The Family House

Under apartheid, black people could not own urban property.

Its demise led rental homes to be granted to their tenants as private property. This created a new stratum of black homeowners. But the property and inheritance law to which they were subjected called customary notions of family and home into question. Individual was privileged over collective, and nuclear family over lineage. The result has been widespread alienation, avoidance of the state, vulnerability from lack of legal protections, and precariousness among those beginning to accumulate and pass on property. This research, in collaboration with Johannesburg legal NGO ProBono.Org, has contributed to efforts to resolve this discrepancy between law and popular norms.

Overview

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.

Research team

Lead: Dr Max Bolt

Tshenolo Masha is Head of Housing, Refugees and Advice Offices at ProBono.Org in Johannesburg. Before joining ProBono.Org, she worked in justice centres in the townships of Tembisa and Alexandra. For ProBono.Org, Tshenolo runs legal clinics and outreach events on housing and inheritance, which inform her collaboration with Dr Bolt on the family house and the law.

Outputs and engagement

ProBono.OrgESRC

VIDEO: DR MAX BOLT