a right. Housing should also be based on ownership as it gives individuals a stake in the country’s economy.

A significant lack of housing leads to civil and political instability. In SA, housing, or rather lack of it, has increasingly become a political hot potato and a cause of civil unrest. The issue has been exacerbated by the fact that apartheid policies were based on keeping black people out of the major urban areas and effectively banning them to what were called the ‘homelands’ – areas of little opportunity. Since 1994 there has been a massive migration to the cities of rural people seeking a better life. ANC research at the time of the first democratic elections listed the demand for housing as one of the major requirements of the broad electorate. The new government launched, with great fanfare, its Reconciliation and Development Programme to address the housing demands. It started off well under the eye of then Minister of Housing Joe Slovo.

Unfortunately, the government’s housing programme has continued to fail to deliver on the scale required, because of factors such as corruption – from outright theft to shoddily built homes – and the lack of private-sector financing.

It is not that nothing has been done. A lot has been done. Although the causes are substantially different, it would not be unfair to compare the housing crisis in SA to that of Europe after World War II where the devastation in both the countries of the victors and the vanquished left millions without homes.

In SA there are millions demanding housing but they face years on waiting lists while living in the ever-growing informal housing settlements that have sprung up around all the major cities. Then there are those in the lower-income groups who do not qualify for government assistance but also find it almost impossible to qualify for private-sector home loans.

The countries of Europe launched massive housing programmes after the war ended in 1945. Housing was made the priority. These programmes delivered the much-needed housing but had additional benefits, including the creation of jobs for returning soldiers; the stimulation and growth of the many industries associated with housing, from the provision of everything from bricks and mortar to taps and gas fittings; the upgrading and provision of new infrastructure; and providing a sustainable impetus for the economies of the countries, helping to avoid the repeated economic recessions and depressions that followed World War I, which in turn contributed to the next war.

Housing must be the number one priority in SA. The benefits would be even greater than those in post-war Europe. One of the often-forgotten debilitating effects of apartheid was job reservation where skilled jobs were held for white people. The consequence was that generations of black people have been deprived of training as well as a strong core platform of mentors. Any housing scheme must be accompanied by a properly structured, extensive on-the-job training programme, with the aim of providing formal qualifications.

The housing crisis is so significant that it is impossible for government to address it on its own. It is complex and requires enormous resources. Issues such as a banking industry that finds it can lend in the high-risk, unsecured loans market but is far more cautious about home loans to the low and lower-middle income groups, is just one of the many complicated issues.

Housing is a space for government/private partnerships. Such partnerships can assist in a wide range of housing challenges from identifying land to providing infrastructure through to financing start-up building companies and training facilities. At the moment there seems to be very little co-ordinated co-operation between government and the private sector, with pockets of outstanding success but also failures and voids.

A carefully considered and clearly defined programme is required, allocating responsibilities to both government and the private sector if the growing civil unrest over housing is to be resolved.

It may be time for the resurrection by the private sector of something akin to the former Urban Foundation, which in co-operation with government and particularly its Independent Development Trust, could help drive a massive urban and rural housing initiative. It is definitely time for the private sector to approach government to consider how it can effectively help.

By Bruce Cameron
Image: Clinton Prins