SUCCESS STORY: Turning shacks into 'mansions' in South Africa

Posted: 1 June 2004

Author: Pia Diaz

A women's housing co-operative in Ivory Park, South Africa, has become a beacon to shanty dwellers, providing some hope for the country's massive housing problem, as Pia Diaz reports.

The sun beats hot on the group of women who are engrossed in the task of making bricks. As sweat trickles down their faces, they sing. "Yes, it's hard work to make the bricks and also to build a house. But I can't just stay at home doing nothing. Besides, other women helped me build my house. I can only do the same to others," says 60-year-old Victoria Datini.

Masisizane volunteers. Photo: WFS
Masisizane volunteers. Photo: WFS
Volunteers with the director of Masisizane, Thembi Nkambule (wearing white cap and t-shirt), singing and dancing in celebration having received a major donation from the German government.© WFS
Datini is one of 300 volunteer workers that have turned Masisizane - zulu for working together - a Women's Building Co-operative, into an example hailed by all in South Africa. With little savings and a lot of work, Masisizane has built 79 houses for its members in the past few years.

Buying bricks

But the beginning was very tough. Masisizane was founded in 1999 by Anna Mafokeng, a mother of two, living in a squatters' camp in Ivory Park, a township. Mafokeng was shocked when her neighbour's child died after strong rains washed away her shack made of corrugated iron and cardboard. So this school dropout decided to build a solid house by saving a little bit every day.

Mafokeng's initial idea was to get a group of women and save enough money to buy bricks for one house. When that was done, the group would continue to save money for the next house. By sacrificing the equivalent of one loaf of bread every day, each woman would be able to save about US $ 2.5 by the end of a week. The money thus saved would then be given to the first woman elected in the group to get the house.

Women volunteers

But the plan ran into rough weather. When the project began, only six women believed in Anna Mafokeng's vision. They had very little money, so they decided to build the house themselves, to save on the cost of labour. The first one they built was demolished because local construction officials found several problems with it. "We were angry, but we didn't make those mistakes again," said Mafokeng during an interview after the Ministry of Housing elected her "builder of the month". Only when several houses were built did more women believe that the project was not just another scheme to take away their money.

Unfortunately, Mofokeng is no longer alive to see her project blooming; she died of AIDS early in 2004. But her initiative has clearly benefited many women and today, Thembi Nkambule heads the co-operative. Masisizane has already built 79 houses, ranging from two to six rooms through the hard work of 300 women volunteers. When the government saw the first 20 houses, it decided to pitch in - the women received courses on house- and window-frame building, and some basic knowledge on wiring and plumbing. The government also gave them a brick building machine.

Creating parks

Recently, Masisizane has received a donation from the viewers of ZDF, a German TV channel, which had telecast a three-minute piece on Masisizane on Women's Day (March 8). "We are beginning to get help from many places," says Nkambule. "This now poses another problem, since people sometimes think they don't have to pay anymore. So we try to put the money in creating parks for the children or other things to make it clear to the women that they still have to give their weekly contribution."

According to Nkambule, Masisizane can be successful only if every woman involved in the co-operative puts in her daily saving, and until the last woman has received her house. In a most significant development, the government has recently begun to acknowledge the rights of these women. Once a Masisizane house is finished for a particular woman member, the land title deed is also given to her. "This is an important incentive to build the houses," explains Nkambule.

Motivating more women to join such an initiative is an ongoing challenge for the group. Less than 10 per cent of the population in South Africa belongs to any sort of civic organisation. The reasons for this are a complex mix of apartheid legacy - cultural divisions, poverty, and a sense of powerlessness that the former oppressive (white) government cultivated. Today, the government is taking Masisizane women - led by Nkambule - to other townships, to teach more women to help themselves. Another Masisizane group has already begun work in Orange Farm and yet another will begin soon in Soweto; both these townships are one hour away from Ivory Park.

'Dream house'

"Many women just look at us, when we begin to work. They say they won't work if they don't get a salary. They don't understand that this is their own work," says Joyce Vezi, 54, who has got her dream house already. Over the past 10 years, the South African government has built 1.6 million houses for the poor. However, even today, about one quarter of the country's "houses" include traditional dwellings and shacks.

Singing as they work, the women of Masisizane do everything - from preparing a foundation to roofing. For the more technical aspects of plumbing and plastering, they hire local men at reduced rates. Recently, the Minister of Housing presented the keys of a four-room house to 84-year-old Emma Zondi. Thanks to Masisizane, its oldest member is a now the proud owner of a house. The presence of the Minister was an acknowledgement of the community's efforts to fight housing shortage.

"When I moved into my house, I just wept with joy," says Zondi. "I never stayed in a decent house in all my days. All of my furniture was destroyed because of a leak in my shack. But moving into a house has healed me physically and spiritually. I thought I would die living in a shack. This is a mansion."

Source: Women's Feature Service.