NPR logo

Tensions Grow Over South Africa Housing Shortage

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Tensions Grow Over South Africa Housing Shortage


Tensions Grow Over South Africa Housing Shortage

Tensions Grow Over South Africa Housing Shortage

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.


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

GWEN THOMPKINS: But what happens to a dream deferred?


THOMPKINS: 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: 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.

THOMPKINS: 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.

THOMPKINS: There are some of us, some of our colored people that's a bit 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: 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.

THOMPKINS: 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.


THOMPKINS: Some of the new houses are without power and as 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.

THOMPKINS: 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 Mews come home to itty-bitty rooms or itty-bitty zozos, which are sheds made of sheets of zinc in somebody's backyard. Arangi hates zozos.

THOMPKINS: You take a lot - about, let's say, 20 zincs, 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.

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

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

SEABROOK: 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.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.