South Africa

Op-Ed: The never-ending housing challenge – Reflection on Thembelihle

Despite the encouraging words from the first president of the democratic South Africa on the challenge of housing prior to 1994 and promises for the new era, the country is still far from addressing the housing question. By SIPHIWE SEGODI.

At the rally in Soccer City stadium, few days after his release, Nelson Mandela made important remarks regarding housing during his speech. He stated that when his party assumed power government would build better houses, and not the “match-boxes” that the apartheid government built for Africans in townships in particular.

This statement gave hope to millions of previously marginalised communities. However, after two decades of democracy, many informal settlements residents lack access to decent shelter and tenure security. Thembelihle is an informal settlement in the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) comprising 7,000 households which has been engaged in a struggle to change the situation. While it would be unfair to completely disregard efforts made by government to address the housing problem since then, indications are that the country seem to be fighting a losing battle. What has been the government’s approach to the challenge? How have the marginalised communities responded? The experience of Thembelihle provides insights into these questions.

In its 20 years in government, the current administration boasted the achievement of 2.5-million houses in addition to some 1.2-million serviced sites provided. However, the standard (including size) of government built houses has often been questioned. The urban housing backlog in 1994 was estimated at 1.3-million units according to the ANC policy document – Reconstruction and Development Programme. In 2015 the backlog stood at 2.1-million according to the Statistician-General of Statistics South Africa. Of course, rapid urbanisation contributed to the problem with one of its effects being the mushrooming of informal settlements estimated at more than 2500 nationally. Thembelihle is one of these informal settlements established in the early 1980s. It is situated in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. The apartheid government attempts to forcefully remove the community were met with fierce resistance, and the community eventually succeeded. Thembelihle is one of those communities that felt let down in the realisation of housing.

Thembelihle is a product of land invasion as was advocated by politicians in the last days of apartheid. Immediately after 1994 takeover by the current government the community was hit with unpleasant news that the land they occupied would not be developed as a result of an apparent geological condition known as dolomite. In short, dolomite refers to a condition where the land is unstable and often results in sinkholes formation. Based on this, the government unilaterally took a decision to removal all residents elsewhere. The fact that the area was not earmarked for residential upgrading meant that the community could not enjoy basic services. This resulted in a protracted struggle to receive, at least, essential services in the meantime while engagements with government towards an amicable solution were still pending.

Just like resistance against apartheid forceful removal prior to 1994, the community resolved to continue resisting democratic government’s eviction attempts until convinced of the reasoning behind the decision. Residents questioned the accuracy of the information upon which government based its assertion. Lack of consultation as required by law was also a matter of concern among other issues concerning these developments. A standoff emerged between concerned parties – government and the community. The previous government had provided the community with communal taps. While the community appreciated the effort, these were sparsely distributed across the informal settlement making it unbearable to cope in the long run.

In 1995 the community decided to contribute financially and through labour to erect water pipes into their yards, and this resulted in improved access to water, and more household gradually followed suit. This was a form of intensification of the resistance.

In 2001 a portion of residents decided to form a democratic, but political and radical, community based organisation. Inspired by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) was established. The TCC quickly gained community support and credibility. Persuaded by TCC, the community adopted and applied a number of tactics and strategies to pursue the struggle. Primarily; they included regular mass meetings, marches, pickets, blockades, meetings with authorities, litigation, and participation in government initiated platform including both ward committee and local government elections.

In June 2002 Thembelihle residents physically resisted an attempted illegal forced removal by the City of Johannesburg using the infamous “Red Ants” under police escort. While disproportionate force and violence was unleashed against residents, resistance was successful as the “armed forces” were driven out of the settlement. The community later learned that the CoJ did not obtain a court order as required by law. It was only later that this government institution considered following the law.

Thus, in May 2003 the CoJ filed court papers in the South Gauteng High Court seeking an eviction order. Thembelihle residents, under the leadership of the TCC sought legal representation to oppose the application. The CoJ retreated after learning that the community had managed to file opposing papers in court. The community’s conclusion was that the CoJ did not expect such reaction from a poor community owing to necessary financial or legal capacity. This made clear the CoJ’s determination to evict Thembelihle residents. The community called for the CoJ to commission an independent geological survey to get at the bottom of the issue.

The battle lines were deepened! The community opted for further consolidation of the resistance by launching Operation Khanyisa Campaign in the third quarter of 2003. The campaign involved unauthorised electricity connections for residents. However, this attempt was brutally suppressed by authorities through the use of law enforcement agencies. It was not until the year of the South Africa’s hosted FIFA World Cup that the campaign was re-launched successfully. Just like the water connection, in a year about 90% of residents had unauthorised electricity connection. The primary objective of the campaign was to put pressure on government to provide safe and reliable source of energy.

It is important to note the attitude and contribution of the surrounding communities and others. Thembelihle enjoyed massive support from afar community organisations including the ones from Soweto, Alexandra, Sebokeng, Vosloorus and from many communities throughout the province and beyond. While one cannot accurately represent the opinion of the neigbouring residents of Lenasia, perceptions within the community have always been that the latter did not welcome Thembelihle residents in the suburb of Lenasia. As a result, engagements on issues affecting either parties have been insignificant because of the gulf between the two communities. Other formations beyond community structures or communities themselves also provided support.

