Acknowledging our successes is important – The Star

16 November 2017 - Lindiwe Sisulu is quite right in saying that South Africa needs to “find a way of communicating our success story … because what we have done is nothing short of extraordinary”.

Michael Morris

Lindiwe Sisulu is quite right in saying that South Africa needs to “find a way of communicating our success story … because what we have done is nothing short of extraordinary”.

She is also quite right in saying, in effect: this is not just us blowing our own trumpet.

The Minister of Human Settlements was speaking, fittingly enough, at last week’s Govan Mbeki Awards ceremony at Gallagher Estate in Gauteng, an annual event held to acknowledge the contributions of many across the sector to significant gains in the provision of housing.

And she began her address by citing the considered judgement and research of an organisation that could not by any measure be counted a praise-singer of the ANC government: the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Sisulu was referring to the IRR’s report, “State of the Nation 2017: The Silver Lining”, an appraisal of “successes we have achieved as a society (which) are often overlooked”.

And in the housing sphere, the data is telling: The number of households living in a formal house more than doubled (131%) after 1996, from 5.8 million to 13.4 million by 2016; every day since 1996 more than 1 000 families (1 042) have moved into a formal house, and for every shack newly erected after 1996, just more than ten formal houses were built, the proportion of black families living in a formal house increasing from 52.5% in 1996 to 73.8% in 2015.

The 13-page “Silver Lining” report (http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/sona-2017-2013-the-silver-lining) provides other examples of progress South Africa has made, in the economy, the world of work, living standards, education, health, and crime.

In a brief preamble, the report notes that regular readers of IRR reports and users of its brie­fing services will have no illusions about “just how serious” the country’s challenges are, but that acknowledging South Africa’s successes is every bit as important in achieving “perspective”.

As it happens, the IRR has called for a thorough re-think of housing “delivery”, proposing that housing vouchers be given directly to beneficiaries – some 10 million South Africans between 25 and 35, who earn below a specified ceiling – and redeemable solely for housing-related purchases (rentals, bonds, improvements and so on).

The institute’s assessment is that, as things stand, housing provision is “deeply flawed”.

Even so, Sisulu’s remarks, and the IRR’s research on post-1994 gains, underscore a common – but also lazy - error in assessments that cast South Africa as a failing state that just can’t do anything right, and is, today, no better off and perhaps even worse off than it used to be.

It was once wryly said of the country in the 1990s that if pessimism were an export product, South Africa would rank among the globe’s wealthiest states.

The problem is not only that pessimism may be groundless, or that it tends to be self-fulfilling, but that it is profoundly disempowering, relieving society of the responsibility of engaging with what is true and real, and deluding millions into thinking that, against the scale of deficiency, there’s precious little to be gained from the effort of trying to overcome it.

Pessimism also tends to assume a fixed condition of hopelessness – and when it comes to housing, despair can always be counted on to seem rational. Ever-growing cities, dwindling resources, the prospect of land (and, in Cape Town this summer, water) running out, rising costs, growing social ills, clogged roads … and waiting lists for housing numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Nobody doubts our cities are becoming increasingly challenging spaces, but it is also true that only growing cities can be considered to be successful. There would be little to cheer in a city that was stagnant, and so unattractive it failed to grow.

This is the context in which urbanists, housing specialists, developers, economists and others will, in the next few years, judge the not insignificant shifts in housing policy and strategy flagged last week by Minister Sisulu.

She spoke of a “new approach”, a “vigorous, multi-pronged strategy”, with the government concentrating “on being an enabler to those who can, and being a provider only to those who can’t”. She referred to “shifting our focus to strengthen our strategies by providing land for people to build with our assistance”, coupled with a programme for temporary shelter.

Sisulu emphasised a commitment to partnerships with the private sector, and to working with municipalities in compiling a “credible national centralized database” of housing needs.

There will not, of course, be universal approval or applause for Minister Sisulu’s rationale, and nor should it be expected.

The IRR itself has developed extensive research-based proposals on enabling individuals and households to play a much more active role in meeting their own housing needs without having to depend on the state, and would argue that the country would do better to follow this route. 

Its study of 2015 (http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/atLiberty/liberty-2013-south-africas-housing-conundrum) showed that giving R800-a-month housing vouchers directly to all South Africans between 25 and 35 who fell below a specified earnings ceiling (about 10 million people at any given time who, over the 10-year period, would receive nearly R100 000) would be more efficient, enable wider housing options, accelerate housing delivery, stimulate investment, generate jobs, and give the weak economy a vital boost.

If current policy falls short of these objectives, in the context of Sisulu’s remarks last week, and the acknowledgement of post-1994 realities, the grounds for forging an argument about doing things differently or better is precisely the accurate data and measured appraisals which are capable of pinpointing deficiencies no less than achievements with the same rigour.

Michael Morris is head of media at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes and political and economic freedom.

 

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