Tensions Grow Over South Africa Housing Shortage

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Many poor families in South Africa live in two-room houses, with extended-family living in the backyard. The government says it will build subsidized housing for the poor. But the building program has been a source of tension between "black" and "colored" South Africans.


Since 1994, the African National Congress has built more than two million houses for the poor of South Africa. Millions are still needed. In the township, a dozen family members can live in a single two-room house while the extended family sleeps in the backyard.

But the poor aren't getting tired of their close quarters as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Sometimes a toilet is a dream come true. In Eden Park, a neighborhood outside Johannesburg, there are more than 2,000 dreams - okay, toilets - covering a field as far the eye can see. They're in cement outhouses that stand like tin soldiers on a parade ground - sinks on the side.

Toilets like these are the earliest physical sign that the government of South Africa plans to build subsidized housing here - a house for every outhouse.

But what happens to a dream deferred?

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. DAVID ARANGI(ph) (Resident, South Africa): These toilets are standing here for three years. I don't know what's going on, honestly. But they are very slowly with houses - very, very slow. Three years ago, they started. Three years.

THOMPKINS: David Arangi lives in a nearby apartment building. He's a retired woodworker and community activist, and he is the exact color of the poet Langston Hughes.

Arangi is not tall, but he's not short either. He's not fat, but he's not thin either. He's not black, but he's not white either. Arangi is a 57-year-old colored man living in a colored neighborhood in what is officially a nonracial democracy. But let's face it, there's nothing nonracial about South Africa.

Mr. ARANGI: If everybody was black or everybody was white, everything should have gone well in our own world. But this race thing will never end.

THOMPKINS: Arangi suspects that those 2,000 toilets would have matching houses by now if his colored neighbors had voted for the ruling African National Congress. But colored South Africans make their own problems, he says, when they refuse to associate with black folks.

Mr. ARANGI: There are some of us, some of our colored people that's - but whitish; that's got blue eyes and long hair. And I believe those are the ones that's not so happy, you know, with black people.

THOMPKINS: The Eden Muse apartments where Arangi lives have been overcrowded for some time now - as tightly packed as a fat man in a wetsuit. In fact, the entire neighborhood is overcrowded. There are about 200 new houses in the area but the waiting list for those houses has an estimated 12,000 names on it. And black or colored, ANC or no ANC, all those people and more had been waiting for a place to call their own.

Sobata Satoli(ph) is a black South African and ANC member who got a house last winter. He and his wife have been waiting nearly 20 years for their own place. They've been living with his mother at her house, along with 17 other people.

Mr. SOBATA SATOLI (Resident, South Africa): I feel very great. I feel very great because now I can do whatever I want to do in my house, whatever I want to do. My kids, they are free. I've got my bedroom. They've got their bedroom. So I'm very happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Some of the new houses are without power and is yet unoccupied. Squatters tried to move in earlier this year, but that ended in fisticuffs, colored against black, black against colored, and ultimately, poor against poor.

Ms. MARIA MEYER(ph) (Nurse): Oh, it was like riots and they were burning tires. It was terrible. It was terrible. There was police everywhere. You couldn't even drive in with your car. If I didn't have my baby, I would have been there fighting as well.

THOMPKINS: That's Maria Meyer, a colored nurse who lives in the same apartment building. That she would be willing to fight someone for a drab, two-room cement house points to a restlessness that the poor are feeling in South Africa today. Unemployment nationwide is as high as 40 percent. Many of the people who live in Eden Muse come home to itty-bitty rooms or itty-bitty zozos, which are sheds made of sheets of sink in somebody's backyard. Arangi hates zozos.

Mr. ARANGI: You think a lot about, let's say, 20 sinks and then you just put them together, fasten them together and then you've got a house. It's not healthy to stay in a zozo.

THOMPKINS: Over the years, Arangi successfully led a campaign to reduce rental fees at his apartment building. The effort took months and even brought about a rent boycott. The next phase of his dream was to improve the neighborhood's relations with the black ruling party. He held an ANC membership drive in his apartment, but there weren't many takers - a little more than 700 in an area of 14,000. The majority of voters here support the overwhelmingly white Democratic Alliance Party. Arangi says he's out of politics now, but he's proud of what he was able to do for the area.

Mr. ARANGI: Standing together and doing things together. We've got a lot of that honestly. We've got a lot.

THOMPKINS: Including what new housing there is in Eden Park, and of course, all those toilets. But what happens when dreams go? Shortly after this interview, David Arangi had an asthma attack and died. Vandals in the neighborhood are now breaking the windows of the outhouses and picking off the sinks.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

SEABROOK: Eden Park may not yet be paradise on Earth, but the World Bank reported this week that the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa are growing fast enough to make a dent in poverty.

The bank said that over the past decade, the region has recorded an average growth rate of 5.4 percent. Its chief economist for Africa said the continent has learned to trade more effectively with the rest of the world and to rely more on the private sector. Still, 41 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans live on less than a dollar a day. This is an improvement from 1990, but it is still the world's worst poverty rate.

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