The R2bn price of a blunder

THE year was 1994 and the newly elected ANC government announced that it would build millions of houses for the poor.

THE year was 1994 and the newly elected ANC government announced that it would build millions of houses for the poor.

The little matchbox abodes, which came to be known as RDP (Reconstruction and Development Project) houses, sprouted everywhere throughout the country.

In its last election manifesto the ANC declared that 2,6million houses had been built for the poor since 1994. It is not clear how many of these have been condemned and will be rebuilt.

The ANC government was adhering to the letter of the Freedom Charter that "there will be housing for all".

But some warts started developing in the programme. There were reports about the rigging of waiting lists and allegations of councillors selling RDP houses. There were also complaints about the quality of the houses.

For years the government seemed to be turning a deaf ear to the complaints. The attitude was almost "be thankful that unlike the apartheid government, this government is giving you houses for free".

Now the government is destroying and rebuilding some of these houses.

Sowetan has learnt that so far more than R500million has been spent on this national project and projections are that the total cost will be more than R2billion.

The plan is to spend an average R190million a year on better quality and bigger four-roomed houses.

The one-roomed and two-roomed structures - built between 1994 and 1996 - have been condemned for being of poor quality and sub-standard. They are being replaced by proper four-roomed houses.

The department of human settlement has confirmed that the project started in 2006 after the National Home Builders Registration Council released new specifications for low-cost houses.

Deputy director-general of the Human Settlements Department Kaba Kabagambe told Sowetan: " The government is rectifying the mistakes made before the introduction of the National Home Builders Registration Council in 1997."

One other criticism against the old houses was the size. The houses were between 16m² and 20m² in size. The new houses will be at least 36m².

The point of this information is that the government now has an opportunity to redeem itself when it comes to how it implements some of its policies.

The "there shall be housing for all" policy was fraught with political opportunism. The government wanted to show the electorate that it was different from the apartheid regime and in the process it started doing things for (in some instances to) the people instead of "with the people".

One still wonders why the government did not provide subsidies and land to communities and involved them in the building of the houses.

The government could, for example, have encouraged people to form cooperatives and start building their own houses.

Standards could have been set with skilled individuals employed to train people in the actual building of the houses.

Such a process would have achieved several developmental objectives. It would have provided people with skills while also creating jobs for them.

It would also have brought social cohesion among groups involved in such a community building exercise.

This most probably would not have delivered the houses at the rate the government has done. But it would have been a relatively sustainable developmental exercise. This is all about believing in people as agents for the social change.

Instead the government decided to privatise the process.

This presented unscrupulous individuals with the opening they needed to take advantage of the government's commitment to black economic empowerment. Self-enrichment became the order of the day.

Working in cahoots with corrupt government officials they made millions delivering low-quality houses. In some instances they left projects unfinished, disappearing with millions of taxpayers' money.

The remedial route taken by the government will be very costly to the taxpayer - who now has to foot the estimated R2billion bill to correct something that could have been avoided - with proper community consultation and accountability.

One way for the government to redeem itself is to replicate on a large scale the People Housing Project (PHP).

This is a project in which the government contracts local cooperatives from an identified area to build RDP houses commonly known as PHPs.

The model empowers communities and will to some extent redress the situation where houses are built by contractors who are only a interested in making profit.