A mixed masala future

As the dust settles on a free and fair fourth national election it’s all eyes on the Union Buildings, where President Jacob Zuma will be inaugurated on June 9. What does the future hold? The Mail & Guardian‘s team looks at everything from policy changes to taking the pulse of political thinkers across the spectrum. First, take a trip with us to Cosmo City, the future perfect of housing policy.
Or is it?

Karabo Keepile takes a surreal trip through Cosmo City

On a recent Thursday afternoon I made my way on foot to Tennessee, by way of Ghana, via the Bahamas. It took me 20 minutes. No cosmic travel, just a stroll through Cosmo City the Gauteng housing department’s “star” mixed development project.

In Cosmo City the street names give away your economic status. The low-income (RDP) houses are in “Africa”, in streets called Tanzania, Swaziland and Luanda. But if you can afford a bonded or semi-bonded house, you can migrate sans passport to the “United States”.

For Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Cosmo City is more like the New Jerusalem: a symbol of Rainbow Nationhood. Sisulu feels that mixed housing projects like these “dispel the myth that the poor can’t live near the rich”. The housing minister was giving her Angolan counterpart a helicopter tour of Gauteng’s mixed development success stories when she made this remark. “We need to do away with the racially segregated residential areas inherited from the past, so that in future we have residents of South Africa,” she told him.

Back on the ground, I met Ntombifuthi Nyushimani, who is already “a resident of South Africa”. To prove it, she lives in South Africa Drive, where she shares a two-bedroom RDP house with her older sister, Busisiwe, and mother, Gloria. Previously they lived in Zevenfontein informal settlement.

“We live nicely here,” says Nyushimani, briskly rinsing the family washing in a blue bucket outside in the garden. She remembers that there wasn’t much water in Zevenfontein. Or electricity either.

The RDP houses in Cosmo City may all look the same, but people have made them their own. The flowers are watered and the grass is manicured. Some even talk of “extending”, despite the restricted stand size. Over on Ghana Crescent, Khabane Sehlabaka lives with his grandmother. He’s an aspirant musician and his practice sessions can be heard as far away as “Tanzania”. The very same keyboard-playing fingers helped build Cosmo City’s low-income section. This is something Sehlabaka is proud of. “I’m grateful to our government for providing us with shelter and jobs,” he says.

Surprisingly, Sehlabaka doesn’t really object to Cosmo City’s boom gates—which are found everywhere except in the RDP section. “We didn’t buy the RDP houses, so I don’t mind if we don’t have tight security. If I were rich I’d probably want a boom gate too,” he tells me.

According to some of Cosmo City’s better-off residents the boom gates are essential for security. Thabile Diseko lives somewhere in the middle of all this, as he rents a room in Extension Seven. He finds mixed housing “confusing”, but is sure of one thing: class segregation is still alive and well. “There’s tension among people in the taxis,” he says. “When someone says ‘I’m getting off at Extension Five’, people who are going to the RDPs look at them funny.”

If Khanyisa Phillips took a taxi, she’d be getting some of the funny looks. Phillips lives on Alabama Street in Extension Five. Here the houses are large and modern. ADT security signs proliferate and DStv is the norm. Phillips says her sister bought the three-bedroom, pastel-coloured house in 2007 and they’ve been living here ever since. “I don’t like this mixed thing, it’s all mixed masala,” she says. Phillips, like many of the residents, complains of burglaries and the lack of shops, clinics and petrol stations. “It’s unfair because we paid a lot for these houses,” she says.

Cecelia Nyasulu used to live in Extension Five. That’s before “they stole everything but my sofas”. Now she lives in Extension Zero. She and her two sons, husband and brother share a cosy two-bedroom house in New Hampshire Street. Her 10-year-old travels all the way to Lanseria every morning, instead of attending Cosmo Primary School, which is close by and free. “In the mornings you’ll see the children outside [the school gates], fighting and just playing around,” Nyasulu says.

But she still prefers to stay in Cosmo City. When she lived in a complex in Fourways “neighbours would complain about noise, because my husband likes to play music”. For Nyasulu, having a house of “her own” is what counts.

In all this cosmic confusion it’s only fair to end with a real American. Chrissy Davies is—actually—from Oregon (no quotation marks needed). The African-American is married to a white South African and they’ve been living in Cosmo City since January. Davies likes it here and, although she’s a newcomer, she is already familiar with the politics. The high-rise walls make her “uncomfortable”, but she understands why they are needed. She doesn’t get the reasoning behind the street names, though, even if they do make her feel like she’s back home. “It just creates division where there could be unity,” she says.

Cosmo City facts

  • The city of Johannesburg owns the land where Cosmo City is built.

  • Contractors started construction at Cosmo City in February 2005 and the first beneficiaries moved in on November 7 2005.

  • Once Cosmo City is complete there will be 12 325 houses, catering for the different income groups.

  • Of the 5 000 low-income houses 3 700 have been occupied—these are free RDP houses given to people who meet government criteria.

  • There will be a total of 2 965 finance-linked houses (income under R10 000 a month) of which 1 003 are constructed and occupied—these houses are partially subsidised by government, in partnership with the banks.

  • The first 281 of the 1 000 rental units should be occupied by October 2009. These are also subsidised by government and, once completed, they will be managed by the Johannesburg Housing Company.

  • Of the 3 360 bonded houses (sold on the open market, generally to an income group of plus R20 000/month) 3 021 have been occupied.

  • It is anticipated that all the housing units will be complete by the end of 2010.

  • Work is under way in areas such as Pennyville—(2 800 housing units), Chief Albert Luthuli Ext 6 (5 389 housing units), Olivenhoutbosch Ext 36 (4 452 units), Thorntree View (17 000 units), Cosmo City (14 800 units), K206 in Alexandra (3 199 units), Doornkop in Soweto (24 100 units), Chief Mogale in Kagiso (9 315 units) and Middelvlei in Mohlakeng (3 495 units).

  • In KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town projects are under way in Blythedale and the N2 Gateway respectively.

  • Once planning processes have been completed the department plans to move into areas such as Lady Selbourne (6 000 units), Danville (2 000 units) and Willows (10 977 units).

Keeping house
Property in Cosmo City (approximate prices):

  • Two bedroom, two bathroom house: R430 000;

  • Three bedroom, two bathroom: between R500 000 and R650 000; and

  • Two bedroom, one bathroom: R380 000.

Renting in Cosmo City:

  • Two bedroom, one bathroom: R3 900 a month;

  • Three bedroom, two bathroom:R4 000 a month; and

  • One room: R1 500 a month.

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