Freedom Park gives ANC ironic test over housing

August 05, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

FREEDOM PARK, South Africa -- What South Africa's new government has to decide is if Willie Dhlamini and his band of pioneers from the back yards of Soweto are part of the problem or part of the solution to this country's massive housing shortage.

In February, Mr. Dhlamini, a 34-year-old who displays a combination of solid education and streetwise savvy, led some 1,200 families out of their backyard shacks onto several nearby acres which, despite paved roads and water lines, had lain dormant for years.

In Soweto, these people usually paid about $20 a month for the privilege of living piled on top of one another in someone's back yard. In this new settlement, about a half-mile from Soweto, they laid out 60-foot by 60-foot plots.

They started in those warm months living in tents made from plastic bags. Some tents remain, but by the time the colder weather came, most people had built more substantial dwellings.

Mr. Dhlamini painted his 10-foot by 10-foot corrugated tin shack pink, put in a wooden floor and surrounded the base with concrete to keep out the chilly winds. Inside is a double bed and chest of drawers. A tiny coal-burning stove sits in the corner of the room he shares with his wife and three children.

"There comes a time when a person needs his privacy," Mr. Dhlamini said.

Mr. Dhlamini sounds like a textbook community organizer as he talks of his new town. He points to a small shop that has opened and says the idea is to keep the community's money in the community. He talks of all the skills available among the unemployed residents that can be put to work building permanent houses.

A year ago, when the National Party was in power, someone such as Mr. Dhlamini would be a hero to the African National Congress, defying authority while empowering the powerless. But now that the ANC runs the government, it is not exactly sure what to do with him.

For one thing, giving tacit approval to such land invasions -- which have been on the rise since the April election -- could lead to chaos in the ANC's plans to build 1.5 million houses in the next five years.

"I think we have to understand why people take these actions," said Housing Minister Joe Slovo, while specifically refusing to approve of them.

"We have to negotiate with them. You don't want to put the blame on these really desperate people or go back to the old tactic of destroying the roof over people's heads in the middle of the night," he said. "But you have to remember that these people are jumping the queues of people who are waiting for housing."

To many in Soweto, those queues are a joke.

"I've been waiting for a house since 1972," said Walter Luthuli, 61, who moved to Freedom Park in February. "My father died waiting for a house. We got nothing."

But the whole issue of land invasion raises fears, not just among whites, but among everyone who has made it up the economic ladder. Their vision is of tens of thousands of lawless squatters streaming out of the townships, eventually building shacks right in their back yard.

The nearest community to Freedom Park is one built in apartheid years for the "coloreds," people of mixed racial ancestry. Many of its residents reacted with fear when the squatters appeared. Mr. Dhlamini managed to move squatters back from the community's boundary.

A few weeks ago, the Johannesburg City Council ordered the bulldozing of a community similar to Freedom Park that had sprung up on land designated for houses for Taiwanese immigrants.

The shacks came down on one of coldest nights of the winter at the order of Ian Davidson, head of the Johannesburg council. He is a member of the liberal Democratic Party, longtime apartheid foes who used to denounce the ruling National Party for such actions. The pictures of the squatters huddled in threadbare blankets clinging to their meager possessions proved a public relations disaster.

Mr. Davidson said the squatters were "organized" and that neighboring residents were threatening to take matters into their own hands, something that has happened with squatter communities in the past.

Mr. Slovo, who also heads the Communist Party, said that property rights had to be maintained. Undoubtedly, he saw the possibility of chaos wrecking his housing plans if squatting mushroomed unfettered.

Freedom Park is also a particular problem for Mr. Slovo because it is built on land designated for one of his new housing schemes: a group of residents pools the $3,500 housing subsidy the government gives each family, using the economy of scale to make the money go further.

But it is hard to imagine an ANC government destroying Freedom Park and sending the people to the back of the housing line in order to further its plans.

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