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Irish Builders Turn Shack Dwellers Into Homeowners in South Africa

Adequate housing is considered to be a basic human right, but South African officials have been struggling to move millions of residents out of township shacks and into proper homes. An Irish charity has been lending a hand this week with a huge building effort in Cape Town. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick went to take a closer look.

They have been working flat out for week. More than a 1,000 volunteers, on a mission build 200 homes. Most of the workers, like Jason Flannery, are in the construction business.

"As I have gone through life I have been quite lucky. So I felt the give to people who are a little less well off then myself," he said. "And especially here, they are really bad. And what I have seen is frightening."

Each volunteer had to raise more than $5,000 to finance their trip. Padraic Beatty says it was worth it.

"People are going to move into these houses from what you see behind, the shacks you see behind," said Beatty. "And I think that in itself will be fulfillment."

An entire neighborhood is springing up. The four-room houses are made of brick, with cement floors, clay tile roofs, electricity and running water.

There will be a community center, communal garden, and playground. That is where Maria McCullough is painting. "I am just doing a mural," she said. "It is inspired by the shapes of the different shacks here, and we just wanted to take the colors of Ireland with the emerald green and the African flag as well, and intersperse it."

This is the fifth year that the Niall Mellon Township Trust has organized its building blitz. Mellon, an Irish property developer, was inspired to start the program while on vacation in Cape Town. That is when saw that a large percentage of South Africans still live in apartheid-era shacks. The foundation has built more that 4,000 homes so far.

This week, one house will go to Insaaf Lakay, who has braved foul weather to watch her home being built. "They [are] working in the rain," said Lakay. "I am going to sit with them in the rain, because they are working so hard, and we really appreciate it, me and my family."

For nearly a decade, Lakay has lived in a one room shack with her husband and four children. For her, a home will mean that South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle has finally paid off.

"I am very excited, oh, I am really excited," she added. "You know, we went through a lot here. And um, it is finally coming to and end-the struggle. I can tell you that. It is finally coming to an end."

Watching his project unfold, Niall Mellon concedes that 200 homes is a drop in the bucket. He is frustrated that government and charity projects have not been able to deliver more.

"South Africa has built over two million houses since 1994. But with 10 million people still living in shacks it is time to accept defeat that the existing approach has not worked," said Mellon.

Mellon has called on South African construction companies to dedicate 20 percent of their profits to finance low-income housing. He says that can compensate for a shift that has been under way in the industry.

"What is happening here is that developers are making no money out of low cost housing and so they are moving into the more profitable sectors of middle income and upper income housing," continued Mellon. "And I am asking the South African property developers to recognize that we cannot have one section of the market progressing well at the expense of another."

Mellon hopes that next year, he will also be building a housing factory in South Africa. He says more than 5,000 homes can be delivered every year by pre-fabricating the building components.