Revamp of SA’s largest city leaves poor battling for housing

Campaigners argue affordable low-income housing has been a critically neglected component of urban regeneration in Johannesburg.

FILE: Hundreds of people were evicted from the Central Methodist church in the Johannesburg CBD on 31 December 2014. Picture: Masego Rahlaga/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG – When South African street vendor Nelson Khethani was evicted from his home in downtown Johannesburg to make way for a new development, he fought a successful legal battle to ensure his family would have somewhere else to live.

Khethani, his wife and hundreds of others were relocated in 2008 to a converted former military hospital with biometric security gates, running water and 24-hour electricity - but the promise of a better life didn't last long.

Now the tower block has patchy electricity, leaking water pipes and sewage in the yard, one of many government-run buildings where conditions have deteriorated as social housing provisions fail to keep up with urban regeneration.

Campaigners argue affordable low-income housing has been a critically neglected component of urban regeneration in Johannesburg with no long-term solution in place. This is widening the divide and tensions between the rich and the poor.

“It became clear that there had been shortcuts with the plumbing and the electricity,” says Khetani, flicking a broken light switch and citing a recent two-month spell with no power.

“There’s no proper management. We phone the city to tell them about the problems. I phone everybody. No-one wants to help. Meanwhile, we pay rent. We cry every day.”

Even though his previous building had lacked basic services and security of tenure, the informal arrangement had been better and more organised compared with city management, Khetani says.

Virgil James, spokesman for the City of Johannesburg said the administration is well aware of the situation but that there is simply not enough low-cost housing to cope with the number of people flocking to the city in search of jobs.

He said there was “no intention” of allowing the city to “fall into private hands” but that municipalities needed to find ways to cover their costs.

“We are faced with a number of people living in dilapidated buildings with illegal water and electricity connections. This puts the city/municipality under severe strain as the city has to cover the costs that extend into millions of rand,” he said.

“It will take a lot of discussion to make sure the city works for everyone ... in the meantime, the municipalities everywhere have to cover their costs. They need people to pay for the services they use or the city will deteriorate.”


Johannesburg’s inner city started to be neglected during the 1980s as sanctions against the apartheid government triggered an exodus of companies and wealthy residents.

“Grey zones” were established where basic utilities such as water, power and waste collection stopped. Uninhabitable areas marked by crime and decaying buildings were called “sinkholes”.

Since the end of apartheid in 1991, the African National Congress-led government has pledged to transform Johannesburg and end its reputation as a haven for crime and violence.

Evictions were rife following the launch of an Inner-City Regeneration Strategy in 2003, a policy aimed at enticing investors, businesses and the middle class back to an inner-city area of nearly 18 square kilometres.

Investment and regeneration gathered pace as South Africa prepared to host the 2010 soccer World Cup.

Regeneration around Ellis Park stadium in the centre of the city spurred investment in affordable housing, new retail and infrastructure.

Soweto Township, south-west of the city, also benefited from investment tied to renovation of the Soccer City stadium.

Since then, former sinkholes have been transformed into smart precincts with spacious apartments and trendy markets where the city’s hipsters sip cocktails from jam jars.

Demand is high. A development on Eloff Street has over 300 one to two-bedroom apartments renting at $250 to $365 a month, with nearby coffee shops, art galleries and stalls selling cupcakes.

For the majority whose livelihoods depend on proximity to the city, these developments are beyond reach. Half of households earn $228 a month, with 31% earning less than $115, according to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).

The City of Johannesburg has made some attempts to provide low-cost housing. The Johannesburg Social Housing Company (JOSHCO) is responsible for providing social accommodation to those earning between $215 to $540 a month. But this is still too expensive for most, say rights groups.

The right to housing is enshrined in South Africa's constitution and arbitrary evictions are prohibited, with the city obliged to relocate tenants facing homelessness.

But as gentrification takes root and land prices soar, families increasingly face displacement to shelters and temporary housing that cannot cater for the numbers evicted.

“The problems with housing rest on the implementation of many of the government’s own policies. The ideals are there as is the capacity and the resources but there is little political will to implement,” says Edward Molopi, Community Research and Advocacy Officer at SERI.

Protracted legal cases stall movement as the backlog for temporary housing mounts. The municipality is now dealing with 25 applications by developers to evict around 3,000 families.