Waiting for 30 Years: The Plight of South Africa’s ‘Backyard’ Dwellers in the Housing Crisis

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In Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain, a small house stands in the backyard housing Cheryl-Ann Smith, her husband, and three grandsons in a one-room corrugated iron structure. They are among the many “backyard dwellers” in Lost City, where residents sublet parts of their plots to others in similar or worse situations, lacking basic services like electricity and sanitation.

Smith, 54, has been waiting for a government-provided house for 30 years while living in cramped conditions with makeshift furniture and limited resources. The ANC government promised houses for all when they came to power in 1994, but the slow pace of delivery has led to a significant backlog.

The Western Cape, governed by the DA for over 16 years, has over 600,000 people on waiting lists for homes, with many more in need beyond official figures. Housing activists like Michael Jacobs from Mitchells Plain United Residents Association are advocating for government action to release land for affordable housing.

As the May general elections approach, the lack of focus on housing from political parties is concerning. While some promises are made in manifestos, the reality for people like Smith remains bleak. Despite efforts from organizations like Ndifuna Ukwazi to tackle spatial injustice, the government’s response to backyard housing is lacking.

For Smith and her family, the dream of a proper home with basic amenities like running water and a toilet remains elusive. Promises from politicians come and go, but for those living in poverty in places like Lost City, tangible change is what is truly needed. Their voices are often overlooked, their struggles forgotten once the votes are cast.

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