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Inside Labour: Ideas to battle a poisonous legacy

Jul 14 2017 05:00
Terry Bell*

THERE are many thousands of gainfully employed men and women, together with their children, living in the most appallingly squalid conditions in shacks in urban ghettoes around the country.

Even where, in some areas, government assistance is available in terms of RDP housing, they do not qualify because they earn too much, but they also earn too little to qualify for a bond or to buy a decent home.

These are people referred to as the “missing middle”, many of them trade union members. They are the victims of the poisonous legacy of apartheid’s group areas; a legacy that has been largely perpetuated by successive national, provincial and local governments who never seem short of promoting rainbow nation platitudes.

But the missing middle are not alone. As the drift to the urban areas in search of jobs and a better life - a global phenomenon - continues, millions of families join the shackland squalor in overcrowded and insanitary slums, often in the backyards of only slightly better houses.

And while politicians tend to make much of the provision of RDP housing or even the single room “starter homes” in “townships”, this merely perpetuates the group areas legacy, reinforcing the geographic divisions of the past. It now seems likely that these issues will be highlighted and may be taken up by some trade unions, since many of the working people living in squalor are union members.

They should come to the fore when Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane tables her report on conditions in Cape Town’s Masiphumelele ghetto. She made an “on site” inspection two weeks ago and had, at one stage, to be carried after her high-heeled shoes became stuck in the mix of mud and human excrement that contaminates much of the lower, northern area of “Masi”.

Shacks built on wooden pallet “stilts” above the sludge in what is classified as a “reed bed” have in the past been demolished by the council on grounds that the area is a protected wetland. It is not. And the swampy zone is the only area available for expansion in an urban ghetto that is completely surrounded by traditional “white” surburbia.  

About half the district’s 80 000 population is crammed into the 2km2 that is Masi. The other half share the estimated 40km2 that makes up the rest of the district. But while there will undoubtedly be attempts to make political capital out of the report on Masi, it should not be taken in isolation.

There have been similar complaints from similar communities in many parts of the country, varying only in detail. The visit by Mkhwebane followed a long-standing complaint to the Human Rights Commission by community activist Tshepo Moletsane.

He and others in the community have for years pointed out that additional land to the west of the squalor that is Masi, was ceded by the National Parks Board to allow for the extension of the ghetto. But, as I see it, this merely makes for a larger ghetto if and when it is ever made available.

Mkhwebane’s report may also mention the “missing middle”. And in Masi, there are several classic examples. In one case, a couple of “backyarders” and their two children live in a two-roomed shack for which they pay R2 500 a month. Both parents have permanent jobs in the area, he as an administrator, she as a nurse. Between them, they have savings of R150 000.

On the basis of their combined incomes, a bank would lend them another R150 000, but that would barely cover the deposit on a house in the suburbs outside the ghetto. “I could get a decent house in Khayelitsha,” he admits. But that would mean a daily, 44km commute for both parents to and from the segregated township relic on the Cape Flats. 

Such examples were highlighted last Friday at a panel discussion hosted in Pretoria by the PSA (formerly Public Servants Association) as part of the union’s 97th birthday celebrations. Journalist and TV anchor Macfarlane Moleli, who chaired the panel, pointed out that it is possible to find people [in more established townships] who are unemployed, living in an RDP house alongside a one-roomed shack occupied by a teacher or nurse who are part of the “missing middle”.

As a result, the PSA is now committed to examining how the union, and the labour movement as a whole, can step in to alleviate the situation. This decision comes at a time when public sector unions - the PSA, with more than 230 000 members is probably the largest - have been voicing concern about how their pension funds are being invested.

The Government Employee Pension Fund, worth more than R1.6trn, is managed by the state’s Public Investment Corporation that some unionists accuse of making “politically inspired” and non-performing investments. One argument is that the unions should instead take more direct control of the funds of their members and perhaps invest largely in providing housing for rent and purchase.

This idea is not new. It was first floated in 1993 and turned down by Cosatu general secretary Jay Naidoo on the grounds that it was “too capitalistic”. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has finally come.

* Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

Follow Fin24 on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. 24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

terry bell  |  inside labour  |  opinion  |  labour

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