Among black township dwellers in Johannesburg, South Africa, houses are often the most important item of inheritance. While this is not unusual, for historically disadvantaged black South Africans it has special significance. Under apartheid, black people were prohibited from owning property, instead renting state-owned dwellings through permits listing all residents.
Together with customary notions of property, this produced an understanding of houses as held collectively and across generations. As apartheid segregation unravelled, houses were devolved as private property to promote economic inclusion. But the law required individual, exclusive owners. Popular understandings diverged from official ones, deepened by distrust in the administrative process.
Ending segregation meant including everyone in the same legal code, but this often enshrined the norms of the white elite. Today, township ‘family houses’ lie at the heart of a gulf between social norms and law, which marginalises urban black people despite the formal end of segregation.