iShack - upgrading housing in South Africa

From Global development | The Guardian Tue Dec 25 2012, 09:00:03

Stellenbosch University researchers are using solar power to improve life in a large informal settlement near Cape Town

Christmas has come early for the Mthalo family. While their neighbours in the unserviced Enkanini informal settlement shuffle around in candlelight, Lungiswa and Victor Mthalo and their two children expect to be sitting in front of their new flatscreen television - powered by a solar panel on the roof of their shack.

Although the South African government boasts that it has built 2.8m homes in 18 years, it finally had to concede defeat in 2012 over its lofty ambition to give every citizen a bricks and mortar house. A revised programme, Breaking new ground, shifts the emphasis to "in situ upgrading" of housing, including 400,000 shacks. The Mthalo family's iShack - "improved shack" - is an attempt by a group of academics to demonstrate how this can be done in an environmentally friendly way.

"The best thing about having solar power is the time it saves me," says Victor, 28, a painter who built his shack in Enkanini in May 2011 after his sister, who lives in a brick house in neighbouring Kayamandi township, could no longer accommodate him. "I bought three metres of zinc sheeting from the hardware store and built myself a shack," he says. "But I regularly had to go over to my sister's place and spend three or four hours charging my mobile phone."

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