Fifty years ago, the student corps engaged society and made history, in the form of the Djar Għall-Maltin housing campaign in which the author led hundreds of students and others. Fifty years later, the campaign retains significance.
History does not repeat itself. Not quite. But certain elements recur even as times and contexts change. The demonstrations in Valletta in July 1805 were largely caused by a large influx of foreigners in a short time, causing a housing shortage and rising prices. The number of foreigners in Malta between 1806 and 1813, during the Continental Blockade, increased by some 30,000, including many from Gibraltar, Corfu, Russia, central Europe and the Balkans.
It was a dramatic taste of what was to come, given the very small size and limited resources of the Maltese archipelago. Times of prosperity, as in the Crimean War (1854-56) and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, were followed by times of austerity, from 1907 until the Great War. Time and again the end of disruptive war led to dismissals in peacetime, unemployment and, where possible, emigration depending on the quotas.
During the Second World War much of Malta was razed to the ground, especially by the Germans. Thousands of Maltese lost their homes and became refugees in their own country. Britain gave us some £30,000,000 in War Damage funds. Housing and reconstruction became a sine qua non in the late 1940s when Dominic Mintoff, an architect, was made Minister of Works by Paul Boffa under the first Labour administration.
Come Independence in 1964, the prophesies of doom and gloom by sections of the ‘anti-Independence’ press did not materialise as under the cautious but diligent leadership of George Borg Olivier there was a housing boom which altered the shape of the economy. In addition to major infrastructural developments, foreign residents (from Britain, South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere) were encouraged to settle and spend their money here.
No such petition in Malta had ever attracted 74,000 signatures, before or after
This, however, created an imbalance. Salaried Maltese could not compete with the new market prices to the extent that engaged couples, ably represented by the Cana Movement, could not get married for want of a decent place where to live. We ourselves lived in a small apartment in Floriana, and my late father had always desired a house or maisonette with a small yard or garden but he could never afford one even though he was by then a top civil servant.
Nudged on by the late Fr Charles Vella, among others, in the Students Representative Council (of which I was an official) I moved that a Housing Commission be set up to mobilise public opinion and alert government pro-actively to this situation.
Seconded by a fellow student, Louis Galea, and other students who came on board, we organised a full-scale national campaign, lobbying MPs, going round with loudspeakers on trucks, addressing press conferences and embarking on a door-to-door petition for signatures from every town and village in Malta and Gozo.
We also drew up a memorandum requesting urban planning, affordable housing, landscaping and above all “djar għall-Maltin” (houses for the Maltese). As we hit a popular and timely chord the response was unprecedented.
No such petition in Malta had ever attracted 74,000 signatures, before or after.
The members of the Housing Commission, in addition to Louis Galea and myself, were Colin Apap, Klaus Vella Bardon, Paul Galea, Alexander Sceberras Trigona, Joe Meli and (the late) Joseph Sciberras.
On March 18, 1969, 50 years ago, we led a march down Kingsway with banners such as L-ewwel id-djar imbgħad il-vilel or Malta tinbiegħ lill-barranin. Hundreds took part.
At the end of the march the late Dun Charles accompanied us in a Mini-Moke.
My delegation then proceeded to the Auberge d’Aragon to meet Dr Borg Olivier and we presented our memorandum and our voluminous petition, with batches of signatures suitably held together by red and white ribbons.
He received us courteously, saying that as students they too used to protest; and that he was conscious of the problem and would take action.
We then called at the Archbishop’s palace to plead our case. Archbishop Michael Gonzi too said he was conscious of the problem and was earmarking Church-owned sites to make available for social housing.
He gave me a cheque for £20 to meet some of our organisational expenses.
True to his word, Dr Borg Olivier then had £6 million earmarked to get a social housing programme going. Scores of low-cost apartments were practically ready for occupancy by June 1971, when Mr Mintoff’s party won back office by a hair’s breath, after having been in Opposition since 1958, and indeed carried the programme forward.
It was not often, if ever, that Malta’s student body had been so united and effective, with outreach, in its entire history. In 1919, students had been protesting about changes to their university degrees by the British, but in 1969 our mission statement went well beyond the confines of the Alma Mater and hit a vibrant social nerve. That was also a time when student protest was very much in the air from Paris to Berlin to San Francisco.
Henry Frendo is professor of history, director of the Institute of Maltese Studies and chairman of the University’s Editorial Board.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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