Mauritius: when a house is not a home

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When a house is not a home: in Mauritius

The government doesn’t listen to poorer people, but they do anything to help the rich, by Lindsey Collen.

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Sarah John © A group of women living in a housing estate just outside Port Louis called on me – I was the last in a string of people – to help with their housing problem. Being in The House Movement, a fully unregistered association, I agreed. It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I was met by this artwork of brightly coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs, on the television. Each was collecting drops of water from the ceiling, making xylophone music. Seeing my face all admiration for her resilience, Marie-Michelle burst into laughter. Then, with a grand flourish, she opened the door into a bedroom. A dank smell poured out. ‘Look, we’ve cancelled this room! It’s too wet!’ She led me into the other room, where she, her toddler and her mother sleep. The double bed was covered with pale-blue plastic sheeting. She pointed to two big, green plastic dustbins like those that municipalities supply, one on top of the other. ‘I had jettisoned three generations of waterlogged wardrobes before I got this idea!’ She then called her mother over, and gently parted her hair to show a recently sewn-up wound; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she had been watching television. Across the road, her neighbour greeted me: ‘Is this a door?’ she asked, tongue in cheek, and ‘This, a window?’ Her house having subsided, neither the door nor the window opens or closes any more. Meanwhile, successive ministers of housing claim 90 per cent of Mauritians are ‘home-owners’. But Statistics Mauritius, the official data-collecting agency, defines a home-owner for the census as someone who ‘does not pay rent’. A fuzzy definition of ownership for a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner, responsible for repairs. But she, like tens of thousands of families, lives in a legal vacuum. People have coined a phrase for it: ‘heirs’ houses’. The quaint-seeming but socially lethal Code Napoleon holds that children inherit equal shares. This means families live in houses bought or built by now-dead fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, now technically ‘owned’ by dozens of descendants. Those living in the house can neither sell it nor raise a loan against the land to rebuild; they hesitate to spend on repairs in case some heir, like a bullying cousin, returns from work abroad and takes over the house. Marie-Michelle and her neighbours’ council houses were constructed and sold off to their forefathers without proper steel in the uprights. So, repairs don’t work. After some nice long meetings, we came up with a plan to force the Housing Minister to take charge of pulling down and rebuilding at state expense as the properties were defective to begin with. We are still at it. We find a precedent: the government has agreed to replace asbestos housing. But the Housing Minister, we find, is hard to get hold of. He doesn’t reply to letters, or to petitions either. ‘I am the Minister,’ he then announces, ‘responsible for Smart Cities.’ That’s the government’s economic strategy: creating Smart Cities. Thus The House Movement finds out why the Minister is never available: he is too busy with housing for the rich. The sugar barons, still reeling from the termination, under WTO rules, of the protected European Market for sugar, are now making windfall gains from land speculation. Ministers grant permits and massive tax cuts. The oligarchs then parcel up agricultural land, set up gated communities, and sell off villas around golf courses to millionaires from abroad. For over 10 years, the State has subsidized the construction of millionaires’ holiday and retirement villas. Now, with Smart Cities, it will subsidize settler mansions, too – no longer giving just ‘permanent residence’, but outright citizenship. ‘So, the Minister in charge of housing for workers,’ Marie-Michelle exclaimed at a meeting, ‘is now doling out money to millionaires from abroad?’ As we share stories, the broader picture emerges. The gated communities – scores existed even before Smart Cities began – are modelled on Israeli settler colonies in Palestine: walled-off settlements connected by motorways. The people already on the land are made, somehow, redundant. So, Marie-Michelle’s group meets people from other areas. They broaden their demands. I’m with them, too. Our aim: to stop this colonization. Our demands: food production not land speculation, proper jobs not redundancy, and immediate housing for all. Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian political activist and twice-winner of the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Sarah John ©

A group of women living in a housing estate near Port Louis asked me to help with their housing problem. I am in The House Movement – not a registered association - so I agreed.

It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I saw many coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs and on the television. Water was dripping into the basins from the ceiling, making music. Marie-Michelle laughed and then opened the door to a bedroom. It smelt bad. ‘Look, we can’t use this room at all! It’s too wet!’

She took me to the other room, where she, her little child and her mother sleep. There were plastic sheets over the double bed. She told me they hang their clothes in big plastic dustbins now – wardrobes get too wet. She then showed me a wound on her mother’s head; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she was watching television.

Across the road, her neighbour said hello: ‘Is this a door?’ she asked, ironically, and ‘Is this a window?’ The door and the window did not open or close any more because of subsidence (the earth moving).

Many ministers of housing in Mauritius have said that 90 per cent of the people are ‘home-owners’. But ‘Statistics Mauritius’ (the organisation that gets the information), says a home-owner is someone who ‘does not pay rent’. This is not a clear definition – and in a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner and she is responsible for paying for repairs. But she (and tens of thousands of other families) does not get any help. People call these houses ‘heirs’ houses’. The Code Napoleon says that children get equal shares of the houses of the parents when they die. So families live in houses bought or built by fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, who are now dead. And the houses are now the property of many descendants. The families living in the house cannot sell it nor get a loan to rebuild it; they do not want to spend money on repairs because often another family member, comes and takes it, for example a cousin can come back from working in another country and take over the house.

Marie-Michelle and her neighbours’ council houses were built and sold to their fathers and grandfather without the correct steel supports. So, repairs don’t work.

We had some long meetings and we decided on a plan to force the Housing Minister to organise a solution: to pull down and rebuild these houses, paid for by the government, because the houses were not built correctly. We are still trying to make them do this.

The government agreed to replace asbestos housing. But we cannot contact the Housing Minister. He doesn’t reply to letters or petitions.

Then he says ‘I am the Minister responsible for Smart Cities.’ That’s the government’s economic plan: creating Smart Cities. So The House Movement finds out why we can never talk to the Minister: he is too busy with housing for the rich.

The people who got rich from sugar were not happy when the European Market for sugar ended. But they are now earning a lot of money from land. Ministers give them permits and big tax cuts. Then they divide up the agricultural land and build rich, protected housing areas around golf courses. Then they sell these to millionaires from other countries. For over 10 years, the State has helped pay for the construction of millionaires’ holiday and retirement villas. Now, with Smart Cities, it will help pay for houses for settlers – now giving them citizenship, not just ‘permanent residence’.

‘So, the Minister in charge of housing for workers,’ Marie-Michelle said at a meeting, ‘is now giving money to millionaires from other countries?’

We tell more stories and understand more about it. The ‘gated communities’ – there were many before Smart Cities began – are like the Israeli settler colonies in Palestine: areas of rich houses connected by motorways. The people who lived on the land before now have nothing.

So, Marie-Michelle’s group meets people from other areas. We want to stop this colonization. We want food production not land speculation, proper jobs not redundancy, and immediate housing for all.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian political activist. She has won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize twice.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/columns/letters-from/2016/11/01/letter-from-mauritius/