Thursday 10 July 2014

Housing and Family Life in South Africa

An address to SpiritFest at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 7, 2014:

Joshua 24:15 says: "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Good morning, ladies and gentleman. Let me start first by thanking the Dean and the organizers of SpiritFest, especially Ms Maggie Clarke, not only for inviting me but for taking care of all the practical detail leading up to today’s programme. Thank you to the SpiritFest committee for reminding us that God is God of all, including art, for God is the creator God. As I said in my homily yesterday, this Cathedral is home for me and evokes a welter of emotions that I can express with sensitivity and care, but also without fear.

I have been given the theme, Housing and family life in South Africa.

My ancestral home is Makgobaskloof in Limpopo, and the bulk of my family live in Thlabine nearby. My father and his brothers and cousins moved to Alexandra township in Johannesburg in the early 1940s, in search of better pastures. Around 1895 the Makgoba monarch was beheaded in a war called the Makgoba-Boer war of 1888-1895. To date, the skull of Mamphoku Makgoba is yet to be found. In 1974, my family in Alexandra was forcibly removed to Pimville in Soweto, to a house which is still in my family – my parents now having died, my nephew stays in the home. Our home in Alex has been demolished and in its place a school, Zenzeleni, has been built.

Last week, together with other bishops and their spouses, I went to Alex, to reconnect with the places of my childhood, to where I worshipped, and to see where Madiba stayed when he first arrived in Johannesburg. I felt a strong sense of connection with Alex, but one that was underlain by the pain of displacement and relocation which my family had suffered.

This personal journey has heightened my sensitivity to those who need housing and shelter – which, along with the right to live, is among the most important of the rights to which we are entitled and the provision of which is also among the most important responsibilities our society needs to fulfil. Without shelter, the most important unit of human existence – the family – does not have place to flourish. The forced removals of apartheid stripped away the dignity of my parents. Even at the age of 14, being loaded onto the back of a truck in Alexandra, to be dumped in Pimville, unsettled me as well as disrupting relationships which our family had built over many years, throwing our whole community into disarray.

The forced removals of apartheid were evil, destroyed human dignity, and disintegrated families. In recent days, the forced removal and the demolition of the dwellings of the poor and downtrodden in Lenasia in Gauteng, and in Lwandle in the Western Cape – just as the cold and wet of winter held us in its grip – were deeply painful to watch and must have been totally traumatic for the families who had to build dwellings again from scratch. Whatever the circumstances that led to those evictions, they were cruel and totally unacceptable, resurrecting the wounds of how Apartheid trampled on human dignity. When faced with such events, I cannot stand by idly, but have to plead for the cause of the displaced; housing and shelter are not only constitutional rights but biblical imperatives.

Let me turn my focus to an assessment of South Africa’s human settlement patterns to paint a picture of the challenges we face.

Government white papers over the years have noted that post-apartheid governments inherited a legacy of very low rates of formal housing provision, at a time when the society has been urbanizing rapidly. In 2004, the government noted that one-fifth of people who lived in urban areas were first-generation residents and that this trend was set to continue. The backlog in housing gave rise to overcrowding and squatter settlements, and led to land invasions in urban areas. In the democratic era, the provision of housing and services has not kept up with the formation of households. Various academic and government studies note how segregation, in the words of one expert, served to “hide debilitating poverty”, and also draw a link between our housing shortages and crime.

Over the last number of years, I have been referred as “the toilet archbishop” because of my concern over water and sanitation, which go hand in hand with housing. Poor sanitation and the failure to deliver safe water in under-developed communities is a stubbornly persistent problem, not only at the level of providing infrastructure but in our failure to maintain existing services. Just to remind you of a few examples:

  • The fact that there are still people who are operating a bucket system of removing sewage.
  • We have had enough discussion about the saga of open toilets in the Western Cape and the Free State. We really need to get our act together to build proper toilets.
  • Recently we suffered the utter shame of a school child dying in a latrine in Limpopo.
  • And lately tragedy struck in the community of Bloemhof where people died from contaminated water. Is this the kind of wake-up call we need?
Our failure to get to grips with these challenges is a failure to address ourselves to upholding basic human dignity. Families, as an institution, are under siege as it is, without having to undergo these experiences to try to survive. On such questions of providing dignified human settlement there should not be explanations but action.

