Tackling the Western Cape’s housing problem, shack by shack

The roof leaks. There is no ventilation. Some of the many holes are awkwardly sealed with pieces of wood. There is no place to study, read or write. When you enter the shack, you walk into the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom — where the family of five sleeps on one bed. 

Calvin Coetzee, 32, describes the former backyard dwelling he shared with his wife and three children in Kleinvlei, Cape Town. He is one of the thousands of backyard dwellers who attempt to move to a better place, register on the city’s housing database or, like many, finally give up. 

“When Covid-19 struck, it hit us all,” says Coetzee, who lost his job after working in the hospitality sector for 10 years. Fortunately, Coetzee and Quinton Adams, the founder of the nonprofit organisation The Shackbuilder, met soon after Coetzee lost his income. 

Before long, Coetzee began to assist Adams in rebuilding shacks in Cape Town and its surrounds. He now works at The Shackbuilder full time. When Adams realised the circumstances in which Coetzee lived he decided to rebuild his home as well. 

“It’s on the exact same spot, but it’s more spacious with better ventilation,” says Coetzee. “[It also has] more beds,” he adds.  

“The informal housing sector is an enormous problem in our area and the Western Cape. There are places where five to six shacks are erected in one yard. Families all use the same toilet and water tap. It affects their dignity to a very great extent,” Coetzee says.  

The unemployment rate in the Western Cape is 29%. Impoverished communities are on the rise and housing challenges remain a major concern. 

“If we can train more shack builders and they can deliver services in the community, it will be beneficial for two reasons. One, they can help improve people’s quality of life and secondly, help fight the unemployment rate,” Coetzee says. 

He believes The Shackbuilder can contribute towards creating jobs. 

He recalls the day when the team asked five “corner boys” — who are generally perceived as petty criminals — to accompany them to break down a shack, clean it up and build a new one. 

Within this alternative learning space, previously unemployed boys with few skills were taught how to build a shack, put in windows and doors, build a roof and calculate costs.

Calvin noted the change in the boys as their attitude of despair turned into hope. They now have something to look forward to: with the building skills they have learned, they can earn some money to buy food to take home. 

“They are now employable. They can now ask for work and offer a skill to do it,” says Coetzee.

From March this year, The Shackbuilder is launching its training institute, called the Backyard Varsity. It aims to train 12 youths a month in how to build shacks. 

“We are going to pick them from the back streets, where the backyard will be the varsity and the shack, the curriculum,” Adams says.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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