South Africa has no policy on housing for older persons. Only social pensioners in need of 24-hour nursing care may be admitted to a state-subsidised old age home, but the number is capped at 2 per cent of the older …

South Africa has no policy on housing for older persons. Only social pensioners in need of 24-hour nursing care may be admitted to a state-subsidised old age home, but the number is capped at 2 per cent of the older population. The majority of the older population receives the means tested social pension; by implication it is poor and has few housing options. The majority black population typically co-resides in multi-generational households, but social change is impacting traditional living arrangements and numerous older family members are left vulnerable. A large proportion lack adequate housing (they live in shantytowns, in make-shift shacks without amenities and only minimum services), often caring for grandchildren in a skip-generation household. Very few have access to social housing.

Politicians in the country have long had a tactical ploy of raising their profile and earning political capital by drawing attention emotively to the situation of vulnerable and needy older individuals, and publicly promising to right it. They are cognisant of course of the electoral importance of older consumers as a voter group. Either they promise to push for an increase in the amount of the social pension, or to fast-track the allocation of council houses to pension beneficiaries. Waiting lists for council houses often go back more than 20 years and the majority on the lists will never be helped – whatever age they are.

When by a fluke a council house is allocated to an older individual, a frail older woman in particular – because a politician intervened, the media has a field day and the politician is lauded for apparent largesse. However, the number of these houses relative to the need and demand for them is a mere drop in the ocean. Sporadic allocation of a handful of houses does nothing moreover towards finding a broader solution to the problem of housing for older people. Worst is that the social housing system is fraught with corruption.

The premier of one of South Africa’s nine provinces recently called on municipal officials to prioritise the elderly (sic) (and child-headed households) when they issue government houses. “It was unacceptable,” he said, “…that they [older persons] would die before they could own their houses from the government they fought so hard for [in the liberation struggle], simply because they did not have ‘connections’ with government officials.” “Let us prioritise the deserving elderly instead of our friends and relatives,” he went on.

Subsequently, the premier identified 32 older people within his voter constituency to whom houses would be allocated. Somewhat bizarrely, the first beneficiary was a blind and crippled 94-year-old woman who had lived in a shack for most of her life. He committed to building her (and her family) a three-bedroom house – and organised a wheelchair, spectacles and a medical doctor to attend to her health while she waited for the house. Indeed, at 94 one hopes the woman will live long enough to move into her house.

“These people [corrupt officials] are exploiting poverty,” the premier stated. “It is here that we must come in as a provincial government and change the [older people’s] situation. As a government we are trying our best… [but] are not fast enough…” Further: “I am driven by the desire to solve some problems for our people.”

The premier’s gesture indeed comes across as sincere. However, gerontologists rankle at repeated instances of political capitalising on poor older persons’ plight and the emotive visibility of the action. Rather than simply seeking political gain, why do this premier and his ilk in government not work to develop a sustainable national housing policy, which could offer “younger” older people, from say the age of 60, an opportunity to access adequate housing, so that they may live in dignity and security?

Of concern with this impasse is that the stage-managed allocation of houses to older persons is a calculated move on the part of politicians who objectify the beneficiaries as commodities. What may be politically expedient to the ruling party, in terms of garnering votes, is none other than patronising to these individuals.

It would be interesting to learn whether the provision of social housing for older persons in other countries is subjected to similar or different politicking.

Monica Ferreira – ILC-South Africa