Waiting for the state: politics of public housing in South Africa

Demand for housing in South Africa continues to outstrip supply despite the government having made more than three million houses to poor households. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

The South African Bill of Rights states that citizens have a right “to adequate housing” and that housing is a basic need. The state is obligated to take reasonable measures to realise this right, confirmed through the Constitutional Court qualification in regard to available resources.

The funding and building of more than 3 million housing units in the post-apartheid era to date reflects this national commitment. Yet, for the majority, waiting to access housing is the norm.

Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has noted that there are 2.2 million households living in 2700 informal settlements and backyard shacks across the country. As the number of households increase by 350,000 annually, the yearly delivery of 140,000 houses leaves a significant deficit.

Given these numbers, Sisulu stressed that:

Our response has been dismally slow.

The consequence of this dismally slow delivery of housing is very simple: people wait. It is a harsh, often overlooked reality, as well as an institutional and bureaucratic challenge that shapes housing politics in South Africa.

Waiting can take decades and does not guarantee access. In our research, households reported being registered for housing for as short as a few months to as long as more than 25 years, predating multiparty democracy. This means that like the 2.2 million Sisulu refers to, and many others, families across South Africa continue to wait for housing.

Precarious options

Housing options while waiting are limited and often precarious. They include:

  • Living in overcrowded conditions with family members in rented and private accommodation;

  • Making do in a backyard shack, perhaps with access to rudimentary services; or

  • Building a home in an informal settlement, which may or may not be legal, and may or may not have some services and infrastructure in place.

At a glance, applying to be on the housing database, commonly referred to as housing waiting lists, is formulaic. Applicants fill in a form and present proof of their income to be included on a register for access to state-owned rental property or to a new housing opportunity.

The latter option typically uses the one-off government capital subsidy grant that enables beneficiaries to become owners of their own home. For each of these options, there is a list of set criteria.

The integrated housing database, however, is complicated. Information on how it actually functions is not easily accessible. And, many administrative changes have been made to housing databases since the end of the apartheid in 1994. Even housing officials have also found it difficult to explain and navigate this shift from waiting lists to housing databases.

Typical houses built as part of the government’s housing programme. Pretoria News/Masi Losi

While commonsense explanations of the process were largely based on how allocation happened in the past – for instance, that houses are allocated strictly on a first-come-first-served basis – this is also no longer the case.

Housing allocation instead responds to a variety of indices in the database, such as income, the applicant’s housing area preference, the location and “catchment” for a housing project itself. Only after these criteria are considered is the applicant’s time spent waiting for housing taken into account.

In practice, families in need of housing struggle to understand the policies that regulate waiting because it is more than a matter of registering with government. It shapes families’ everyday lives and their encounters with government in the short and long term. It requires individuals to be present and accountable through registration on housing databases, part of the state’s project after apartheid.

In the meanwhile, families live precariously in environments that are often overlooked, and, sometimes targeted for eradication, by the state. Sharing experiences of waiting, families stressed instability, the challenges of having to move frequently, of not being rooted.

They spoke too of the tensions of being a dependent, feeling like a “child” in a house despite being an adult. Waiting for a long dreamed of home can be what author and academic Njabulo Ndebele describes in The Cry of Winnie Mandela as:

… a tense endlessness, where something is always about to happen.

In the context of this “permanent temporariness”, sometimes individual solutions emerge.

Legitimate yet contentious

Families sometimes take strategic decisions, moving to areas where housing developments are in process, making the most of opportunities to benefit from government housing.

Sometimes organisations representing the homeless mobilise to participate in and, at times, contest city-led housing allocation processes. Activists and community leaders keep their neighbourhood on the relevant city’s agenda, to try to ensure that the promised housing materialises.

Individual families might try to negotiate with neighbourhood housing officials. The area councillor, the elected politician, can be petitioned and bargained with, special requests sent to the city mayor.

These practices shape an everyday housing politics that is both legitimate and contentious. At times it is vigilant, mobilised and public; and, at others, more often, this politics of waiting is invisible, quiet, and private.

In the context of high levels of poverty and unemployment, and sustained and repeated promises from the state, putting yourself on the housing database remains the most probable route to obtain a formal house in the future.

In the meantime, waiting for housing is an often overlooked reality, as well as an institutional and bureaucratic challenge that underpins housing politics.