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Snakes and sewage: Housing troubles grow in S. Africa’s Soweto

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JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Crumbling walls, sewage leaking into homes, dangerous loose wires – and sometimes, snakes.

These are some of the myriad issues residents in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, have been dealing with for decades, as they say the government continues to deny them title deeds and urgent upgrades to their homes outside Johannesburg.

“It was a dream come true when the government allocated us these homes after more than 15 years of living in a shack,” said Nkosinathi Khumalo, resident of the Soweto suburb known as Snake Park because of its slithering visitors.

His home was built on top of wetlands, including a corrugated roof that blows off in high winds and water damage on the walls.

“The sad part was when I realised we were being dumped here. We have been suffering for so long,” said Khumalo, 35, who is currently unemployed.

Made up of five smaller townships, Snake Park is home to about 5,000 properties built under South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Programme, an ongoing government-funded social housing project that began in 1994.

According to official statistics, about 14% of South African homes – or 2.3 million properties – are subsidised by the government.

Houses are allocated to low-income families and people with disabilities, althought several families in Snake Park told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they waited at least a decade to get their homes.

Now, residents are angered by the rapid deterioration of those homes, saying the government took shortcuts when it built them so close to a wetland, making the houses susceptible to flooding, cracking and crumbling.

Those hazards have come to the fore in recent months, after the government ordered South Africans to stay home during a strict six-month lockdown to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Obviously it is a challenge to stay home and inside if your house is flooding,” said Thabiso Toti, a 53-year-old unemployed Snake Park resident.

Residents have 90 days from when they are allocated their house to sign a so-called “happy letter” confirming they are satisfied with the quality of the property, said Edward Makwarela of the human settlements department of Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located.

After that, any issues must be referred to the National Home Builders Registration Council for repairs, the project manager said in emailed comments.

Makwarela noted that the Snake Park homes were part of the government’s People’s Housing Programme, in which communities are actively involved in building the properties.

“Another issue could be the poor workmanship … driven by the community themselves, and they were not skilled,” he said.

REPAIR COSTS

Residents said they would like the chance to fix their homes themselves, but most cannot afford to.

And bank loans are out of reach, they added, because they have no title deeds, which South African banks often require as collateral.

Makwarela pointed out that while the homes in Snake Park all have water, sanitation and electricity, the area still has no roads or stormwater drains, which he said is holding up the process of distributing title deeds.

“My grandmother who lived next door passed away last week waiting her whole life for her title deeds,” said Khumalo, the Snake Park resident.

“If we had title deeds, we would try to get loans and build for ourselves,” he added, stepping over the drainage trench he dug around his home to try and stop water running in when it rains.

DIRTY WATER

Housing and land are contentious topics in post-apartheid South Africa, where inequality is rife.

About 2.9 million to 3.6 million people live in informal settlements, according to the most recent census figures, although experts say this number is likely much higher.

Residents in Snake Park say that on top of the structural problems with their homes, they have also complained to authorities about water from burst sewage pipes flowing into their houses, down their streets and into nearby water sources.

Environmental activist Tiny Dhlamini explained that there are smaller tributaries in Soweto that flow into the Vaal River, one of the main water sources for Gauteng province.

The Upper Vaal catchment, together with a few other water sources, supports more than 13 million people, according to the nonprofit Centre for Environmental Rights, based in Johannesburg.

“There is a lot of pollution from the sewage pipes. When they burst, they go into our river stream and we, as poor people, are compelled to use this dirty water,” said Dhlamini, standing by a small, dark brown river in Soweto.

As Johannesburg strains to accommodate its swelling population, problems like faulty plumbing stretch beyond Snake Park.

In other suburbs of South Africa’s largest city, including more affluent areas, residents report leaking pipes, exploding manholes and sewage bringing condoms, tampons and faeces into their kitchens.

Isaac Dhludhlu, spokesman for Johannesburg Water, which is responsible for the city’s water and sanitation, said the organisation has to monitor 11,000km (6,800 miles) of sewer pipelines across the city.

With such a large sewage network to oversee, the government body relies on residents to report any issues to it immediately, he noted.

“There is a major infrastructural backlog costed at over 10 billion rand ($611 million) to fix,” said Dhludhlu, adding that ageing infrastructure, illegal water connections and foreign objects in the water system all contribute to burst pipes.

“We aren’t able to upgrade infrastructure every year, but we have maintenance teams on the ground who should be able to unblock pipes and resolve issues,” he said.

‘NO ONE CARES’

At Snake Park, residents pointed out crumbling foundations, poorly placed pipes, cracks in walls and – as confirmed by Google Maps – a complete lack of street names.

“It is like Snake Park doesn’t even exist, no one cares,” said Dhlamini, the activist, who also lives in the neighbourhood.

If someone is sick, she explained, they have to carry the person to the nearest main road about 400 metres (1,300 feet) away, because without street names ambulance drivers cannot find their way around the neighbourhood.

Despite the challenges, residents have tried to make Snake Park home, planting roses and vegetables and cleaning up the nearby wetland when it becomes filled with trash.

They hold out hope that title deeds will bring a sense of permanence to their neighbourhood, bringing more economic opportunity and halting fears of possible future eviction.

“It all comes down to title deeds,” said Toti, an avid gardener.

“We would help fix this place up. I would take out a loan, improve the house and even add on an extra room,” he said.

“I would know that this is my house and I would believe it.”

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