Housing the nation

Connie September, South African Minister of Human Settlements

Every South African has the right to live in a decent home with access to basic services, but considering our serious housing crisis, is this really enough?

One cannot really call her media-shy, but if South Africa’s Minister of Human Settlements had a choice between being in the limelight and getting her hands dirty and the work done, the latter will win hands-down. Western Cape-born Connie September’s appointment in this role last year came as a bit of a surprise to many, especially those who have never heard of her before. She maintains a low media profile and says this is pretty much how she has worked since her days as factory worker in the textile industry and later as the first woman elected to the leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

After apartheid, when the need for proper housing was elevated, the profile of the Minister of Housing (as it was then known), was drastically raised to where it is today and the focus shifted dramatically from building reconstruction and development programme (RDP) housing units toward a more holistic approach of creating settlements for previously neglected communities.

Although the focus on the profile of the Minister of Human Settlements is not necessarily as strong as on other more economically and financially driven portfolios, given the dire need for sustainable housing in South Africa it remains one of the most important portfolios in government.

The successful functioning of the department is especially important as we recognise that sustainable housing improves the quality of life and welfare of the people. It also determines the future of their children and the future of South Africa. The location and quality of homes, how well designed and built they are, and – crucially – how successfully they are woven into the economic, environmental, social and cultural life of communities are factors that have the most profound influence on the daily lives of the inhabitants and their health, wellbeing and security.

Born in Cape Town in 1959, September started her career on the shop floor in the textile industry. She later became an activist, which saw her joining and growing through the ranks of trade unions to become the national treasurer of the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union. In 1993 she became the first woman in South Africa to be elected as the second deputy president of Cosatu and in 1993 she became the trade union’s first deputy president.

She became an MP for the ANC in 1999 and went on to serve as a special adviser in the Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs. September also served as chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Water Affairs and Forestry, whip of the Committee on International Relations and Co-operation and was the United Nations commissioner on Preparing Africa for the New Millennium, a body that became the forerunner of Nepad.

Looking back at the past 20 years of democracy, September talks to Leadership about housing policies, the significant challenges of the Department of Human Settlements (DHS), the many changes that have taken place, and about embracing the dream of every citizen: to have a home and a rightful place in society – and about the role of South Africa’s youth in this regard.

“In order to promote the development of vibrant communities that have access to, among others, adequate social and economic facilities, government agreed that the then Department of Housing should have its mandate widened to facilitate the development of sustainable human settlements. In addition to housing, the new mandate included facilitating integrated provision of services, social facilities and economic opportunities.

“Government is committed to addressing the legacy of spatial poverty, by developing human settlements on well-located land with sufficient social and economic opportunities. President Zuma has also indicated (at the State of the Nation Address) that this administration would promote better located mixed income housing projects, and this will be a key priority of the department in the future. To put it simply, we are striving to create new settlements that are conducive to human habitation and growth.

“Let us all be reminded that as a result of the shift from housing to human settlements, we now have an integrated approach that includes better spatial planning and greening of the environment. Building of houses should include electricity, water and sanitation and be in close proximity to schools, economic opportunities and recreation facilities.”

The main challenge the ANC government encountered in the early days of implementing the RDP housing strategy was that the housing departments were racially segregated and had different administrations in the former homelands.

“As a unitary state, we needed to establish the required capacity to implement the single national housing programme of the democratic government.”

September explains that many of the new developments (then) were located in areas where land was available at low cost to the state. Often, these areas had very little access to sustainable economic opportunities and socio-cultural facilities. It was because of these factors that the policies introduced by President Zuma’s administration was to focus on building sustainable human settlements with access to social facilities and economic opportunities.

Given the new architecture of the state and its independent spheres of nine provinces and over 280 municipalities, the need for inter-governmental co-ordination was critical.

“Since then, government has been able to clarify the respective roles, establish a Minmec (a forum with the national minister and MECs for human settlements), as well as the President’s Co-ordinating Council (that includes provinces and local government) to promote coordination. Subsequently, government established the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) to address this particular concern, and took pre-emptive steps to regulate private housing contractors.”

These challenges resulted in the first major review of the housing policy and a number of new and revised policy initiatives were introduced that included the Breaking New Ground (BNG) policy that emphasises issues of quality, integration and sustainability in the provision of not only houses but human settlements, GAP housing that provides partial subsidies to individuals and the Social Housing policy.

September says the current challenge the DHS faces is increasing the social and economic integration of human settlements, which addresses the spatial legacy of apartheid.

“This requires a co-ordinated approach by all levels of government, co-operating with provinces and municipalities to strengthen capacity and our ability to deliver human settlements at a sustainable level.

“We have a large number of dedicated human settlement public servants at all three spheres of government who co-operate and pursue a common goal to house the nation. Indeed, we need to find more innovative ways of delivering houses faster and of good quality.”

