I've been thinking a lot about housing lately.
It all started with the Isandla 10th anniversary celebrations where Tokyo Sexwale, Minister of Human Settlements, spoke about his perception of the housing problems we have in this country. More importantly, he came to listen. Unlike so many of the government ministers, who arrive to drop "pearls of wisdom" and then leave in a hurry, Sexwale was very aware that the development practitioners in the room were the real experts.
“I don’t think it should come as a surprise that we are changing the way we are doing things,” Sexwale said. “We are seeing the end of denialism.
“We are looking at the situation of RDP houses that are dotting the landscape of this country: they are expensive, they take arable land, they’re ugly, they look like barracks. We take responsibility for them. We have provided unos that are worse than the Apartheid-era four roomed houses. We’ve done even less for our people. Our ministry is busy about attending to that. We need to look at other forms of housing and rented stock.”
But why are we actually providing houses for people? And are their needs really being taken into account?
At a recent meeting with Rene Moodley, a development practitioner working with the German funded Support for Local Government Programme in the Eastern Cape, I learned the importance of asking people what they want and need. In one of the areas that Rene works, for example, the men are emasculated by having the houses built for them. It is culturally important for the men to build the homes for their families.
It highlighted two things for me. One is that people need to be asked what they need, and the other is that blanket solutions are never the answer.
The work that Rene is doing centres largely around finding ways to ask the right questions so that the answers are revealing of the actual issues that the people face. I learned of a community, for example, where rows and rows of government houses had been built, but because no one had asked the old people, no one knew that the houses were directly in the path of the 50 year flood...the last one was around 48 years ago.
And I heard about the community who said that their biggest need was for a new clinic. By asking the right questions, the people who Rene had trained discovered that the need was not for a clinic at all, but for a doctor to be on duty in one of the three clinics that already served the community. Without a doctor, no prescriptions can be written.
Mokena Makeka, architect and head of the Isandla Institute Board perhaps summed the situation in South Africa up best:
“In some respects there is a poverty of imagination because we don't define space from a human perspective, but from an engineering one. We need an enabling environment where entrepreneurs, of all ages, can create their own destiny. The current status quo will not allow us to survive.
“We are creating a context where voices are being hidden. We are creating spaces where gangsterism can thrive. We need to be incorporating a clinic, a library, a market into our plans. At present development is around the containment of anger rather than the unleashing of people."