Since 2003 Niall Mellon has been bringing groups of construction workers and other volunteers to South Africa to build homes in some of the poorest parts of the country.

During the most recent trip in November a television documentary was filmed. The programme, which can be watched on RTÉ.ie, will shed some light on how a group of 1380 people built 203 homes in just one week.

We asked the man behind the 'Building Blitz' about the trust, the search for volunteers and plans for the future.


RTÉ.ie: How did you get the idea for the townships?

Niall Mellon: I was on holidays in 2002 in South Africa with my girlfriend and as we arrived in Cape Town and were driving from the airport to this beautiful city I was appalled by the thousands of shacks I could see all the way along the motorway. I could not get that sight out of my mind, and after a couple of days of doing all the tourist things, I decided I wanted to see at first hand what the townships are really like.

So I visited one of the townships and met some of the community leaders there. Two things struck me on that first visit. The first was the horrific conditions that the people were living in – tiny 3m by 3m shacks made of scrap wood and iron, which were unbearably hot in winter and freezing cold and flooded in winter.

The other thing was the warmth of the welcome I received from the people in the township and their dignity despite their appalling living conditions. I decided to do something about it. I was not sure if it was going to be successful or not but I just could not leave without trying to do something. No human being should live in those conditions.

We are now five years down the road and are building one in every five homes for the poor in Cape Town and one in every eight in Johannesburg. This is not down to me alone, the collective help of many thousands of Irish people has made this possible.

RTÉ.ie: There has long been an issue with property rights in South African townships. Who owns the houses and land where you build?

NM: Before we start a new project in any township we hold mass meetings and workshops with all of our beneficiaries. We explain to them about the principles of home ownership and the responsibility of caring and maintaining their own home.

The land on which we build our houses is given by the government of South Africa to South Africans citizens below a certain means level and when we build the houses the beneficiaries become the owners. However, there is a moratorium on selling these houses, set out by the South African government, of a minimum of five years.

RTÉ.ie: The price of housing a family is €7,000 in a township. Could you give a breakdown of this figure?

NM: The South African exchange rate has varied wildly over the past six years that the charity has been operating there – by 40%. So depending on what the exchange rate is on any given day our houses can cost between €6,000 and €10,000.

Approximately 70% of the cost goes towards materials, 17% towards labour, 8% towards community support structures during construction and 5% on construction overheads.

RTÉ.ie: How is the 2008 Building Blitz coming along and what type of people are you looking for to participate?

NM: As soon as our 2007 Blitz was over, we starting preparing for the next one! Recruitment is already under way and I am delighted to say that we have more than 600 people signed up already.

However, with the down turn in the construction industry I know that is going to take a huge effort to make our target of 2,000 Irish builders on the trip from the 28 November until the 6 December. I am appealing to all those in the construction trade to support us.

We are looking for 80% tradesmen to allow us to construct high quality houses in as fast a time as possible. The rest of the group can come from all walks of life – from bankers to bakers, teachers to tour guides, chief executives to chefs. You just need to be physically fit and willing to work hard to change the lives of those less fortunate then ourselves.

I think this week should be on everyone's 'life wish-list'; everybody should join the Building Blitz at least once. It will change your life and the lives of the poor people you will meet in South Africa forever.

RTÉ.ie: How do you decide which families are assigned to the houses you build?

NM: The charity does not get involved in the allocation process for the houses at all. The community democratically elects a committee who draw up a list of people who they believe qualify for a subsidized house. The local municipality then checks this list to verify it and then pass it onto us. We have no influence over which families get a house.

RTÉ.ie: 100% of donations you receive go to building houses and are not spent on administration costs. Do you think other charities should follow your lead?

NM: No. It was easier for me to carry the administration costs when the charity was smaller. This year we may have to introduce some small element of administration costs as we get bigger.

I believe the real issue here is transparency. There is a lot of confusion when people are making donations to charities. People are entitled to know what amount actually reaches the end cause for which the money is being raised.

As we grow in size, it is very important to me that if we do have administrations costs that it is kept as small as possible.

RTÉ.ie: How will the €5m grant from Irish Aid help your work and where will you be spending it?

NM: The money from Irish Aid will be spent in our house-building projects in South Africa. We will be spending 80% of it on constructing houses for shack-dwellers in the townships and the other 20% we will use for development interventions in these communities, such as providing skills training, life-skills and community facilities.

RTÉ.ie: Recently you said you have plans to remove your name from the charity. How did you reach this decision and when will that happen?

NM: In November 2007 on the last day of our building blitz I surprised the 1400 volunteers by announcing that 2008 would be the last year for a trip under my name. Everywhere I go, I tell people how proud I am of all the Irish people who have made this charity a success. And I want to change the name to something that reflects the effort of everybody involved. It is not about one person it is the collective effort of a large group of people that have made us such a success.

RTÉ.ie: Would you expand the project outside of South Africa?

NM: Yes subject to raising the money to do it, I feel as an organization we are now ready to tackle another African country. We are actively considering a few different choices and hope to make an announcement later on in 2008.

RTÉ.ie: Back here at home, what do you think of the slow down in Ireland's housing market and the fact that home ownership is out of reach for many people?

NM: Irish people have traditionally had one of the highest rates of home ownership in Europe and I hope this continues. More effort must be made to help people get started on the housing ladder. We have made progress in recent years through the social and affordable housing obligation but this should be seen only as the beginning of the process.