Planact’s role in Thembelihle

It important to acknowledge the support received from a variety of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). Planact is one of those whose outstanding contribution assisted in advancing the struggle of Themebelihle for decent housing. This is crucial because they have been the most consistent since first encounter in 2003. Planact’s first intervention in the relationship with the TCC was to provide advice and support in securing pro-bono legal services to defend the CoJ legal action to evict the entire community. Right from the inception, Planact identified a gap regarding the need for leadership training for the TCC members.

They trained successive executive committee members of the organisation on leadership skills, including clear knowledge and understanding of their distinct roles within organisational structures. Further training focused on negotiation and conflict resolutions skills. Subsequent intense training was provided around understanding government housing policies (and others concerning basic services) as well as local governance participatory processes such as the Integrated Development Planning (IDP) and municipal budgeting. In negotiations with the CoJ in 2005, Planact had also formed part of a strong technical team including, geologists, lawyers, and architects. While TCC attended to the political side of negations the team focused on necessary technical expertise. Planact focused more on housing policy related matters.

Planact also provided constituent support on resources and this enabled the TCC to pursue various campaigns endorsed by the community. Some of the resources include the purchase of megaphone for calling public meetings, access to usage of their office equipment such as computers, printing, etcetera. When the TCC attempted to set up an office, Planact donated second hand office furniture which was in good condition; and later a computer as well. The Operation Khanyisa Campaign launched in 2010, which involved unauthorised electricity connections to resident, was largely made possible through the form and level of support TCC received from Planact to sustain the campaign. It was pressure from the campaign which eventually led to the installation of authorised electricity for Thembelihle in 2016.

The TCC had never participated in an IDP process before receiving training from Planact. The latter did not only train TCC members but also encouraged them to participate in the process in other to ensure that Thembelihle community interests were also considered in municipal planning and budgeting. Planact continued consistently to bring details regarding scheduled CoJ’s IDPs (including budgeting) meetings to the attention of the TCC where they believe publicity of such schedules might have been inadequate.

The Freedom of Expression Institute, and Socio-Economic Right Institute directly contributed to the struggle of Thembelihle through legal advice and legal defense respectively, during arrest related to exercise to the right to protest. The Center for Applied Legal Studies provided legal support on basic services related matters. The contribution all the mentioned NGOs made have undoubtedly taken the Thembelihle struggle for the realisation of adequate housing few steps ahead.


The community of Thembelihle realised a number of achievements. It is a direct result of the determination demonstrated by the community in struggle that Thembelihle still exist today. Some of the concrete achievements includes the following;

  • Access to pro-bono legal resources led to CoJ defeat in its suspicious attempts to get a court order for eviction after a failed illegal attempt
  • Thembelihle continues to exist in same size as it was in 1990 when the last shack was erected
  • About 99% of households have running water in their yards, although adequate pressure is still an issues to be addressed
  • Government succumbed to pressure and eventually installed electricity with switch-on in June 2016.
  • The geological firm has concluded the survey that the community called for and the report is ready and yet to be examined for discussions on a way-forward concerning the upgrading of the area


  • Thembelihle is yet to be declared into a formal township and thus has no formal housing supported by government
  • Due to protest action being inherent to the struggle, a substantial number of residents now have criminal records as a result of arrests
  • Numerous community members suffered the loss of their main source of income as some protests action would often mean absence from work
  • School children often lost school days as well and this had implications in their studies
  • Some orphans have been left without security of tenure as parents pass on while there is still no solution to the housing problem
  • Operation Khanyisa Campaign was costly as some lives, including children, were lost due to electrocutions
  • What happens if the dolomite report corroborate government claim that the land is dolomitic and unsuitable for housing development? The future of Thembelihle hangs in the balance!
  • The fact that government chose to abandon the “people oriented” approach of the RDP and replaced it with Growth Employment And Redistribution (Gear) policy has negative effects in the battle against housing backlog, particularly for the poor. The latter policy introduced a “market-centered” approach to housing provision. The major problem with upgrading on dolomitic land is that the cost is higher and government policy does not support spending “more” on the poor

The government need to approach public participation in the delivery of services with the seriousness it deserve if South Africa is to address the challenge of housing. Unless government give necessary attention to the question of land redistribution and sufficient resource allocation for housing, the fight to reduce the housing backlog will remain a futile exercise. Given the slow pace in government delivery of housing there is need for authorities to consider introducing temporary security of tenure certificates for people living in temporary residence such as informal settlements.

Despite the encouraging words from the first president of the democratic South Africa on the challenge of housing prior to 1994 and promises for the new era, the country is still far from addressing the housing question. The history of the community of Thembelihle is that of resistance and struggle for adequate housing, and it is not unique since many other communities face the similar challenge and struggles. The nearly 40 years struggle of Thembelihle has not been an easy one, however, some achievements have been realised, although the main goal of an upgraded Thembelihle still hangs in the balance. If the report confirms that the extent of dolomite in the area is severe, the community might have to go back to the drawing board on its current stance concerning residential upgrading of the area. It is important to note that it remains one of government’s obligations to assist the poor in realising decent shelter. DM

Siphiwe Segodi is Programme Co-ordinator at Planact and chairperson of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee

Photo: A pupil walks to school in Thembelihle, ‎7 November 2016. Photo by Shaun Swingler/(Chronicle)