IVORY PARK, SOUTH AFRICA — Elizabeth Zwane's home is just a cheap tin roof held aloft by bare cinderblock walls over a cold cement floor, but to this mother of five and her envious neighbors, it is "a beautiful mansion."
"I never thought I would have a house like this," says a breathless Ms. Zwane, proudly showing her six rooms to a visitor. "Before this, I was living in a horrible place. It was a shack. It was cold, and the rain - the water just poured in."
Ms. Zwane and other women in this dusty shantytown are the benefiiciaries of a self-help program started by one of their own.
This home-grown, South African variation on Habitat for Humanity shows that in the absence of speedy government assistance, some of this country's 2 to 3 million homeless are finding a way to help themselves.
Founded two years ago by a headstrong high school dropout named Ana Mofokeng, who was then living in a corrugated iron and particle board shack with her two boys, the Masisizane ("help one another" in Zulu) Women's Club has built 18 homes. Another seven - including Ms. Mofokeng's first real home - are currently under construction.
Their do-it-yourself initiative dovetails with a larger effort launched this week - dubbed "Project Hope" - to develop a culture of volunteerism in this country.
The project marks the coming of age of South Africa's new leaders, who are acknowledging for the first time that the country's first democratic government can't solve all of this country's problems or satisfy citizens' basic needs without help from the community. Previously, both under apartheid and in the first few years of the new government, officials viewed community organizations as a threat.
At the launch of the initiative this week, former President Nelson Mandela signaled the end of this philosophy, declaring, "we do need a vibrant network and range of civil society activities and organs if we are to permanently cement the foundations of our democracy."
Presently, groups like the Masisizane Women's Club are rare. Only an estimated 2 to 4 percent of South Africans belong to any sort of civic organization.
The reasons are a complex mix of apartheid's legacy, cultural divisions, poverty, and a sense of powerlessness, which the former oppressive white government purposely cultivated.
Consider the challenges facing the Ivory Park squatters. Like many of this nation's homeless, they fled apartheid-era violence from all over South Africa. They set up tents and shacks on the edge of Johannesburg's suburbs among strangers. Divided by language, culture, and religion, community organizing here is as difficult as building the tower of Babel.
Most of the homeless have no education; many are illiterate and unemployed. They sustain themselves by selling sweets to children outside schools and fruit and vegetables from impromptu roadside stands. The struggle to get a job and rise out of poverty is daunting in South Africa, where the unemployment rate is 36 percent.
Organizing the Masisizane Women's Club was daunting, Mofokeng recalls. She gathered her neighbors and friends together to pitch her idea: Every woman would contribute 20 rand (about $2.50) a week. The total would be awarded to a different woman each week, the recipient being the woman living in the worst shack. The money would be used to buy building materials. Everyone would then pitch in to build each of the homes, virtually eliminating labor costs.
"People were very negative," remembers Ms. Mofokeng. Some neighbors suspected she was starting a pyramid scheme and angrily declined her offer. Others asked, "How can you build a house with 20 rand?"
Only six women agreed.
Their next challenge came courtesy of the government. A housing inspector rejected the brickwork on the women's first house, forcing them to tear it down and start all over.
"The man showed us what we had done wrong," says Ms. Mofokeng. "We were so angry. We thought it looked fine. But he says the wall would crack. So we had to destroy the building and start again. But, I'll tell you what, we've never made those mistakes again."
As sturdy brick homes rose from the dust, so did the membership rolls.
Now 850 women are members. Another 140 are preparing to start their own groups in the next few weeks. And women from squatter camps in Soweto and Orange Farm, more than an hour away, have founded their own Masisizane chapters with Ms. Mofokeng's help. Homeless men have talked about starting their own group.
Singing as they work, the women - without much in the way of tools or training - do everything from laying a foundation to putting on the roof. They hire sympathetic local men at reduced rates for the more technical plumbing work and plastering, bringing the cost of a new home down to between $1,000 and $2,000.
All the women in the group continue to pay $2.50 a week into the program until everyone has a roof over her head.
"We want to see women all over South Africa building their own houses instead of waiting for the government," Mofokeng says. "The people of this country can't just sit and wait."
Municipal authorities, who have watched with amazement as this sprawling eyesore has transformed into the beginnings of a modest suburban development, say they've never seen anything like this before.
Emboldened by their own success, the women have pledged that their foray into the field of construction won't stop with homes. Once all members have proper shelter, they plan to build businesses and a day-care center to provide themselves with permanent jobs, sans hard hats.
"Come back to see us in two years' time," says Mofokeng. "Ivory Park won't have any shacks. You'll see only mansions and double-story homes."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor