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International Charity Boosts Development in South Africa

An international charity working in South Africa has become the largest non-governmental provider of housing for the poor in that country. The Niall Mellon Township Trust has built tens of thousands of low-cost homes in South Africa since 2002. The organization takes its name from an Irish property developer who, after a visit to Cape Town, was saddened by the poor living conditions for people in the city’s townships. Mellon established the Trust to replace the shacks with low-cost, high-quality housing. Darren Taylor reports.

The organization’s mission is daunting: to eradicate urban poverty in South Africa. The country is the most developed and prosperous on the continent, yet it’s also a place where millions continue to suffer extreme economic hardship. The Trust estimates that at least 10 million people still live in shacks, and the government recently announced that 2.1 million South African families are living in the hazardous dwellings.

“Poverty divisions still exist. You’ve got a first world economy running in South Africa side by side with essentially a third world economy. There’ve been huge improvements in many, many ways, but for many poor people, since the end of apartheid things haven’t changed that much,” says Paddy Maguinness, the charity’s CEO.

And nowhere is that clearer than in the sprawling, smoky and crime-ridden shantytowns of modern-day South Africa.

“A shack could be something like 15 feet by 15 feet, made of cardboard, plastic, bits of tin, bits of wood – anything that people can get. There could be two families or maybe even two generations of the same family living in some of these shacks,” Maguinness says.

But this year, as they did in 2007, the Trust’s employees and volunteers are constructing more than 5,000 houses in Cape Town, with plans well underway to expand the initiative to other South African cities and towns.

Undeserved reputation

Maguinness, who’s worked in developing nations across the globe, credits the South African government with building more than two million homes for the poor since 1994 but says the country’s housing shortage continues to deepen. This, he says, has been exacerbated by a “huge influx” of foreign nationals, mostly from the neighboring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

“South Africa opened its doors at the end of apartheid and people came flooding in…. On top of this, there’s a lot of internal migration, with people from the Eastern Cape (province) coming to the Western Cape (province) and going to Gauteng (province). So the cities are really under pressure and the shantytowns are really, really growing. The people are living in appalling conditions,” he states.

This situation resulted in an explosion of violence earlier this year, when some South Africans in the townships began attacking foreigners, accusing them of “stealing” housing and jobs.

“Some of that was simply due to pressure on scarce resources, people feeling frustrated because they haven’t got a house; they’re living in deplorable conditions and then they’re also having to share that space with a lot of people from other neighboring countries,” Maguinness explains.

He feels that South Africa now has an undeserved reputation for being particularly hostile to foreigners.

“(Most) South Africans have been extremely generous to refugees from the region, and part of their housing pressure has come from those refugees.”

The Trust says it’s especially important to improve people’s living conditions in South Africa because the international community regards the nation as a “beacon of hope” in Africa.

“We will do what we can do help people in South Africa because this is a country that needs to be stable. Working in South Africa is important for the rest of southern Africa and indeed the whole of the continent,” states Maguinness.

‘Building Blitz’

The Trust wants to relegate South Africa’s shack-lands, home to endless rows of flimsy, fire-prone structures, to the country’s apartheid past.

“We are constructing concrete houses. The size of the houses we’re building is 400 square feet. They’re two bedrooms, with a bathroom and a small kitchen, with a tiled roof,” Maguinness says.

In addition to the thousands of homes his organization is building, it also plans to build a factory in Cape Town next year, which, he says, will “introduce a new technology to built prefabricated (housing) units with a timber-frame, cement structure. The South African government has agreed to provide us with 50 per cent of the finance for this, and we’ve got the rest from private philanthropists. That will increase our production from 5,000 units to 10,000 units a year, so this is very exciting. We’re doing this as a prototype, and if this factory is really successful we can maybe replicate it in other provinces in South Africa.”

According to Maguinness, the factory will also boost the Trust’s permanent staff in the country from 2,000 to 4,000.

“Most of these people are coming from the townships themselves. We’re creating employment as we’re building the homes as well, and we’re creating training opportunities for young people in particular.”

