Dreams of the homeless

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

Ruo Emoh, a low-income women's group in Cape Town, symbolises the dreams of the South African poor in the matter of housing.

THIS is Mitchell's Plains, south of Cape Town in South Africa. Amidst the wealthy white suburbs near the Table mountain, cramped areas of the Cape Flats where black and coloured people live, and a national highway, there lies an empty plot of land, measu ring around 100 by 200 metres. Located in an area predominantly inhabited by people belonging to the lower middle-income group, this plot has the remnants of a neatly dismantled house. The bricks, the asbestos sheets, the doors, the windows - all the mat erials used in the building lie intact in a corner of the plot. The land belongs to the City Council, but Ruo Emoh, a low-income women's saving group in Cape Town, owns the building materials.

Spelt backwards, Ruo Emoh is 'our home'. The plot, the building materials and the more than 300 members of the savings group symbolised the dreams, aspirations, capabilities and frustrations of the poor people on the issue of land and housing rights in S outh Africa today: how lower-income people aspire for some land that would guarantee them basic housing facilities; how they organise themselves for this purpose and equip themselves with new skills; how they are cheated of their rightful share in the go vernment housing programmes; how their anger and frustration come out in many ways; and how they are often at the receiving end.

Ruo Emoh is not an isolated case of popular mobilisation; it is very much part of a growing movement under the South African Homeless People's Federation (uMfelandawonye WaBantu Base-Mjandolo). "The Federation consists of over 1,200 Housing Saving Scheme s (HSS) with over 80,000 members throughout the country and is linked through nine regional federations. It has constructed over 5,000 houses through savings and credit, managed at the grassroots level. Although men are not excluded from the Federation, the vast majority of its members are women. All members have to belong to one of the HSSs, and they have to save small amounts of money on a daily basis," explains Patrick Magebhula, president of the Federation, in Durban. He has no illusions that the sa vings will be adequate to construct houses, but he underlines the motto of the Federation when he says that "we do not collect money, we collect people".

Another area in which the Federation has been active is in raising development resources. In 1994, the late Joe Slovo, a veteran of the liberation struggle who was then the Minister for Housing, agreed to make a grant 10 million rands ($2.3 million) to t he Federation's uTshani Fund, which gives housing loans. The Fund has carefully built up a track record of efficient management of savings and loans, and constructing incredibly low-cost but quality housing. It has been proved that the Federation can bu ild houses at less than half the cost of private sector housing.

Iris Namo, one of the co-directors of the uTshani Fund, elaborates: "The basis of the Fund's operation is the network of the HSS. The Fund makes loan finance available to the HSS directly. The HSS then distributes these funds to members. After they recei ve a loan, the members have to make monthly repayments to the HSS, which in turn makes monthly repayments to the uTshani Fund. The Fund is able to provide loans of small amounts and at low interest rates compared to formal lending institutions." What abo ut its performance to date? "The first loans were made available to the HSS in 1995. Since then, some 2,862 loans have been released to 168 housing saving schemes," Namo says.

However, movements such as Ruo Emoh have not met with much success in getting land for their homeless members, in spite of their best efforts.

It was Janap Oosthuizen and Lee-Ann Fredericks, two women from Mitchell's Plains, who first took the initiative - in 1997 - to form a savings scheme in their area. "A meeting was called - of homeless people, people who lived in rented houses, people who spent their lifetime in wooden shelters. Regular meetings every Saturday in my house followed the first meeting. In four months' time, the membership rose to 300 - one white family, three black families and the rest coloured. The members decided to save on a weekly basis, and by August 1999 they had made R 34,600,'' Janap recalls .

The members soon realised that they could not go very far without land. Hence Ruo Emoh approached the City Council, only to be told that there was no land available.

Ruo Emoh representatives then met the Cape Town Housing Director, who twice promised that at least 50 plots would be given on Site 341. Nothing came of it. Later Ruo Emoh members found that the Council had allocated sites to other housing programmes.

Ruo Emoh then decided to capture one small plot of Council land and build a showhouse there in a symbolic show of its strength, determination and anguish. The plot chosen was bordered on three sides by houses and on one side by a highway, and it faced a Council-built house for the wealthier sections. The group had never ventured into this kind of activity before and therefore asked for support from other HSSs; it also requested the Federation in the state to provide building materials and skilled labou r.

"It was a late Thursday night in August 1999 when Ruo Emoh members, along with some skilled workers, began the construction work. With the help of moonlight and light from nearby streetlights, trenches were dug. The next night it was drizzling but the wo rk continued," Lee-Ann said . After a week's efforts in the night and after playing hide and seek with the local authorities and the police, a small house came up. Substantial work was done only on three nights - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - and the tot al cost involved was just R 11,5000. "We were feeling on top of the world. Many people gathered on the roof. Tea, snacks and drinks were served. It was a time for celebration. At the same time, some of us were scared, thinking of the possible reaction of the authorities," Patricia said.

Two days passed before policemen and Council officials arrived at the site with a bulldozer. Ruo Emoh members and others surrounded the house to prevent its demolition. They wanted to stop the bulldozer and confront the police. Viera Mamanlilo, a leading member of the group, was vociferous in persuading Federation leaders to do so. Tension was palpable, and for a while the bulldozer was stopped. However, the police and the Council were bent upon demolishing the structure. Federation leaders contacted th e Council authorities, the police, and the City Director, to get the demolition stopped and argued their long-pending case over the land. The authorities insisted on demolition but invited the Ruo Emoh and the Federation for a renewed discussion on the land for housing.

According to Viera Mamanlilo, this led to heated debates within the group. Many people were of the view that the symbolic action was meant to put pressure on the authorities and to express the Federation's anger in a positive way. Having achieved this an d obtained an offer for talks, there was no point in getting arrested and jailed, they felt. Ultimately this view prevailed. The members offered to demolish the house themselves, and did not want a bulldozer to do so.

Those who built the house a few days earlier were now dismantling it. Some women broke into tears, some others were in a state of shock and sat quietly. The demolition went on until midnight. There was no showhouse now, only bricks, doors, and windows pi led up as a reminder of the house. Nothing came of the negotiations between the HSS and the Council over the land issue. Each side blamed the other, and they had a heated exchange over the building of the showhouse.

RUO EMOH is still waiting for land. It has little hope that it will get land for housing through the City Council; it is exploring the possibility of purchasing land from a private landowner through the uTshani Fund. The members are trying to save more m oney on a daily or weekly basis, but do not know how it will be used in the future. They, however, have a clearer perception of their government. Patrick Magebhula explained: "While the post-apartheid government makes discourses about people's empowermen t and support for the poor, its stand has lacked any material underpinnings, either in the form of enabling legislation or in the form of the capacity and actual will to deliver. We have now understood that governments rarely respond to the needs of the poor, unless the poor are organised and politically adept at putting pressure on them."

Mukul Sharma was recently awarded the Appan Menon Memorial Award for Journalism, 2000, for writing on various international developmental issues.

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