Tomorrow’s leaders

With a dire need to deliver houses faster for a growing population, government is encouraging young graduates to lead the way and look at innovative new building technologies and cost-effective building methods to make housing more affordable and sustainable.

The DHS has gone into partnership with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and is currently supporting a new degree in Human Settlements.

“The first intake of students took place at the beginning of 2014. We believe that these students will help provide us with new thinkers, technicians and engineers of all kinds, who will constantly think about sustainability and development when conceptualising new human settlements.”

The department also supports bursary programmes to increase the number of engineers, planners, architects and other professionals in the housing sector.

September describes how vital it is that the youth become actively involved in urban planning and social development forums.

“Young people understand from their perspective the challenges with our towns and cities, particularly accessing social and economic opportunities. As we redesign our towns and cities, the perspectives of young people are critical. This new generation can transcend the racial prejudices that many older people have grown up with, and will be more willing to accept social integration.”

September adds that social development forums can become the focal sites for discussion on increasing the participation of youth in addressing the challenges related to developing sustainable human settlements. These forums can also play a significant role in reducing the frustration among young people by directing this energy into constructive and inclusive programmes for youth development.

“Building is labour-intensive and there are many job opportunities either directly at construction sites, or indirectly in the material manufacturing industries and also at end-user level as estate agents through the One Learner One Estate Agency Programme.

“We have also implemented the YouthBuild Model, a youth development programme implemented by the DHS in partnership with the NHBRC, National Youth Development Agency, provincial governments as well as implementing municipalities. The youth sector is key in realising South Africa’s transformation agenda of a non-sexist, non-racist, democratic and progressive country.”

September says the programme seeks to build values such as patriotism, ubuntu, community service and collective civic engagement among young people. She adds that in this way the vibrant energy of the youth is utilised through nation-building activities.

The YouthBuild Model is implemented in line with the National Youth Service Model and the key to the success of these models is the creation of opportunities for unemployed and unskilled youth with an interest in participating in the sector.

Despite all these interventions, residents across the country who are still living in inadequate housing or informal settlements have taken to the streets in violent protests over housing and basic services, which they say are not forthcoming.

“We share the view of President Zuma and many South Africans that the right to peaceful protest is a constitutional right that we have fought for. While these protests may indicate that government needs to build on our substantial achievements of the last 20 years to address the concerns of the poor who have no access to basic services – the violent nature of the protests is a major concern.

“Destroying public property is counter-productive, and will further deny poor people access to services. Government has strongly condemned any acts of violent protests that lead to the suppression of other people’s rights and the damage of public property. We trust that we can mobilise this energy towards community contribution and participation in programmes that improve the livelihoods in these communities.”

Addressing challenges

September does not believe in mere speechmaking; she actively gets her hands dirty in community projects. She marked World Habitat Day recently by helping workers construct 272 housing units at the Lakehaven Social Housing Project that will provide quality, affordable homes to people in Durban. This is one of several developments taking place to address spatial development challenges created by apartheid.

“The DHS, together with provincial governments and municipalities, is focusing on addressing these challenges through two development approaches. The first is developing new settlements close to work opportunities that have social and cultural facilities. These projects include Cornubia, a mixed use development in Durban North.

“It’s a high-density mixed development incorporating industrial, commercial, residential and open-space use, accommodating various income levels. Phase one of this project is complete and when the total project is finished it will have the capacity to accommodate more than 50 000 dwellings and house 200 000 people with access to two BRT routes.” The second phase includes projects such as the R25-billion Lephalale Project in the Waterberg District, a project designed for 29 709 housing units, a retail complex and a commercial development, as well as the Khutsong Project in Merafong. This entails the development of residential units and amenities, and the relocation of 25 000 households from unstable dolomite conditions to a safer environment. “These new projects are beginning to reshape the spatial legacy of apartheid into the non-racial integrated settlements that we have been dreaming of.”

But September reiterates that these new developments need greater private sector, community, CBO and NGO participation and partnerships, as well as capital to increase the housing stock and affordability of housing.

“We recently held a fruitful meeting with the banking sector to foster these objectives and a joint task team will be set up to develop specific recommendations in this regard.”

She shared the experiences of the government with regard to financing housing since the 1994 general elections, reflecting on both the successes and challenges at a recent Southern African Development Community ministers meeting where she delivered a paper on South African human settlements financing framework since the dawn of democracy, which looks at innovations in the regulator and legal framework to overcome challenging income levels that have an impact on choices available to the poor.

From the factory floor to becoming SA’s housing boss, Connie September has been around for a while. 

Cathy Dippnall

Lakehaven 3 Oct 2013.JPG Lakehaven 2 Oct 2013.JPG Lakehaven 1 Oct 2013.JPG Avoca Hills 1 Jan 2014.JPG Alexandra 1 Oct 2013.JPG
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