Rahat* and his family recently moved into their new state-subsidised house in Pelican Park, on the edge of Grassy Park in Cape Town, from an informal settlement in Ottery. He has three children but only his youngest lives with him. The bedroom designated for the children stands empty.
The entire house, in fact, is still nothing more than a dusty brick shell that is yet to become a home. This is because, despite having received a letter calling his family to move in, the house was left to them unfinished. Not only are the weather-side walls unplastered on the inside, but some windows are also missing latches and one door has no handle.
Rahat, a builder himself, is appalled at the poor quality of workmanship used to construct the house. Like many of Pelican Park’s new residents, it is now up to him to complete the job.
As I enter the house, his wife greets me with tired eyes and a warm smile. The open-plan front room and kitchenette is small and dimly lit by a single yellow light. Two packets of groceries stand in one corner under the sink. There doesn’t seem to be alternative cupboard space or a shelf on which to put them. On the counter stands a gas stove, a loaf of white bread and a red packet of tea.
Pelican Park is one of the City of Cape Town’s biggest low-income housing projects. Situated on the edge of Grassy Park suburb, in Cape Town, between Zeekoevlei and Strandfontein Road, the site is prospected to hold 2,100 state-subsidised houses, as well as two schools, a clinic and shops for low-income families.
As yet, none of these facilities are available. In fact, Pelican Park has proven for many residents to be further away from work, schools, employment opportunities and shops than in their previous living situations. A one-way taxi fare to the nearby facilities of “Busy Corner” in Grassy Park, or to the suburb of Wynberg, both central transport and market hubs, is the equivalent of one loaf of bread.
Many of Cape Town’s poorer families have lived for years in uncertain circumstances, often facing threats of eviction in informal living spaces. Yet, as they move in to a subsidised house that, in many cases, they have fought for years to acquire, these same families, like Rahat’s, say they are finding their circumstances worse-off than the conditions from where they came. With homes made from inferior materials the promises of decent housing have not been met.
In Rahat’s front room, the unplastered walls reveal cracks up every corner of the room, and the splatters of dried cement around a skew bathroom door frame confirm the slapstick nature with which the task of building was undertaken.
A corner with metal sticking out and cracks in the cement work. Christy Zinn.
I could clearly see a group of high school boys playing soccer outside in the street through the window above the toilet. It was easy to notice how the ground-level bathroom offers no privacy for anyone making use of it.
“I have three daughters. How can I expect them to use the bathroom?” Rahat asked.
The bath has a hot and cold tap, but there is no hot water. Residents say they were promised solar water heaters, which have not been provided. Authorities have reportedly told complaining residents that acquiring hot water in their homes is a task they themselves must undertake.
As the city approaches midwinter, Rahat is not the only resident concerned about how his children will cope. Financial resources to undertake any renovations are severely scarce.
He went upstairs to show me one of the two modest bedrooms. It was evening, and the steps were not only difficult to see, but some even sloped along their edges making it easy to slip. I excused my slow navigation upward. Rahat mentioned that both he and his youngest daughter have already fallen down the stairs on separate occasions.
In the bedroom, the first thing I noticed was the grey dust blanketing the plastic thrown over a single mattress turned on its side. I was not upstairs for ten minutes, when I started to feel a sense of uncomfortable dryness in my throat.
Rahat’s wife is asthmatic. Before completing their first month in the new house, she was admitted to hospital on account of struggling to breathe. It was discovered that she had cement in her lungs. After four days of hospitalisation, she was sent back to the very residence that made her sick. She had lived in informal living conditions for most of her life, and had been waiting for that very house for 25 years.
The difficulties Rahat and his family are experiencing are not uncommon. Many of the Pelican Park residents I spoke to claimed to never have suffered as many health problems as they have had in the short space of time since moving to their new, subsidised houses. The majority of these residents come from informal living conditions.
Besides posing a health hazard, the homes also pose a safety hazard and have failed to uphold the promise of decent living that was made to prospective residents. Despite this, residents are quiet, and do not know the channels accessible to them through which they can complain.
Power Construction built the homes, and when approached for comment by a reporter , spokesman Bongani Mgayi said they were aware of some of the complaints, reports news site iol.co.za.
How is it considered justifiable to move hundreds of low-income families into unfinished homes in a neighborhood that offers little opportunity for prosperity? In what context is it fair to subject citizens of the city to live in poor health and safety conditions? As awareness of this case grows, these are some of the questions the municipality will be expected to answer.
*Not his real name.
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities.Read older posts from this section