Old Red keen to learn some new tricks: In Cape Town, John Carlin finds that despite his initial misgivings, the new Minister of Housing, Joe Slovo, is a happy man

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THE GOOD news for the Department of Housing was that the new minister was white - the bad news was that he was the chairman of the South African Communist Party.

Joe Slovo was almost as nervous as his 250 new staff members when he met them last month. Almost, but not quite. The staff, 90 per cent Afrikaner males, were in a state of barely controlled panic. Loyal to the fallen apartheid state, it defied logic to imagine they would keep their jobs under the man they had been taught to view as Public Enemy No 1.

Mr Slovo began his address to the demoralised troops with an anecdote. Ominously, it was about Che Guevara and Castro. When the Cuban leader took power he asked which of his men was an economist. Che said he was and was made Minister of the Economy. Only later did it transpire that Che thought Castro had asked 'which of you is a Communist?'

The civil servants laughed, persuaded no so much by the merits of the story as by sheer relief at the discovery that Mr Slovo had a sense of humour. And laugh they still do. With the exception of the director general, no one at the housing ministry has been fired.

'My staff', he said over lunch in Cape Town this week, 'have been very good, very professional . . . the collaboration has been excellent.'

Collaboration is probably the mot juste. But Mr Slovo, who had his doubts when he first learnt what his portfolio was, declared himself to be a happy man. 'The truth is that I've been in this job for a month or so and I wouldn't swap it for any other.'

What he has is an opportunity to give substance to the imperative for social justice that drove him away from his family (as chronicled in the film A World Apart) and a flourishing career in law into what, in the early Fifties, was the wintry embrace of 'the struggle'. Providing homes for the homeless, of whom there are more than eight million in South Africa (a quarter of the black population), is as ambitious a task as any the Mandela government has set itself.

His head is full of statistics. 'We need 1.5 million family houses now. If you take into account population growth, over the next 10 years we'll need to build 2.5 million, roughly 1,500 a day. That will cost us 90bn rand ( pounds 16bn).'

Given that the budget allocation for housing is R2.2bn this year, Mr Slovo will need to be inventive if he is to succeed in his stated aim of building 1 million houses in the five-year lifespan of the government of national unity.

One idea he has mooted is to twin cities like New York not with Johannesburg or Cape Town but with squatter camps in the black townships. 'Out of the petty cash of the big cities abroad an enormous difference could be made to the lives of hundreds of thousands.'

Mr Slovo has already put out feelers but he realises that the real work must be done at home. 'We need a partnership between the state and the private sector, as well as the relevant communities. We need to give business a sense of certainty in the market, which is why we have come up with a mortgage indemnity scheme to minimise the risk of giving out loans. And we have other strategies . . . there's a mountain of money in the financial sector. We will get some of it if we show that there are profits to be made.'

So, no coercion of the capitalists from Mr Slovo. Had he embraced the free market? Had the minister turned social democrat? 'No. I remain a socialist. I accept the circumstances of the immediate situation. But I don't believe the election brought us our liberation. It provided us with the mechanism to go on from there. We inherited an apartheid state at the end of April and we've now got to begin that transformation. The vote achieved liberation only at a purely political level.'

(Photograph omitted)