An ‘adequate’ home shelters you from winter cold and summer heat and from rain. This home is where you are nurtured in a family, read, study, enjoy music, radio and television. It’s where you can be private. It has a water supply, sanitation and energy either in it or nearby, so you can keep clean, cook and enjoy meals. A home keeps you and what you own safer. It’s where you rest after work, and where you recover when you are ill. It’s where you welcome your friends and relatives, and carry out your cultural practices. A home is an address to receive important documents, or where you can be contacted.

It’s sad to know that homeless people have none of these things, and that millions of South Africans only partly enjoy these things. Yet having a decent, adequate place to call ‘home’ is a basic human right. It is specifically referred to in two places in our Constitution, Sections 26 and 28. (Many other parts can be used to support the right.) Here is what they say:

Section 26:
(1) Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.
(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.
(3) No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

Section 28 (1) (c):
(1) Every child has the right…(c) to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services.

Why then is there a shortage of about three or four million decent houses in South Africa? Why are there so very many people still living in ‘informal settlements’?

The problem first became serious under apartheid. The Group Areas Act 41 of 1950 forced black people from their homes (without payment for loss) and into faraway, poorly-serviced areas decided on by race. The old homes were knocked down; far too few new homes were built. Meanwhile our population has grown fast, plus, since democracy in 1994, people have streamed to the cities. They come, for example, to look for work or to join their working relatives. The current government wants all people to have brick homes built to last, and for them to be serviced. It has spent billions on housing, but it has been a challenge to build enough homes.

Housing is a huge problem to tackle, but there has been corruption and inefficiency too. And, many people also do not know that they can, or how to, get land and help from government to build their own homes.

As you saw in the story Living on the Edge, the shortage means that landlords in places like central Johannesburg have crammed poor tenants into unhygienic, overcrowded and even dangerous buildings; other buildings are hijacked by gangsters. All over the country people desperate for a home move into abandoned buildings, or onto land they do not own, and build shacks.

And, all too often, we hear on the news of people being evicted from entire buildings, or their shacks being knocked down, and they are left homeless. People need to know their rights to do with housing.

For a start, while housing is right, notice that the government is ordered by the Constitution to give people ‘access to’ housing, and to ‘progressively’ provide housing. It should be trying to supply housing fast, ‘within its available resources’. The Constitution is realistic that government cannot provide a ready-built home to every person who wants one. The waiting lists for houses are very long. That is why it’s important to know how to get help from government to build your own home, on legal land. Read about where to find out these things in the Getting help with housing section following.

As in Living On The Edge, it’s important to know that the Constitution is clear in Section 26 (3): no-one can simply be evicted from where they live. There must be meaningful engagement from the landlord, and a court order. If necessary, government must provide temporary accommodation for evicted people. This is because property owners have rights too and many evictions are legal. However, as you saw in the story, even people who are not paying rent cannot be evicted without a court taking into account all the relevant factors. People in this situation are usually very poor and need all the help and protection they can get. Homelessness is a critical, dangerous situation and cannot be allowed in a caring democracy.

The law around housing is complicated so it is helpful for people facing homelessness to get the help of legal experts. Often this can be supplied free. The Contacts section that follows lists useful, caring organisations.