The awkward terrains of post-apartheid housing

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 8 July 2014

After the end of apartheid in 1994, the new democratic government promised to build millions of subsidized houses (informal settlements and overcrowded townships resulted when the apartheid state stopped building accommodation for Black Africans in Johannesburg in the 1970's). At least three distinct types of government-subsidized housing have emerged in the post-apartheid dispensation: (1) 'RDP', (2) 'inclusionary', and (3) mixed-income housing models (figs. 1-3 respectively).

Many of the failings of 'RDP' housing, initially part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme under which low-cost houses for qualifying indigent South Africans was first rolled out post-1994, are well documented. These include their peripheral locations (discussed in a previous article), low densities, and mono-functional dormitory environments. Over the last few years however, two new directions in housing policy (inclusionary and mixed-income housing) have been developed that attempt to improve upon the RDP model and to address the inherited apartheid city geography (racial homogeneity of many areas, racialised patterns of inequality and access to economic opportunities).

Inclusionary housing requires or provides incentives to private developers to incorporate 'affordable' or 'social housing' rentals as a part of market-driven, urban developments. Although the rental sector accounts for approximately 20 percent of households in South Africa, much of it in slum conditions, current provision is still insignificant relative to the demand. Since the model targets an aspirant middle class (the "gap market") rather than the poorest income groups, the government has received some criticism, especially from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute. There is also the further possibility of their displacement in rejuvenated urban centres unless appropriate mechanisms are put in place to mitigate this.

Another new direction in housing policy is mixed-income housing developments, usually undertaken in partnership with private sector housing developers and financial institutions. These award-winning, model mega-projects accommodate different income groups in different housing typologies, for "integrating communities in well located areas" as the government website states. This mix contains fully subsidised and partially subsidised units; non-subsidised, fully bonded houses sold on the open market; and a smaller number of apartments for rent. Initially, at the pioneering 'Cosmo City' mixed-income project in Johannesburg, wealthy property owners and the banks opposed the project, fearing that lower income groups would compromise the value of their properties or their investment. To ensure property values remained intact, the solution was a sprawling landscape of over 11,000 stands carefully apportioned according to house value, in what can only be called a 'class segregation'.

Despite the variations in tenure options, target markets, density and location, there is yet a sense of continuity among these different post-apartheid housing models which prompt reflection, on their historical processes and their futures. It is worth recalling that along with the great human achievement of eliminating formal racism and a new constitutionalism, South African democratization was still profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal: enabling black nationalists to win state power, leaving in place a grossly inequitable economic system, and excluding most of the black majority from sharing in the country's vast mineral wealth.

For housing, this meant a privatization, with much greater reliance upon banks and commercial developers than state and community-driven development, and bringing more intense class segregation which increasingly distinguishes the urban landscape. Though each contains their own kinds of innovations, successes and failings, these housing models therefore raise deeper questions of the kind of city and society that is being shaped. Rather than a post-apartheid society tending towards socialism or participatory democracy which many may have looked forward to, it is somewhere between capitalist frameworks and the social demands from below that we find these awkward—though perhaps not surprising—emergent terrains of post-apartheid spaces.

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