- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

FREEDOM PARK, South Africa (AP)

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.

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

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

“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 vacation 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 in 1991, 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,” Mr. Mellon said.

The backlog in Cape Town alone is 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,” Mrs. Zille said.

A high-profile 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 that they are poorly built. Inhabitants of shacks that have to be demolished are even more unhappy.

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

Keys to the first houses were handed over with much fanfare in 2003, but only a few houses have been built since then.

Local authorities embraced Mr. 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.

Mr. Mellon wants to accelerate 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.

Like her neighbors in Freedom Park for the past nine years, Elizabeth Vosho, 38, 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,” the bubbly 21-year-old cashier said as she grabbed her guitar to entertain the army of volunteers.

Irish builder Gerry Nolan has been volunteering since the project started. Last year, he brought his wife, brother, two sisters and three sons to help for a week.

“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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