Rising house prices cause concern

Busa Tsabedze, 27, a junior executive with the Swaziland branch of a South African bank, and Moses Dube, 62, a retired factory foreman at the end of his career, have one thing in common: they cannot find an affordable house in an urban area.

Frustrated by their inability, they have resorted to building their own homes on the edge of town, despite the risk that city authorities could demolish the structures, which do not have approved plans or other municipal permits.

"I am at the point in life that I must have a house to start a family, and have property to build my estate - but you cannot find a house any more that is at a price people can buy," said Tsabedze.

"Look at the prices in Mbabane," added Dube. "R1 million [US $146,497] for a three-bedroom house! There is nothing for a working man like me who has some pension money coming."

Dube had hoped to use his retirement benefit to purchase a small home close to the capital, Mbabane, where his wife works as a nurse, as their rural family homestead is too distant.

Both Tsabedze and Dube bought plots adjacent to the incorporated area of the capital, and hired contractors to build cinderblock structures with metal roofs, indoor plumbing and electricity.

Dube's house has a chicken coop - one advantage to living in an informal township because livestock is forbidden in towns - while Tsabedze's chimney sports a satellite dish for receiving television signals.

"I may lose my house when the city authorities think this area is a nuisance for them - look what happened in Manzini," said Tsabedze.

Last week in the central commercial town of Manzini, 35 km southeast of Mbabane, sheriff's deputies demolished houses illegally built in an unincorporated area, including a two-storey structure that press reports said was valued at R700,000 ($102,548).

Mushrooming urban populations have outstripped housing stock in Swaziland's eleven urban areas, which include municipalities that most of the world would consider little more than villages.

"I came to Mbabane for a job 36 years ago, and people are still coming," said Dube.

The shortage of land proclaimed for private ownership has worsened the problem.

Only 20 percent of Swaziland is title-deed land, while 80 percent of the country is communal Swazi Nation Land controlled by palace-appointed chiefs. Residents on nation land may be moved at any time if it is reallocated to a development project. Banks generally do not give mortgages for properties on nation land, because the occupiers do not have title to it.

Farms on nation land adjoining Mbabane, Manzini and other towns are being sliced into building plots by owners who do not have permission from their chiefs.

A laissez-faire attitude prevails, on the assumption that peri-urban land will one day be incorporated into towns.

"When that does happen, we don't want to take over sprawling slums. Building has to be uniformed, and codes enforced," said Churchill Fakudze, city manager of Manzini.

"What is required are private developers who purchase large sections of peri-urban land and properly develop them into townships with sewer, electricity and phone lines, streets and parks," noted realtor Debra Thwala.

"There is a shortage of houses on the market today because people hold onto their property. They would rather collect R100 [$14.64] rent for a shack than sell the plot to a builder for R10,000 [$1,464]," said property consultant Busi Zwane.

It is a seller's market, according to Zwane. Interest rates - which dropped from 14 percent to 10.5 percent over the last year - have combined with a growing number of potential buyers to increase demand and push up prices.

City authorities tend to blame soaring house prices on South African realty firms that have set up operations in Swaziland over the past year. The realtors counter that urban residential properties were undervalued, and that rising demand and a stagnant housing supply have caused prices to increase.

"This means competition for plots in towns is stiff - the value of the land itself is rising," said a source with the Central Bank of Swaziland.

Swaziland's declining economic performance since 2002 has meant a drop in the number of new homes being built, according to bank figures; construction has been mainly in the business sector, and is reflected in office and other commercial buildings in downtown areas and industrial estates.

The government's efforts to attract foreign direct investment have also increased demand for housing, with foreign managers of newly established factories competing with Swazi executives for the same quality of accommodation.

"I started to build my house myself - brick by brick; it was my dream - my wife also has that dream," said Petros Hlope as he stood next to the weed-covered foundation of what was to have been his new home outside Manzini.

"My family members, who live around us, and neighbours ... helped to lay the house foundation. This was in 2002. We started to put the blocks up for the walls - you could see where each room would be. My wife, Thembi, had given me a daughter. We needed that house. In 2003 it was my plan to buy roofing sheets, window frames and more building blocks," he said.

But work stopped when Hlope lost his job. "The building of my house ended the year it started: in 2002. Now the weeds have come. If I do not burn these weeds, soon I won't be able to find this place," he said.

Meanwhile, his wife and child live with him in a bedroom of his parents' home; like so many other young urban Swazis unable to have a place of their own.