30 years on, economic apartheid continue to haunt South Africans

The end of apartheid brought political rights and freedoms, but enduring inequality still divides South Africa on the eve of its seventh democratic election. Housing policies by the African National Congress (ANC) have often reinforced apartheid’s geography rather than reversing it.

Jameelah’s room was once a morgue, Faldilah’s a bathroom, and Bevil’s the doctor’s office where he collected his diabetes medication. They are all squatting in a derelict hospital in Cape Town, protesting the government’s failure to provide affordable housing.

Activists from Reclaim the City occupied Woodstock Hospital seven years ago, aiming to secure property close to the city center for better access to jobs and services. Bevil Lucas, a movement leader, describes this as combating a new form of economic apartheid that keeps the poor on the city’s periphery, unable to afford high rents in the center.

For Jameelah Davids, the location was vital due to her autistic son’s nearby school. She settled her family in the former morgue office. Faldilah Petersen turned a hospital bathroom into a home after facing multiple evictions, finding stability and proximity to the city. Despite city authorities agreeing to develop the site for residential use, they still consider the tenants illegal occupiers who must leave before development begins.

The ANC, in power for 30 years, promised housing in its Freedom Charter, building over three million homes and providing ownership or rental at below-market rates. However, government housing lists remain long, with Davids waiting nearly 30 years and Petersen even longer. Most new housing is far from city centers, failing to reverse apartheid’s spatial planning.

Cape Town is especially segregated, says urban policy researcher Nick Budlender, highlighting that no affordable housing has been built in the inner city since apartheid ended. Activists target underutilized public land for low-income housing, arguing it is better used for homes than for storing vehicles.

The provincial government, led by the Democratic Alliance (DA), is developing a “better living” model on state land near the city. The Conradie Park project offers a mix of subsidized and market-value housing, with more projects planned but facing budget constraints and uncertain timelines.

Despite housing being a critical election issue, it has slipped from political agendas. The DA’s manifesto and other parties do not specifically address it. In Khayelitsha township, many residents like Noliyema Tetakome, who has lived there for 49 years, are disillusioned with the lack of progress and do not expect elections to bring change. She spends a significant portion of her salary on transport to her job as a gardener, a common struggle among township residents.

The ANC’s potential loss of its absolute majority reflects growing disillusionment. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) offer a radical plan to redistribute wealth, and new party Rise Mzansi criticizes both the DA and ANC for failing to address the spatial planning needs of Cape Town.

Bevil Lucas, a former anti-apartheid activist, remains hopeful despite his disappointment. He believes the future holds possibilities and warns that failing to address social needs could lead to significant unrest. “What do people have to lose when they are already homeless, when they are not able to have shelter?” he asks, underscoring the urgent need for political action on housing.

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