And then there’s the Trust’s world-renowned “Building Blitz” project…. Every year since 2002, the organization has led thousands of volunteers – mainly from Ireland but also from other parts of the world, including the United States – to South Africa to build houses. They are willing to use their free time to travel thousands of miles to work under the blazing African sun, and they willingly shell out $8,000 of their own money to help their fellow human beings achieve their dreams of owning their own homes. Maguinness says the fee covers the volunteers’ travel expenses, accommodation, meals and even the cost of the building materials.

“Last year we had 1,500 volunteers from Ireland who arrived in one week, and this year (in November) it’ll be 2,100. We actually believe it’s the world’s biggest movement of volunteers, ever. We’re going into Khayelitsha, one of the most difficult areas in Cape Town, and they will build about 250 – possibly even 300 houses – in the week.”

Maguinness says while the volunteers include “chief executives of (international) companies, leaders of banks, chairmen of industry and women who are nurses and doctors” who experience the novelty of getting their hands dirty, most of the volunteers are not rich – at least in financial terms: “They’re plasterers, plumbers, bricklayers” who want to “stand in solidarity” with South Africa’s poor.

“People care…. When they hear there’s something positive going on, they want to participate,” Maguinness says.

“It’s quite an emotional experience. It gives people a sense of: I want to do something. And the good will with which they’re received by the people in the townships – it’s actually hard to describe the emotion.”

He adds, “There’s an awful lot of negativity in the world about people not caring. I think our organization is running contrary to that.”

Security concerns

South Africa, though, has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with murders and robberies especially rife in the townships. Maguinness acknowledges that the volunteers often express reservations about visiting the country. “Security is the major concern,” he says.

“We built last year in Freedom Park in (Cape Town), which is notoriously a very violent area with gang warfare, all of those things. We brought 1,500 people down there. We had one single security incident. (But) The good will (of) the community, the people – particularly the women – (won through). They realized that these people are here to help, and basically (told the troublemakers), ‘Back off.’”

Maguinness says while there’s never any real “sense of (impending) violence” amongst the volunteer builders, “when you bring that large number of people (into a poor township), there’s always the possibility that someone strays into an area where they shouldn’t be.”

He adds that the Trust works very closely with the South African police. “Wherever we’re building, the South African police commissioner treats it as an international event, almost similar to an international football match. In fact, they erect police stations near to where we build so that we’re in close proximity to the forces of law and order.”

Maguiness is quick to add that while his organization and its volunteers are involved in “serious work” in South Africa, their presence there is “not all doom and gloom. After they’ve spent their day building houses, they often go out for a meal and – most being Irish – a few drinks of course!”

‘Now I can sing….’

The fun and labor aside, Maguinness says the greatest reward for the Trust and the volunteers lies in witnessing the extent to which the lives of previously homeless people are transformed for the better once they have houses of their own.

“The biggest thing that keeps coming back to us is dignity. People feel that their whole self-worth has increased (when they have a house of their own). People feel: ‘I exist; I’m a human being; I’ve got an address; somebody can send me a letter.’”

Maguinness recalls speaking with a woman who shortly before had moved into a Trust-built house in Cape Town.

“She said to me: ‘I’ve spent 30 years of my life whispering. I’ve always been in someone else’s house, and I’ve always had to keep my voice down because I never wanted to be thrown out, so I always kept very quiet.’ She said: ‘Now I can sit in my own house and I can sing.’”

According to assessments completed by the Trust, attendance rates at schools in areas where its built houses have increased dramatically.

Maguinness explains: “The kids have somewhere to go and come home to and study in the evenings, and there’s a sense of pride because when you live in a shack, kids can sometimes be very cruel, and say: ‘Here are the shack people.’ And so some kids just stop going to school to avoid being insulted.”

He says people’s health also improves when they move out of their shacks, where they’re highly susceptible to respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and asthma.

These corresponding improvements in health and education, states Maguinness, offer evidence that “housing has been neglected as an area of international aid and development. We want to see more resources internationally going into this, because if you’ve got a decent home, it’s a foundation, it’s a stepping stone, it’s a springboard into getting a job, into getting education.”

Not content with improving lives only in South Africa, Maguinness says the Trust plans to work in other African countries in the near future.

“We’re looking at soon going into Lesotho and Tanzania.”