Shipping Containers: A Solution to Cape Town’s Housing Crisis?

Shipping Containers: A Solution to Cape Town’s Housing Crisis?

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Anyone living in the Cape Town area is well aware of the struggle for available space in and around the city. More and more people are struggling to access housing within the city and its surrounding area. This is largely due to the fact that Cape Town is a city that is highly segregated across economic and racial lines – a result of apartheid spatial planning, perpetuated by a weak economy and rising inflation.

Civil campaigns such as Reclaim the City have continued to raise awareness around the economic segregation within the city. There have been multiple cries for the state to build mixed-income social housing closer to the city, all of which have fallen on deaf ears as the city continues to sell publicly owned land (such as that in Tafelberg) to private developers.


Reclaim the City supporters march on the Tafelberg site on 9 June 2016 – the deadline for submissions on the proposed sale. (Photo: Daneel Knoetze, Ndifuna Ukwazi)

Another  example would be Hout Bay and Imizamo Yethu, an informal settlement plagued by crime, sanitation issues and inferior service delivery, to mention but a few. Imizamo Yethu houses at least 15538 people (as of 2011) who serve the primary purpose of supplying labour to upmarket homes and businesses in the greater Hout Bay area.

Inequality South Africa

Unequal Scenes In Hout Bay by Johnny Miller


This is not to say that the state has wholly failed to build homes for its people (50% of which live below the breadline, according to StatsSA). The problem is that government can only provide roughly two-hundred thousand houses per year, which creates a huge backlog – and that is even before considering factors like corruption and inadequate administration that also prevent supplying those in need with adequate housing. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) also can only help those below a certain monthly income level (currently R3500), and thus those who earn slightly more will qualify neither for a government-subsidized house nor for loans of entry-level homes.

One proposed solution to this problem is making use of the thousands of unused shipping containers being stored along the N1 on the way to Canal Walk. South Africa is an import-dominant country, meaning that we import far more than we export. This leads to an excess of shipping containers that will never be re-used – the unhealthy cause of the ever-growing towers.



But these shipping containers could actually have a far more valuable use than simply gathering dust. South African building companies have found a way to transform these containers into a sustainable and low-cost housing solution. According to a Cape Town-based company, Berman-Kalil Housing Concept,  utilising shipping containers would cost the government a fraction of the price it would cost them build an RDP house. It would also minimise environmental damage by reusing the weatherproof shipping containers. Furthermore, it would actually require less time to construct than a traditional RDP house as the basic skeleton of the house would already exist. Shipping container homes could also, according to the company, stand to be a solution to building homes for those who do not qualify for RDP housing.

The benefits of shipping container homes go beyond an economic-rational model; they would also be better equipped to provide sanitation and electricity to homes, meaning that fewer womxn and children would need to walk large distances every time they needed the bathroom. It also means the risk of being attacked like Sinoxolo Mafevuka (who was murdered in 2016 when trying to use a communal toilet in Khayelitsha) will decrease dramatically, as the amenities that are currently communal (and leaving womxn vulnerable to attack) will instead be safely installed in your own home. It would, at the most basic level, allow recipients of RDP houses to finally access their constitutional right to dignity.


South Africa tiny houses

A two-bedroom home made from a shipping container. (Via How We Made it in Africa.)


One of the main concerns with this solution, however, is that many who live in informal settlements want to live in “real houses” made of brick. They feel that a shipping container home is no different than living in an informal dwelling. Efforts to show that this is not the case have begun in the Cape Town area, as examples of buildings utilising shipping containers slowly become more common. The hope is that people will begin to realise the feasibility (and in fact superiority) of shipping container-based housing.

Shipping container houses are most definitely not the ultimate solution to solving Cape Town’s housing crisis. Rather, using shipping containers is one of many solutions, one that the city should use in conjunction with other strategies to end economic segregation. Nonetheless, it is necessary and utilising innovative solutions like this will be a first step to showing the people of Cape Town that the city is serious about addressing the needs of its inhabitants – a message that is very sorely needed.


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