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.
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.
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
nowhere is that clearer than in the sprawling, smoky and crime-ridden
shantytowns of modern-day South Africa.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
South Africans have been extremely generous to refugees from the region, and
part of their housing pressure has come from those refugees.”
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.
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.
Trust wants to relegate South Africa’s shack-lands, home to endless rows of
flimsy, fire-prone structures, to the country’s apartheid past.
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.
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.”
to Maguinness, the factory will also boost the Trust’s permanent staff in the
country from 2,000 to 4,000.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
care…. When they hear there’s something positive going on, they want to
participate,” Maguinness says.
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.”
adds, “There’s an awful lot of negativity in the world about people not caring.
I think our organization is running contrary to that.”
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.
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),
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.”
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.”
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….’
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
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
recalls speaking with a woman who shortly before had moved into a Trust-built
house in Cape Town.
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.’”
to assessments completed by the Trust, attendance rates at schools in areas
where its built houses have increased dramatically.
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.”
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
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.”
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