People's dialogue on land and shelter.

Author:Swinburne, Caroline

Caroline Swinburne tells how the poor in South Africa are making modest gains on the housing front.

Margaret Mbeze lives with her six children in a windowless shack in Oukasie township, near the town of Brits, just west of Pretoria. During the day she visits wealthier neighbours, hoping to earn a few rands by doing their washing and household chores.

In the evening, if she has managed to make enough money to buy mealie meal, she lights up the old and highly dangerous paraffin stove in the corner of her room and prepares a meagre supper for the family. Eventually when all the chores are done, she and several of her children curl up together on the makeshift bed whilst the rest of the youngsters spend the night on the floor.

Only then, in her sleep, does Margaret manage to escape from, the dirt, danger and squalor of daily life in the shack. "I dream I'm in a house with many rooms and windows" she says. "There are deep comfortable sofas, a fridge and even a proper kitchen with a safe electric stove where I prepare meals for my children. But it's just a dream -- I wake up and know it will never happen."

Margaret is just one of around seven million South Africans who are homeless or living in inadequate housing. Until recently most blamed their problems on the apartheid government. But since the ANC came to power in 1994 there has been little improvement.

"When the ANC won the elections, I really had high expectations," says Margaret. "Mandela even visited us here in Oukasie, and I thought surely this was a sign that I would immediately be able to move out of my shack into a very beautiful house. But it just hasn't happened -- absolutely nothing has changed."

Although many feel similar despair, in fact the ANC government is well aware of the housing problem and has made some efforts to improve things. One major new policy has been the introduction of a housing subsidy of around R15,000 [[epsilon]l,500] for each low-income family. However, rather than distributing this money directly, normally it is simply used by the government to fund the construction of small houses which are often little better than the original shacks.

Vusi Nsuntsha, the co-director of the NGO, People's Dialogue, which works in the field of housing, says the government seems to have little idea how to make the most of the limited funding. He thinks the government should have been far braver in exploring new systems.

"When it first came into power, the advice the new...

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