Zenzeleni Serving Scheme Group house in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Financial Mail
Zenzeleni Serving Scheme Group house in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Financial Mail

Thinasonke Extension 4 township, on Joburg’s east rand, is a place of contrasts. There, small Reconstruction & Development programme (RDP) houses stand, roofless and unfinished. Dotted between them are 48 entirely different homes: they are far larger than the typical 40m² RDP stand; they have basic security features, such as burglar bars; and, in contrast to the cut-and-paste RDP properties, these have their own unique designs.

The 48 houses belong to members of the Federation of the Urban & Rural Poor (FedUp), a group of former backyard dwellers from Thokoza who decided more than two decades ago that they wanted to take an active role in solving their housing problems.

"From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want RDP houses," says FedUp member Cynthia Yalezo. "We had nothing, but we wanted to build our own houses where, if we wanted [space for] a double bed, we could fit a double bed."

Yalezo is a leader of the Zenzeleni housing savings scheme, which she and a group of women established under FedUp 22 years ago so they could save to build their own homes. But it’s been a trying process.

Back in 1997, the 1,500 women of FedUp embarked on what seemed a pipe dream at the time: they tried to buy 21ha of private land, at a price tag of R1.2m. They had collected R245,000 in stokvel savings, which was sufficient for a deposit. The shortfall was funded by the uTshani Fund, an NGO that pools savings from people living in informal settlements to help them upgrade their living conditions and build houses.

However, because the land was privately owned, the Ekurhuleni municipality could not provide the sanitation and other infrastructure required for housing. So, in 1999, the group sold the land to the government, allowing FedUP to pay off its debt to uTshani, and the women to recoup their savings.

As part of the transaction, the province agreed to give each FedUp member a serviced stand on which they could build their homes themselves, with the remaining land allocated to RDP housing.

FedUp was, in some ways, a harbinger of what is today known as the enhanced people’s housing process, or PHP. First introduced in the late 1990s, the PHP sought to address SA’s housing backlog by allowing people to contribute "sweat equity" — building, or organising the building of, their own homes on state-allocated stands. It was born of government’s realisation that it could not provide houses for everyone (even today, Stats SA estimates that about 13% of households in SA still live in informal dwellings).

Augustine Ntuli, Cornelia Mole, Cynthia Yalezo,Patience Dazani and Phaelo Mmole of Zenzeleni Serving Scheme Group in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Financial Mail
Augustine Ntuli, Cornelia Mole, Cynthia Yalezo,Patience Dazani and Phaelo Mmole of Zenzeleni Serving Scheme Group in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Financial Mail

Later expanded, the programme provides subsidies to those households with a monthly income of R3,500 or less who build or manage their own building process. Much like the women of FedUp did, beneficiaries of the programme contribute their own savings and take control of the housing process themselves, starting with identifying land.

But it can be a frustrating route. In the case of FedUp, the land was identified in 1997 and secured in 1999 — but it took 17 years for the first brick to be laid. Though the land had been transferred to the government in 1999, the women were only allocated their serviced stands in 2012. By the time the first two show houses were built in 2014, the group had shrunk to just 48 members.

"Many people abandoned the initiative to line up for RDP houses because we had only built two houses and it seemed like we were dreaming," says Yalezo. Not that those who abandoned the initiative necessarily found themselves better off: though they were allocated RDP stands, some are still waiting for construction to be completed; five years on, their houses are still without roofs.

There have also been issues around ownership. Yalezo says the women "agreed [to the transfer of the land to the government] because we thought once we had been allocated stands, the land would be ours again, that we’d officially own those stands".

But now, almost two years after FedUp finished building the last of its 48 houses, the women are still waiting for title deeds. It’s a wait that might yet drag on, given the deeds backlog in SA. In 2014, the housing department put it at about 820,000 title deeds. A calculation by fact-checking organisation Africa Check estimates about 280,000 of those have been issued since then.

uTshani Fund operations manager Sandra van Rensburg says the PHP journey, in FedUp’s case, has been frustrating, if well-intentioned. "Forty-eight houses later, [it’s] beautiful. Ministers have even come … to show how well the idea of letting people build their own houses works — but the subsidies have not been paid," she says.

Van Rensburg says people like the FedUp members have to prefinance the first phase of building from their own savings. It’s similar to how banks lend to small businesses: upfront equity from the owner signals his or her commitment to the venture.

Because informal settlement dwellers like FedUp members can often only finance their builds up to a point, uTshani provides bridging finance so construction is not delayed by the late payment of subsidies. It provides the shortfall that the government subsidy would cover, and takes 10% of the subsidy as a financing fee once the government pays out.

In Thinasonke, FedUp members were each approved for a subsidy of R102,000. Now, with an apparent delay in payment by the government, uTshani has had to put a similar project in East London on hold. (The Gauteng human settlements department did not respond to requests for comment.)

But the subsidy itself is not always enough. "You can’t rely on the subsidy alone," says FedUp member Phaello Mmole. "We were approved for R102,000 per house. That can only take you so far; you have to be prepared to put in your own sweat and savings."