Cape Town Stories: Men in green take from rich man and build for the poor

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The Independent Online

As I embarked on kingklip meunière in Hout Bay, the harbourside fish restaurant was suddenly engulfed by milky-skinned men in emerald green sports kit.

Was the Irish football team in town or had some fans got lost on the way home from the rugby World Cup? Neither, it turned out: they were Irish artisans who had each raised £2,500 to fly to South Africa and build houses for the poorest of the poor.

The end of apartheid has done little to narrow the huge wealth gap, and nowhere is the contrast between rich and poor so stark as in Hout Bay, where abject squatter camps now fill the mountain sides between Malibu-style mansions. Most white South Africans have evolved a Nelsonian approach to such deprivation (Horatio, that is, rather than Mandela), but it shocked Niall Mellon, an Irish property developer who settled in Cape Town and bought a seaside palace in Llandudno, over the hill from Hout Bay.

Mr Mellon, still only in his mid-thirties, set up a charity called Habitat for Humanity with a million euros of his own money, drummed up further contributions from fellow Celtic Tigers and recruited 150 Irish builders, along with a few Scotsmen, to come to Cape Town during the South African summer and build houses in Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay's worst slum.

The builders, who had organised themselves into teams named after Irish bands such as the Chieftains and the Boomtown Rats, were greeted by the Corrs, who were in Cape Town for Mr Mandela's Aids concert. They all launched into "The Fields of Athenry", to the presumed bafflement of the residents, before getting to work. Towards the end of their stay the builders were invited to the 46664 concert - named after Mr Mandela's prison number on Robben Island - adding to the Celtic tinge lent by Bono and Bob Geldof as well as the Corrs.

When Mr Mellon's shock troops flew home earlier this month, skins considerably redder, they had built 26 houses in just over a week. With those constructed since January by local workmen, the charity is a third of the way towards its target of 450 new homes, which will be sold on interest-free mortgages. And many of the visitors, who left with plenty of Cape wine for Christmas, have promised to come back.

"Nearly everyone on this trip remembers much tougher times in Ireland," said Mr Mellon. As recently as a decade ago, before the boom that transformed his fortunes and those of many of his countrymen, Ireland was arguably the poorest nation in western Europe. "That," he concluded, "makes the Irish more receptive to helping people less fortunate."

The Irish may be flavour of the month here, but there is a distinctly xenophobic tone to the posters hanging from lamp standards in the leafier parts of the Cape peninsula. Australians, it appears, are particularly unwelcome.

Before Canberra prepares a diplomatic protest, it should be made clear that the campaign is against what one of the posters calls "invasive alien plants". Others declare: "Wipe out the wattle", "Blacklist the blackwood" and "Port Jackson wanted - dead, not alive". The last refers to the bush of that name, brought in from Australia in the 19th century to bind the shifting sands of the Cape Flats, but now considered a menace that throttles native species and worsens the risk of bush fires.

Since the Cape peninsula is a hotspot of biodiversity, containing more plant species than the whole of the British Isles, the campaign to stamp out foreign invaders is particularly intense. So intense, in fact, that the authorities are not just relying on posters. Flouting the law on alien species can get you up to four years in jail.