A hopeful homecoming and unfulfilled promises

After apartheid Four years after their joyful return to lasnd taken fromthem in 1962, mixed-race families await housing pledged by the government

January 17, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ELANDSKLOOF, South Africa -- Four years ago, a brass band played as Alletta Titus and the members of 308 other "colored" families walked down the dirt road here, back into the valley their forefathers settled more than a century before.

"That was a happy day," recalls Titus. "Words can't express my feelings. We were back in Elandskloof. That was enough."

For 34 years during apartheid, Alletta Titus had waited with hopeful patience to get back the home from which she was evicted because of racism.

But today, with that 1996 moment of joyful redemption a fading memory, she finds herself waiting once more -- this time with hopeful impatience -- for the house that the country's first black majority government promised her.

Although the historic wrong of eviction has been righted, Titus and her neighbors are little more than squatters in their own back yards, living in makeshift huts of wood and corrugated iron.

The government promised a $3,000 housing grant -- enough for a basic two-room home -- for each family, and speedy delivery of water and electricity. But Titus, 59, the mother of nine, complains: "There were too many promises which didn't come true."

The promises were made when Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa. Now he's gone. Thabo Mbeki has been president for more than six months, and she's still waiting.

"Waiting, waiting, waiting," said Titus, who has resettled permanently in this remote corner of the Western Cape. Around her are 44 other families who have returned to their roots but have yet to get solid roofs over their heads. They call themselves Elandskloofers, after this place's name. Demand for homes

The Elandskloofers are not alone in their mounting frustration. The Department of Housing estimates that between 2 million and 3 million of the "previously disadvantaged" -- the official designation of those who suffered socially, emotionally and economically during apartheid -- need decent homes in the new South Africa.

'Just no money'

The government has built 800,000 units, housing more than 3 million people, since it came to power in 1994. Three million more South Africans have clean water on tap, and 2 million households have been wired to electric power. In a country with so many competing needs -- health care, education, job creation and crime control -- this is no mean achievement, even if it is well short of the target of 1 million new homes promised in the first five years.

With demand for the basic amenities growing by an estimated 200,000 families a year, Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela in June, promised to accelerate delivery of shelter and services. "Our nights cannot but be nights of nightmares while millions of our people live in conditions of degrading poverty," he said in his inaugural address.

But the government is short of cash to end those nightmares soon. The housing budget for the current fiscal year is $487.5 million, a 7.7 percent decrease from the previous year's allocation of $528.4 million. And that was a more than 5 percent decrease from the year before. All of which leaves people like Titus to wonder how much longer their wait will be.

"The resources are little and they have to be spread across the board. There's welfare, housing, education. There's just no money," says Gege Kekana, spokeswoman for the Department of Housing.

"People have been living in backyard shacks for more than 40 years," she says. "Now it's about looking at the demand, making sure people have shelter, have a roof over their heads, which was not the case before 1994."

Despite their disappointment at the slow pace of change, Titus and her fellow Elandskloofers can enjoy the beauty of the land they have recovered and the sense of fulfillment at being home.

It is an idyllic 8,300 acres, rimmed by protective mountains, watered by its river, and planted with orange, peach and pear trees.

As Titus stands among the flowers she has planted in the front yard of "this piece of ground where I was born," she says contentedly: "Yes, I'm back forever. Nobody will get me out of here again."

Labor of love

In the orchards, the $40,000 crop of oranges -- on trees planted by the previous farmer and owned by the community -- are picked each year. The profits are earmarked for reinvestment into the farm operation.

Soon after their arrival, the Elandskloofers bent their backs for a labor of love -- cutting down Blackwater trees on the banks of their river. The trees were drinking up to 480 gallons of water a day, water that could irrigate their land.

It took at least two months to clear the invasive trees. For helping themselves and the environment, they were paid $5.50 a day by the National Water Campaign -- handy earnings for people with no other prospects of local employment.

Titus' temporary home here is a two-bedroom cottage of wooden planks, each, she notes precisely, costing 15 cents. The hut is neatly nailed together and provides basic shelter for her, her husband and the one son who lives at home.

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