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South Africans Lacking Permanent Housing Seen As Squatters


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Following the end of apartheid, the new South African government promised to redistribute land and provide housing for all. But with the country's rapid population growth, the government has been unable to keep pace with the huge need. Today, millions live in settlements without toilets or electricity. They have no rights to the land or the shacks they build, and they can't stop the bulldozers when they come. Sarah Birnbaum reports from Cape Town, South Africa.

SARAH BIRNBAUM, BYLINE: Dalukanyo lost nearly everything when a devastating fire ripped through his shack settlement in a township called Masiphumelele.

DALUKANYO: (Through interpreter) So at the time I was not in my house, I was with my friends on that day. So when they shout that it caught fire, that's where I start to run. The things that you see, this is the only thing that I manage to took it out.

BIRNBAUM: Dalukanyo, who only has one name, gestures to a few clothes, some plates and a tattered teddy bear. In the end, his home and the homes of 4,000 other people burned down. Dalukanyo says after the fire, the city failed in its promise to give all the victims new land to build on, so he and about 100 other families built shacks on an empty plot of land, which happens to belong to the city. While Dalukanyo was at work, the city sent bulldozers to tear the houses down.

TSHEPO MOLETSANE: On that day, it was just a terrible day.

BIRNBAUM: Tshepo Moletsane is a community leader in Masiphumelele.

MOLETSANE: It was more than hundred law enforcement officers. They came here heavily armed with their rifles, without any communication, without any notice. Their action, it was just to demolish all those shacks of the destitute families.

BIRNBAUM: The local government official, ward councilor Felicity Purchase, says the shacks were illegal and maintains the residents knew that full well when they built there.

FELICITY PURCHASE: It's a national park. It's in a wetland which is underwater, and it's a health problem as well as an environmental problem. They were warned not to do it, and then they were warned that if they didn't remove it, we would take them down.

BIRNBAUM: Purchase adds some of the squatters weren't even fire victims.

PURCHASE: A lot of the people that in fact built irregularly, whose houses we then took down, were in fact not even from the affected area. So they are opportunists who have come out of backyards trying to create a land grab, so to speak.

BIRNBAUM: Opportunists, land grab. These are words activist Daniel Knoetze is used to hearing from the government.

DANIEL KNOETZE: Under apartheid, black people did not have any tenure, housing or opportunity to own land in South Africa.

BIRNBAUM: South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, promised that his ANC government would redistribute 30 percent of the land to black South Africans, but it has done little towards that goal. At the same time, rapid population growth and urbanization have led to a mushrooming of informal settlements, warrens of makeshift shacks of corrugated tin, sheet metal and scrap wood. And the living conditions are wretched. In Masiphumelele, residents barely have access to clean water. An open sewer runs between shacks. Runaway fires leave thousands of people homeless each year. Knoetze says the government responds by bulldozing the squatter camps.

KNOETZE: Each metro municipality has a division within law enforcement called the anti-land invasion unit. And it's something that we've seen consistently and as activists argued against consistently, this absolute impunity with which the state breaks down people's homes.

BIRNBAUM: In Masiphumelele, community leaders and government officials are trying to move the fire victims to a different plot of land. Knoetze says the squatting crisis in general won't be resolved until -

KNOETZE: The areas that were previously locked up by white minority ownership during apartheid are progressively unlocked and opened up, and developed for low-cost and affordable housing.

BIRNBAUM: And as for Dalukanyo, his shack was bulldozed again. He has rebuilt on a swamp, and he expects that shack will be bulldozed, too. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Birnbaum in Cape Town, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Birnbaum