The most common health problems associated with poor sanitation are: diarrhoea and dysentery, bilharzias, cholera, worms, eye infections and skin diseases. There is increased risk from bacteria, infections and disease for people with reduced immune systems due to HIV/Aids. The social and psychological problems associated with poor sanitation are well documented. Toilets placed at a distance from the home, inadequate communal facilities, inadequate disposal of waste and other poor sanitation practices result in loss of privacy and dignity, exposure and increased risks to personal safety. It is especially women and the elderly who are the most inconvenienced. And so an ideal family housed in a place where parents have their privacy, and children have their space to grow, is undermined completely by these circumstances.

Although the school attendance of girls in South Africa is high compared to other developing countries, it is internationally recognised that poor sanitation facilities at schools can be one of the main reasons for girls to drop out.

The issue of service delivery protests has recently been a subject of study by a research unit of the University of the Witwatersrand, where it was found that the protests are becoming rooted in the dissatisfaction of communities about the basics not being in place.

Given this grim state of affairs what should be our message to society about family and human settlements?

1. The issue of human settlements must be elevated as a priority for our government. It is true that there are competing interests, but there is a need to avoid the backlogs on sanitation, for example. This will mean that there is a need to radically change our approach to the integrated development plans of municipalities. Various pronouncements have been made by successive democratic governments over the last twenty years, but the reality is that we have communities that are still in the same situation they were under Apartheid, where sanitation is concerned. We must commend the government for elevating the issue of sanitation to ministerial level. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating.

2. In order for this matter to receive attention civil society has to stand up a lot more to enforce what are basic human rights. The question remains – if a community has been without basic human rights related to sanitation and settlement, where are the faith communities that minister to them weekly? What action have they taken to ensure that this situation changes? We commend civil society initiatives like the one on Limpopo that has seen the birth of a coalition to focus on the issue of poor sanitation in schools. Such civil society pressure groups must be replicated across the country in order to hold government accountable.

3. The strike in Marikana, and the subsequent tragedy in that part of the country, has brought into focus the role of business in communities. Mining companies in particular make billions from the minerals below our land. The extent to which they plant back, both as a direct meeting of their obligations linked to their licence, and also simply as a moral duty to plant back, leaves much to be desired. It’s common knowledge that mining companies in particular are responsible for the collapse of the family unit. They are an example of what a migrant labour system can do to destabilise the family unit. Therefore a call for mining companies to invest in proper accommodation for families will go a long way in rebuilding the fabric of family in what is a huge constituency of mine workers. Secondly, and more importantly, the communities surrounding the mines must be attended to with huge investments that should eradicate things such as the bucket system, and therefore improve the health profile of these communities. Finally, business in general must identify communities where they derive their income, and partner with government to attend to the settlement challenges. Investment in sporting facilities or even mere fields can go a long way in ensuring that the settlement of communities is made even slightly bearable.

4. Community action. What has happened to local community action. In our culture letsema used to ensure that there is joint community action to clean up our places of abodes. These days we wait for government to do things for us. The President has called on all of us to clean up during Mandela day – this is a call that we endorse only as a reminder of what communities ought to be doing all around the year to live up to the adage, “cleanliness is next to Godliness”.

5. Once these things are done, we still have to attend to the spiritual challenge of refocusing the attention of society on the family. The scriptures give us hope that this battle can be won. The issue of fixing the family and the values that must underpin it, must start with each one of us.

We need to do introspection about what causes the family to disintegrate. There is a part of this story that has to do with the moral decline in our society. The fact that most crimes of murder are associated with people who know each other; the fact that we have so many reports of elderly women and toddlers being raped by family members, paints an ugly picture that must be corrected by each of us where we live.

Faith communities must launch a new initiative to encourage family ties. There are just too many families that are disintegrating under our watch as the church. What are we doing to support families that are going through difficulties? In this context there is a huge issue of child-headed households. These must be the responsibility of the churches. No household that is headed by children must be left to its own devices. If our ministry as the Church does not attend to this then it will become meaningless in our communities. There is no better action that will show our faith than taking care of children who are in these most vulnerable circumstances.

The teachings of the Church about family and love cannot be abandoned even in the face of the most difficult circumstances painted by these painful facts we shared today. We cannot abandon hope, no matter how dark the situation may seem.

At the end of the day, the issues of human settlements and family development are intricately linked. We must pursue them until there is stability in our society, and everyone can enjoy the liberation that was pronounced by the freedom charter, the liberation that is guaranteed by our wonderful constitution. Each of us must shine the light of hope wherever we are placed for the Ministry of the Lord.

May God bless you. Join me in declaring that me and my family shall serve the Lord.