1 400 volunteers, 200 homes a week

Mona Miller’s life will change this weekend. For the first time, she will have a real roof, solid walls and glass windows. Lights will come on at the flick of a switch, water will flow from the tap and she will enjoy the dignity of a toilet.

Miller will move into her first proper home thanks to a building blitz by nearly 1 400 Irish volunteers, who completed their mission on Friday to build 200 houses in a week in the depressing and dusty — and hopelessly misnamed — Freedom Park slum.

”It’s a solid home, not something that people can drive though,” says Miller, shuddering at the memory of the drunk driver who rammed into her shack four years ago, injuring her two young children in the sprawling Cape Town suburb.

”I look forward to hearing the rain on the roof because I will no longer have to get up and put buckets underneath the holes. I’m going to close my doors and sleep for a week,” she grins, looking proudly at the builders putting finishing touches to her new mustard-coloured house.

In the biggest project yet by foreign volunteers in South Africa, the Irish bricklayers, plasterers, painters and general helpers worked to make a tiny dent in South Africa’s chronic housing crisis.

The initiative, now in its fifth year, was organised by Niall Mellon, a millionaire Irish entrepreneur who bought a holiday home near Cape Town but could not accept the squalor in the townships around the jewel in South Africa’s tourist crown.

Since the end of apartheid, the government has built more than 2,4-million homes for needy families. But millions still live in shacks, and protests against bad living conditions and lack of services erupt almost weekly.

”The difference here is that the scale of the problem is such that nobody gets the chance to catch their breath and see what’s been achieved,” says Mellon.

Housing backlog

In Cape Town alone, there is a backlog of 460 000 homes, according to mayor Helen Zille. With thousands flocking in from poor rural areas, the backlog is growing by 15 000 a year. ”We are going backward,” says Zille.

A much-vaunted plan to build houses along the highway linking the airport and the city, to replace unsightly, unsafe slums, is fraught with problems. There seems little chance the N2 Gateway Project will be finished in time for the mass influx of tourists for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Residents of completed Gateway apartments complain they are poorly built. Inhabitants of shacks that have to be demolished are even unhappier.

Protesters blockaded the highway last month in opposition to plans to move them to a township they say is too far from the city. They say they don’t believe official assurances that it is just a temporary move.

Another flagship project — to move families forced out by apartheid back into Cape Town’s vibrant District Six — also is bogged down in legal wrangling and red tape. Keys to the first homes were handed over with much fanfare in 2003, but since then only a handful of houses have been built. Elderly people driven from District Six after it was designated a whites-only neighborhood fear they will die before their new homes are built.

So local authorities embraced Mellon’s Township Trust with gusto. It now builds 20% of low-cost housing in Cape Town and has become South Africa’s biggest provider of charity housing.

Mellon wants to speed up delivery by setting up a ”super housing factory” for timber-frame homes common in North America and Europe but rare here. He reckons it could turn out 5 000 houses a year.

It’s more than just a house, insists Mellon: an impact assessment commissioned by his charity showed children living in decent conditions achieving A and B grades at school, rather than the previous Es and Fs.

Like all her neighbours, Elizabeth Vosho (38) has spent nine years in a one-room shack. It has no windows, no water, no bathroom. ”We must sit on a pot,” says Vosho. The family illegally taps electricity from a neighbour.

If the shack had proper walls, her daughter Geraldine (21) would be bouncing off them. ”Ecstatic. Fabulous. Fantastic,” she whoops when asked about her feelings. ”It’s a dream come true,” says the bubbly cashier as she grabs her guitar to entertain the army of volunteers.

Gerry Nolan has been volunteering since the project started. This year he is back with his wife, brother, two sisters and three sons. ”It’s unbelievable. People in this day and age who are living in such conditions,” he says. ”It’s enough to soften the hardest of people’s hearts.” — Sapa-AP

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