RDP houses in Mdantsane, in the Eastern Cape. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
RDP houses in Mdantsane, in the Eastern Cape. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

There was a time when Nelson Mandela’s house in Qunu, along the N2 highway near Mthatha, was the only modern marvel in an area that traditionally built its houses from mud. Not any more. These days, Madiba’s house has serious competition.

A housing boom is taking place along the N2 section that runs through the former Transkei. But it is a boom that is different from the ones we have seen elsewhere.

The obvious distinctiveness of this boom is that mud-built rondavels, their roofs draped in thatch and floors paved with cow dung, have given way to modern architecture, similar to that found in the upmarket residential suburbs of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

There are other differences that are not noticeable to the naked eye, but are there nonetheless. One of these is that this market has grown without bank loans, as many of the owners of the double-storey mansions and multistructure homesteads do not have formal title deeds to use as collateral. This has not discouraged them from digging deep into their wallets to build the homes of their dreams in an area now considered prime land because of its proximity to the best road in the former Transkei.

While this boom has not succeeded in drawing in commercial banks, it is attracting the attention of fortune-seekers operating retail shops and hardware stores, eager to make a quick buck from the middle-class consumers, many of whom park luxury SUVs and double-cab bakkies in their yards and garages.

These are socially mobile individuals who have come to terms with living in a developing country, and that if they wait for First World solutions (title deeds and bank loans) to solve their hunger for land they may never have their own homes as home ownership is prohibitively expensive in the First World parts of SA.

So they resort to acquiring parcels of communally-owned land, allocated by tribal chiefs for as little as R300 and a bottle of brandy. Some have acquired land this way and built B&Bs and flats to lease to workers and students living close to the towns situated along the N2.

But where does the wealth fuelling the mushrooming of these middle-class settlements come from?

Locals speculate that the settlements are a product of the government’s BEE socioeconomic policies, such as employment equity and preferential procurement aimed at uplifting black women and men. Others say the boom is fuelled by cash-flush retirees, or that some of these property investors are politically-connected entrepreneurs who have benefited from the proceeds of corruption.

I have also heard that remittances from well-paid, locally-bred migrants working in cities across SA are giving this housing boom a push. In the past, mining was a major source of remittances, but gold mines started laying off workers in Gauteng in the mid-1990s, resulting in retrenched miners returning home, many broke and broken. These unemployed mineworkers often returned to live in mud houses, and so this group is a non-factor in what has transpired recently.

It is likely that all of the above-mentioned factors are contributing to the rapid growth of formal housing in this area. It all points to one thing — black incomes have generally risen since the end of apartheid in 1994.

But I have also made two critical observations about this phenomenon, which I believe are driving this boom over and above rising incomes. The first is the generally low standard of municipal services, and the second is a growing hunger for land.

There is clear evidence of a trend of middle-class families in small towns situated along the N2 escaping townships to settle on the outskirts due to unreliable and poor municipal township services, from potholed roads to uncollected rubbish, water shortages and persistent power cuts.

This is certainly the case in towns such as Mthatha and Butterworth, where there has been an explosion of semirural settlements. Inhabitants are sending their children out of town to access better education opportunities in East London, King William’s Town, Makhanda and as far away as KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

Some inhabitants of these settlements told me they moved to these areas after giving up hope that their municipalities would supply them with reliable services. These ratepayers have liberated themselves from such municipalities. They are essentially living off-grid. They explore new ways to harvest water from underground sources and rooftops, and generate their own power using solar technologies.

Meanwhile, the municipalities that drove away paying ratepayers are finding themselves left with poor residents who cannot afford to pay for services.

With demand for land on the rise, the Eastern Cape housing boom is unlikely to lose steam any time soon as the government continues to struggle to meet the growing demand for land for business, agrarian and residential purposes.

• Ntingi is founder of GetBiz.

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