By Barbara Torresi (on behalf of uTshani Fund)
Maureen Skepu’s face lights up with joy as she describes the events that changed her life forever. Born in 1967 in the northern province of Gauteng, Maureen was one of the millions of disadvantaged South Africans whose existence was blighted first by the brutality of Apartheid, and then by its chaotic legacy. In spite of the new government’s promises, the political end of racial segregation did not translate into immediate relief for the impoverished majority, and by the end of the 1990s Maureen was still living in Orange Farm, an under-serviced and over-crowded township on the outskirts of Johannesburg where crime, unemployment, disease and social disintegration were rife.
It was the realisation, around the turn of the millennium, that outside help wouldn’t be forthcoming anytime soon that convinced her to join the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), an organised group of women practicing daily savings, enumeration, community-led housing development, and informal settlement upgrading. While for the first few years her participation in the Federation’s activities was marginal, in the mid-2000s dwindling job opportunities and a desire to be of service to her neighbours led Maureen to accept a volunteer position with a local Community Construction Management Team (CCMT), a task-force of FEDUP members supported by uTshani Fund.
Yet, in spite of dedicating her days to helping people into housing, at the end of the decade Maureen’s own family were still living in a precarious, poorly insulated 3.5×2 meter shack in which summer temperatures soared to Venusian levels and whose patchy corrugated iron roof provided little protection against the chilly winter rain: “when it rained the children’s mattress would get soaked within minutes. And then they would get sick with the cold and fever. But summers were even worse; the tin roof heated the shack up like an oven”. Eventually Maureen’s hard work and dedication paid off, and on the 16th of December 2011 the Skepu household moved into a beautiful, CCMT-built two bedroom house with tan walls and light green bathroom tiles, a house that at 50 square meters is 40% larger than a standard unit provided by government-appointed contractors.
The delivery of bigger and better houses to Federation members is made possible by the cost reduction achieved through the CCMT process, as this includes all the stages of house building, from the drawing of plans, which are formalised by qualified architects and engineers, to the actual construction process, which is contracted out to local traders. The construction team itself consists of five FEDUP members, each of whom has a specific task: the technical officer requests specific items and provides quality control, the bookkeeper sources the best and cheapest materials, the storekeeper controls the inflow and outflow of stock, the loan and savings officer looks after the community’s finances, and the project manager oversees the whole process. And, unlike in the private and public building sector, most of the construction team’s members are women.
Maureen can’t help smiling when she recalls the sunny morning she closed the door to her shack behind her for the last time and moved into the house she had herself designed and supervised the construction of: “it was like a dream come true. Finally I could stop worrying about my children being attacked by rats when using the outside shared toilets; finally I could cook in a real kitchen rather than on a kerosene stove that threatened to send our shack up in flames every time I lit it; finally I could lock the front door at night and feel safe.”
She had to endure almost two decades of hardship in post-apartheid South Africa but – finally – Maureen’s ingenuity and resilience won her a place she could proudly call home. Is this Ms Skepu’s greatest joy, I ask? It is, but thanks to uTshani’s holistic approach to housing she gained more than just a well-insulated roof over her head. In fact, as a result of the involvement of the British charity organisation Comic Relief, last year Maureen participated in the building of 310 houses in Orange Farm, Duduza, and Doornkop, of which almost 300 are now complete.
Maureen, who is now one of FEDUP’s most experienced project managers, is delighted to be able to address the needs of families like hers since she knows what it means to a mother to be able to sleep knowing their children are safe. She also derives great satisfaction from helping older women: “even if these grannies won’t be able to enjoy their new homes for very long, they will have secured their children’s future, they will leave a legacy, and pass away serenely knowing that their existence hasn’t been in vain”. There is, indeed, more to a house than its four walls, and thanks to uTshani, FEDUP, and now Comic Relief, a growing number of poor South Africans are able to live and die in a dignified manner.