Page last updated at 00:14 GMT, Monday, 10 April 2006 01:14 UK

Johannesburg poor fight for their homes

By Justin Pearce
BBC News website, Johannesburg

A stump of a candle and a box of matches lie on the table next to Nelson Chawe's neatly made-up bed; several months' worth of a weekly football magazine are stacked on a table where the afternoon sun filters through the curtain.

Nelson Chawe
Nelson Chawe and his neighbours won a court battle to stay in their building
"You have to try and keep your place clean and dry," Mr Chawe says of his flat in Johannesburg's inner-city Berea neighbourhood.

"I'm a human being - I have to look after myself."

No-one else is looking after Mr Chawe and his neighbours. Every week they get together to clean the communal stairways and passageways of the building, though there is not much they can do about the choking smell of sewage that rises from the ground floor.

In a few hours, he will have to light that candle. The place has no electricity.

San Jose, a 10-floor building with the concrete walkways and wide picture windows of the 1950s or 1960s, has been at the centre of a legal battle that could have profound consequences for how central Johannesburg develops in the next few years.

Mr Chawe, who sells clothing on the city's streets, moved into the block in 2004, when the city authorities had already announced plans to evict the occupants, none of whom were paying rent.


On 3 March this year, the Johannesburg High Court ruled that moves by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council to evict the occupants were illegal, unless the authorities provided alternative accommodation.

The council argued that the building was unfit for human habitation; the residents argued that they had nowhere else to go.

1.5m houses built since 1994
7.5m lack access to adequate housing
Some earn as little as $35 a month
Source: COHRE
The case drew attention to the critical housing shortage faced by South Africa's poorest people, 12 years after the end of apartheid.

The government says 1.8m new houses have been built since 1994, or are currently under construction.

"These are high delivery rates by any standards," a report on housing in Johannesburg by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) - an international NGO - argued last year.

The report nevertheless says "huge backlogs in infrastructure inherited from apartheid, and the unprecedented influx of people to the Johannesburg area" are making it unlikely that the poorest people will find affordable housing close to where they work.

Growing problem

The City of Johannesburg's housing subsidy waiting list stands at over 250,000, the COHRE report says.

Residents of San Jose are trying to keep the building clean and habitable
The problem keeps getting bigger.

The ANC inherited the country from a government that not only neglected housing for the poor, black majority, but also pursued policies that kept most black people out of the cities.

Apartheid blocked the flow of people to the cities that any normal society would expect - the dismantling of that system prompted a flood of urbanisation.

At the same time, South Africa attracted refugees and fortune-seekers from across Africa, who also needed shelter.


There is no doubt that many buildings in the inner city do pose a risk to health and life.

Nelson Chawe has succeeded against the odds in keeping his flat in a liveable state without electricity or running water - more typical are the ones where five people or more live, sleep, and cook on paraffin stoves in a room three metres square.

200,000 shacks
235 inner city "bad buildings"
250,000 - 300,000 housing waiting list
Source: COHRE
Recently, 12 people died in a fire that was apparently caused by a fault in an illegal electrical connection in a building occupied by migrant workers.

Expressing his condolences to victims' families, Mayor Amos Masondo said the authorities were "committed to enforce efforts to bring a solution to the challenges of illegal occupation of property and unauthorised access to essential services provided to registered residents".

But a statement by COHRE and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, a human rights law centre based at the University of the Witwatersrand, blamed the fire on the city's "failure to provide alternatives, which leaves the inner city poor vulnerable".

"The real motive behind evictions from 'bad buildings' in the inner city is not the need to ensure the health and safety of the occupiers. It is, rather, to push the poor out of the inner city," the organisations argue.

Prices rise

Inner-city property prices have risen 230% in the past five years.

Rapid growth and traffic congestion in the suburbs have prompted property developers in the city centre to try to lure back the businesses and middle-class residents who abandoned the area two decades ago.

Man in front of building where fire broke out
Illegal electricity connections have caused deadly fires in some buildings
Old office blocks are being converted into flats that range in price from 500,000 to 2m rand ($83,000 to $330,000) - middle to upper income in South African terms.

The city council website describes one such development as "perfectly located for the black yuppies who are snapping up flats in the inner city - close to major corporates... and a number of banks".

People like Mr Chawe, counting their irregular monthly income in hundreds rather than thousands of rand, say even subsidised housing - available to those earning R1,250 ($200) and above - is beyond their means.

Commuting costs

Poor residents of the inner city complain that most of the new cheaper housing is on the periphery of the city - from there, they will have to spend at least 12 rand ($2) a day commuting.

Some analysts point out that some buildings have been abandoned by their owners where the rates owing to the council exceed the value of the building - creating the legal space for an innovative solution for the poor.

"The government should attach buildings and renovate them," argues Sheresa Sibanda of the Inner City Resource Centre, a group opposing evictions.

"By throwing people out they are causing more slums, because when people are thrown out they will go and occupy another building.

"The government says there is no land for housing, but there are buildings."

The Johannesburg Metro Council has not yet responded to questions put to it by the BBC News website on the concerns raised in this article.

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