CAPE TOWN — Declarations that people have a right to adequate housing are a dime a dozen. Among the many documents spelling out or elaborating on this right are the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and at least nine other international treaties, plus numerous resolutions by various United Nations agencies and the constitutions of 43 countries.
But it’s a big jump from words on paper to reality, and every nation is challenged to ensure shelter that is safe, healthy, secure, accessible, affordable and free from discrimination, particularly for its most vulnerable citizens.
Among the parts of the world that struggle daily with this challenge is South Africa, a young nation in its current form with limited means but large ambitions, a strong streak of idealism and a brutal history of racial injustice and abysmal housing. South Africa put the ugly apartheid era behind it just 21 years ago, holding its first democratic elections and electing Nelson Mandela as its first black president in 1994.
Soon afterward, it adopted a new constitution promising everyone “the right to have access to adequate housing.” South Africa has pledged to do its best to provide free basic housing to all citizens who can’t get it on their own.
In July, I was thrilled to contribute in my own small way to the fulfillment of this promise by participating in a Habitat for Humanity Global Village house-building mission in a new settlement north of Cape Town, called Pelican Park. This was the second Nelson Mandela international build. Mandela died two years ago, and July 18, his birthday, has become an annual event for South Africans to do something constructive for their country.
Mandela has long been my hero for his unshakeable political convictions and fearlessness in speaking truth to power. He set an example of courage, idealism, tenacity and forgiveness throughout his lifetime: by battling apartheid, for which he was imprisoned for 27 years; for striving to unify a racially and economically divided South Africa as its president from 1994 to 1999; and for championing democracy, equality and the power of education around the world.
Habitat’s 2014 Nelson Mandela Build drew 25 international volunteers and about 700 volunteers a day from South Africa itself, galvanized to put up 71 housing units in Pelican Park in a week.
I participated in the 2015 build as part of a team of 22 people from France, South Africa, Tokyo and the United States. It took place during the week of July 13 in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Power Construction, a local building company whose motto is “unashamedly ethical.”
In all, more than 600 South Africans joined 60 international volunteers to construct 15 new housing units in five days. Five one-story buildings were built, each with three separate units; the concrete footings and floor slabs had already been poured when we arrived, and the roofing and finishes were to be completed after we left. But we did plenty of heavy lifting, working with a crew of masons from Power Construction.
Some people in the US criticize overseas Habitat projects as foolish because mostly middle-class Americans lacking basic construction skills pay their own way to distant spots and make a hefty contribution to the cost of materials for a few days’ work. Why not give that money directly to local builders, a friend asked when I told him I was headed to Cape Town. Why not build houses in Norwalk, Conn., where affordable housing is in cruelly short supply, my wife, Debby, asked. Or, for that matter, in poorer African nations such as Chad.
But the two overseas Habitat builds I have participated in so far (the other was in Kenya in 2013) have convinced me of their value. My teammates were excited to help build houses and to reach out in friendship to an area of the world that most people would otherwise never see. At the end of the week, we had no doubts about the importance of our presence and our work — to ourselves, to our fellow volunteers and especially to the residents of Pelican Park. However small our contribution may seem in the global scheme of things, it was tangible and meaningful in many ways.
About 54 million people live in South Africa, 80.2 percent of them black, 8.4 percent white, 2.5 percent Asian and 8.8 percent “colored” — an official designation for people of mixed African, Asian and white ancestry. South Africa is well off as Africa goes, with its major urban centers replete with clean water, electricity, sewage systems, banking and commercial networks as well as an extensive national highway system.
But century-old laws once reserved 87 percent of the country’s land for whites, and housing patterns have been slow to change since the end of apartheid. Blacks have found it difficult to move into the prosperous urban centers and most still live in the townships — settlements created for blacks over the years in urban fringes to provide the cities with pools of laborers while preventing them from living too nearby.
I could see that compared with what I saw during a 1993 visit to the country that life in the settlements has improved. People are extremely proud of their country and mostly optimistic about its future. Relations between the races appear friendly and relaxed. Some settlement residents live in lovely homes with gardens and a car in the garage.
Yet many South Africans live in corrugated-tin and scrap-wood shacks or in squalid hostels — the overcrowded men-only dormitories originally built to house black workers, which have been altered to accommodate families. The rand, South Africa’s currency, is at a low point; black unemployment is 40 percent; and young people fear a bleak future if things don’t improve.
Since 1994, more than three million basic houses have been delivered to poor South Africans, free of charge. But the government says another 2.5 million are needed to accommodate 12 million people who lack adequate housing, and the number increases yearly.
The government launched Pelican Park a few years ago as the first fully integrated settlement in South Africa, open to Asian, colored and white families as well as to blacks, although just one white individual apparently lives there.
The complex mixes free housing with market-based models. When completed, it will have 2,024 fully subsidized homes alongside 760 “starter homes” (costing about $25,000 each) and another 360 selling for $40,000 to $58,000. About 1,500 free housing units have been handed over to their new families.
Officials have expressed hope that families would have to wait only three to four years to get their free house once they got on the official waiting list. But our work at Pelican Park found this goal elusive. John Bailey, the head of the Pelican Park homeowners’ association, said it took him 28 years; Mattie Loggenberg, a 62-year-old resident who worked tirelessly alongside our team, explaining that it was her way to give back to her community, said she had waited 20 years, two months and a day before being able to move into her new home in 2013.
While serving us tea at her new house during a work break, Mattie said she was pleased as could be with the place, now home to nine family members, not least because the community was free of youth gang violence, which had plagued her rental in a settlement nearby. Like every other fully subsidized unit at Pelican Park, hers has running water and electricity, two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. Sitting with Mattie in her home was deeply emotional and satisfying, for her and for us.
Just miles to the south, central Cape Town is a gorgeous modern city with a sprawling commercial center and a waterfront lined with stylish shopping malls, cocktail bars and chic restaurants. The poshest suburbs offer large houses, views and well-maintained beaches and parks. While working in Pelican Park, we stayed in a Radisson Hotel in Newlands, a more middle-class but still attractive Cape Town suburb.
Residents told us that Hollywood stars and musicians have been buying Cape Town mansions. But few blacks can afford the chic parts of town, although there are no legal barriers. South Africa’s future as a modern, egalitarian African nation hangs in the balance. Our team came away believing that every bit helps.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.