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`Urbanisation of poverty a big challenge'

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Lindiwe N. Sisulu: "We come from a culture where everyone thinks they are responsible for fighting for a better life. We need to rekindle that spirit."
Lindiwe N. Sisulu: "We come from a culture where everyone thinks they are responsible for fighting for a better life. We need to rekindle that spirit."

Kalpana Sharma

Lindiwe N. Sisulu, South Africa's Minister for Housing, strongly believes that the only way to lift people out of poverty is to give them the asset of a house. Excerpts from an interview in Mumbai recently:

She came to Mumbai to look at the problems of housing facing the urban poor, something she grapples with daily in South Africa. Dr. Lindiwe N. Sisulu, daughter of African National Congress veterans Walter and Albertina Sisulu, has been South Africa's Housing Minister since 2004. She was previously Minister for Intelligence and has been actively involved in her country's politics for at least three decades including working with the underground in exile. Her belief that the poorest of the poor have the right to own a house was evident as she spent a day in Mumbai visiting the homes of pavement dwellers and then handing them keys to the houses that they can call their own.

Is urban poverty as much of a problem in South Africa as in India?The African continent has seen wars and the spectre of the dying child. But now, as Africa settles into peace and development, the biggest problem we are facing is urbanisation. Poverty is migrating from rural to urban areas and governments are not ready. We have the fastest rate of urbanisation in the world. In fact, Africa has outstripped Asia. In South Africa, the rate of urbanisation is 5-6 per cent per year.

The whole basis of apartheid was segregation. The government never thought it would have to cater to black people. But Independence also means a better life. South Africa had kept itself sterile. Poverty was in the rural areas. Cities are seeing poverty in their face for the first time. What we have seen in India is a microcosm of what we have in South Africa. Poverty is as stark for us as in India. Earlier it was hidden, the poor did not exist. Now they exist in a big way. Urbanisation of poverty is a big challenge.

What steps have you taken to deal with it?We took some steps forward and then stopped to see if they were the most appropriate. The Right to Shelter is enshrined in our Constitution. But it has taken away from our people what they have been in the past fighters. We have allowed our people for too long to think that shelter is a right. It is difficult then to tell people to do something. We are a very proud people. We come from a culture where everyone thinks they are responsible for fighting for a better life. We need to rekindle that spirit.

In South Africa, anyone earning below a certain income is entitled to a free house. Those above that cut-off have to pay only 10 per cent of the cost and the higher groups get assistance in getting mortgage. We are negotiating with banks to lend to this sector to which they did not previously lend. We are creating an environment so that people can get housing.

What is your biggest challenge in doing this?The sheer numbers that we are dealing with. But we also need the funds. We believe housing is a social responsibility for all South Africans. The clarion call of the African National Congress is dealing with the poorest of the poor.

Banking is an issue we have to deal with. Instead of passing a law to make it compulsory for them to lend to the poor, we are discussing with them and pointing out that according to our Constitution, it is illegal to discriminate on any grounds, including poverty. So banks don't have a leg to stand on. It is easier for us to talk them into recognising their responsibility instead of holding a gun to their heads. But banks the world over are the same.

In South Africa, the middle class and the upper middle class haven't had to give up anything. Today, they have created their own worst environment. South Africa is considered one of the best places to live. But who created it? The poor. And what have they got? Nothing. It has the best business environment but the poor are not benefiting. I want to tackle the mindset of the settled middle class and upper middle class. It would be good if out of their own consciences they want to make amends.

But can the history of injustice be corrected without affirmative action? What is your view on this?We have picked up on experiences in other countries where there are laws and fixed quotas. We want to make sure that those who were previously disadvantaged have a stake in the economy. They need to be participants in the fruits of development. So to do that, every sector has a "charter" that is drawn up between the disadvantaged and those with advantage. It varies from sector to sector and is a voluntary agreement.

Our interest in housing is that this shared growth is only among those who can engage in the economy. Those who fall outside cannot benefit unless they have this one asset called a house. If you have a house, then you can grow this asset. Housing is an asset for entry into the economy. This is the only way we can actually lift people up from the bottom. It is difficult for us to ensure that we can improve the life of the poor. But no one wants to live their lives on dole. We believe the best way to ensure that the poor have a stake in the economy is to give them the asset of a house because economics is based on property.


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