Government not only failed on housing but still violates constitution

102-year-old Emily Mohapi has waited for a RDP house for more than two decades

“I just need to sleep in a house before I can die.” 

These are the words of 102 year-old, Emily Mohapi of Protea South in Soweto, City of Johannesburg (CoJ). The words have refused to leave my mind, because they remind me of how the democratic government has not only failed on its housing promises but continues to violate the constitution.

Mohapi has been waiting for her RDP house for over two decades, having applied first in 1996. The centurion, who lives with her three grandchildren in a two-room shack, is pleading for something that she should not have to ask for given our Constitution’s commitments.

Mohapi is one of the two million people who applied for an RDP house just two years after our democratic dispensation. However, she like over 1 030 099 people [just] in Gauteng continues to wait on the democratic promise of access to free housing. According to the Department of Human Settlements National Housing Needs Register, there are 2 456 773 households who are registered and awaiting housing assistance, with CoJ having about 400 361 awaiting claimants like Mohapi.

As part of its project of documenting service delivery challenges across different municipalities, the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) visited Protea South, where Mohapi lives in conditions that would be intolerable whatever her age but are especially so given her frailty.

Her shack, which serves as a bedroom, dining room, and kitchen, is dilapidated. She admitted that during the rainy season, the situation becomes worse as the roof just lets in the rain.

Mohapi’s shack represents all the empty promises that the government has failed to fulfill. The shack has visible holes in the rooftop, the corrugated sheets are rusted, and patches of sheets are falling off.

Additionally, there are big stones and car tyres on top of the roof for support against storms. The doors and floors are also broken, and Mohapi’s belongings are all squeezed together in her bedroom, where there is almost no space for her to move around. Her only wish is not to die having never slept in a proper house, the government never having realized the constitutional duty it owes her.

The community’s long legal battle with COJ

The Protea South community has been in a long court battle with the CoJ over the need to develop the area. With the assistance of law firm, Webber Wentzel, community leader Maureen Mnisi took the CoJ to court to force it to provide services to the people.

While she managed to get the court to force the municipality to provide essential services such as water and sanitation, the community continues to wait for houses.

On a recent visit it was disappointing to see that the city-provided water tanks have been placed on the surface of the pavement, where the tank taps are literally touching the surface, posing a serious hygienic problem for the residents.

The community has complained about this for years, however, the CoJ had failed to heed their pleas for the tanks to be placed in hygienic spots. The tanks are also closer to portable toilets, and one cannot miss the smell coming from the toilets.

There’s lack of political will to help the residents of Protea South

Former speaker of the CoJ council, Collen Makhubele reached out to me when I posted on social media about the sorry state of Protea South and grandmother Mohapi’s situation. However, after I had narrated all the challenges faced by the community to her, she decided to ignore my messages, displaying the attitude that has defined the CoJ officials towards the people of Protea South.

There can be no doubt that successive CoJ governments have dragged their feet over the years to provide the residents with houses.

A joint report of experts from both the city and Webber Wentzel (representing the community), which was presented before the court, found that a huge part of the area is suitable for residential development, where buildings exceeding over three storeys can be built. It therefore boggles the mind as to why the government had dismally failed the residents of Protea South.

What is the way forward?

Section 27 (1) read with (2) of the constitution is unambiguous in stating that “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing” and that “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of this right.”

The CoJ, working with the provincial and national human settlement departments must fulfil their constitutional obligations and provide the people of Protea South with houses as a matter of urgency. It cannot be right that the most vulnerable in our society, like Mohapi, must live in such a sorry state after almost 30 years of democratic rule.

Additionally, the CoJ government must also be open to public-private partnerships on infrastructure development since it is failing on its own. The private sector has shown its willingness to collaborate with the government, and it is up to the CoJ to foster such relations to deliver houses to its most vulnerable residents such as Mohapi.

However, I strongly believe that the private sector will only be interested in working with the city if it first sorts out its governance issues and maintains its leadership stability.

Finally, it will be shameful of any political party to go to Protea South to campaign for votes ahead of the 2024 elections if they do not come up with a solid plan, funding, and timelines on how they will provide the people with houses.

This article was originally published in

Ezekiel Kekana is a researcher at HSF.