A roof of one's own

Free government houses suffering from construction faults are at last being repaired or demolished and rebuilt. This rectification process is under way in two provinces and is being planned for the rest of the country. “Where we find that there’s a fault and that it’s due to the contractor we force him to go back,” Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told the Mail & Guardian this month.

In a wide-ranging interview she reviewed progress on housing delivery since she took office in 2004, commenting on overall delivery as well as on specific flashpoints such as the N2 Gateway project in the Western Cape.

The government has provided 2,6-million houses since 1994, but complaints about poor quality have been prolific. Sisulu said she felt comforted by the progress she saw in housing delivery, but that the challenges her ministry faces “have been particularly bruising. It’s not nice to wake up and think ‘I’m doing this for the people’ and the feedback you get is the protesters.”

Since 2006 the housing department has worked with the Special Investigating Unit to trace unscrupulous contractors who, if found guilty of shoddy construction, are required either to repair faults or to return government money.

If a construction company refuses to rectify its sub-standard work, it is blacklisted and denied any further government contracts, Sisulu said.

About 60% of low-cost houses in the Western Cape had serious defects. The defects included severe cracks in walls and foundations, leaking roofs and windows and doors that did not function properly. Dampness was found in nearly half the houses audited.

Sisulu noted that many houses found to be faulty were built between 1994 and 2002—before the introduction of the National Home Builders Registration Council building standards. Since 2002 the council has been responsible for ensuring the quality of government-built houses.

The rectification process is under way in Khahlamba, Ugie and Zanemvula in the Eastern Cape. In the Western Cape it includes the Delft part of the N2 Gateway project as well the N2 Gateway’s phase 1 project next to the Joe Slovo settlement.

Prince Xhanti Sigcawu, general manager of Thubelisha Homes—which is responsible for houses in both provinces—confirmed that the rectification process involves several construction companies subcontracted by Thubelisha. He said the faults being addressed included poor workmanship, roofs that are easily blown away by wind and walls built with an inappropriate mixture of cement and sand.

The rectification process will be extended to other provinces. A turnaround team led by the housing department’s director general, Itumeleng Kotsoane, is driving the project. “We concede that some of those houses did not bring dignity to our people,” Kotsoane said. Temporary shelters will be provided for people whose houses are being fixed or rebuilt.

But the biggest challenge to housing delivery continues to be the backlog in delivery, Sisulu told the M&G. The Housing Department has spent more than 90% of this year’s R10,6-billion budget, but Sisulu has since last year pleaded for a one-off rescue package of R26-billion from the treasury.

However, the government would spend more money on rectifying faults arising from poorly built houses than it had previously. Kotsoane said provinces are now allowed to spend 10% of their budget on this.

Regarding delivery, Sisulu noted that the Cabinet has in principle approved proposals to authorise municipalities to drive the process of building houses, a responsibility that is in the hands of the national housing department. But the ministry is unwilling to implement the proposals in cases where municipalities are not adequately capacitated.

“The reason blocked projects [incomplete houses] exist is that some of them were done by municipalities that lacked the capacity to complete them. If we get to a stage where that capacity is proved to exist, I’m sure municipalities will be given that function,” she said.

Sisulu also spoke about protests by residents in the past year in the Joe Slovo settlement near Cape Town who have demanded houses from the government in the expectation of being accommodated by the N2 Gateway’s phase 1 project.

The government offers people a number of tenure options. Sisulu said these options were explained to shack dwellers in Cape Town, but that people’s impatience and hunger for housing had driven them to rush into occupying rental flats. “When you see somebody receiving a house you become impatient—you’re like, when do I get mine?” she said.

People think they automatically qualify for free houses, she said. The government’s priority is to house the elderly, child-headed households, the disabled and people who have been on the housing list the longest.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge


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