Image: Irish volunteer
Karin Schermbrucker  /  AP
Damian O'Driscoll, one of nearly 1,400 Irish volunteers, helped buld 200 homes in a week in the Freedom Park slum, shown on the back left.
updated 11/10/2007 12:14:23 AM ET 2007-11-10T05:14:23

For the first time, Mona Miller has a real roof, solid walls and glass windows. Lights come on at the flick of a switch, water flows from the tap and she has the dignity of a toilet.

Miller will move into her first proper home this weekend thanks to a building blitz by nearly 1,400 Irish volunteers, who completed a mission Friday to construct 200 houses in a week in the depressing, dusty — and hopelessly misnamed — Freedom Park slum.

“It’s a solid home, not something that people can drive though,” said Miller, shuddering at the memory of the drunk driver who rammed into her shack four years ago, injuring her two young children in this sprawling Cape Town slum.

“I look forward to hearing the rain on the roof because I will no longer have to get up and put buckets underneath the holes. I’m going to close my doors and sleep for a week,” she said with a grin, gazing proudly as builders put finishing touches on the mustard-colored house.

In the biggest project by foreign volunteers in South Africa, the Irish bricklayers, plasterers, painters and general helpers worked to make a dent in the country’s chronic housing crisis.

The initiative, now in its fifth year, was organized by Niall Mellon, a millionaire Irish entrepreneur who bought a holiday home near Cape Town but could not accept the squalor in the townships around the jewel in South Africa’s tourist crown.

Since the end of apartheid, the government has built more than 2.4 million homes for needy families. But millions still live in shacks, and protests about bad living conditions and lack of services erupt almost weekly.

“The difference here is that the scale of the problem is such that nobody gets the chance to catch their breath and see what’s been achieved,” Mellon said.

Nearly 500,000 home backlog
In Cape Town alone, there is a backlog of 460,000 homes, Mayor Helen Zille said. With thousands flocking in from poor rural areas, the backlog is growing by 15,000 a year. “We are going backward,” Zille said.

A much-ballyhooed plan to build houses to replace slums along the highway linking the airport and the city is fraught with problems. There seems little chance the N2 Gateway Project will be finished in time for the influx of tourists for soccer’s World Cup in 2010.

Residents of completed Gateway apartments complain they are poorly built. Inhabitants of shacks that have to be demolished are even more unhappy. Protesters blocked the highway last month to protest plans to move them to a township they say is too far from the city. They say they don’t believe official assurances it is just a temporary move.

Another flagship project — to move black families forced out by apartheid back into Cape Town’s vibrant District Six — also is bogged down in legal wrangling and red tape.

Keys to the first houses were handed over with much fanfare in 2003 but only a handful of houses have been built since then. Elderly people driven from District Six after it was designated a whites-only neighborhood fear they will die before their new homes are built.

So local authorities embraced Mellon’s Township Trust with gusto. It now builds 20 percent of the low-cost housing put up in Cape Town and has become South Africa’s biggest provider of charity housing.

Mellon wants to speed up delivery by setting up a “super housing factory” for timber frame homes common in North America and Europe but rare here. He reckons it could construct 5,000 houses a year.

No windows, running water, bathroom
Like her neighbors in Freedom Park for the past nine years, 38-year-old Elizabeth Vosho lives in a one-room shack. It has no windows or running water, and the family illegally taps electricity from a neighbor.

There is no bathroom. “We must sit on a pot,” she said.

If the shack had proper walls, her daughter Geraldine would be bouncing off them — theirs is one of the 200 Freedom Park families chosen to get one of the new homes.

“Ecstatic! Fabulous! Fantastic!” she whooped when asked about her feelings. “It’s a dream come true,” said the bubbly 21-year-old cashier as she grabbed her guitar to entertain the army of volunteers.

Irish builder Gerry Nolan has been volunteering since the project started. This year he was back with his wife, brother, two sisters and three sons.

“It’s unbelievable. People in this day and age who are living in such conditions,” he said. “It’s enough to soften the hardest of people’s hearts.”

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